Medicine Men

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Although sandpaintings images seldom directly illustrate specific episodes in the myth associated with the ceremonial, these images are iconic:that is, they represent entities that are associated with the myth and place them in the appropriate space and time. Through the depicted images as well as through ritual procedures and prayers, the patient becomes identified with the supernaturals and with their world or mythic reality. Toelken (1977:80) eloquently described this process:"the patient is taken from his own context, the interior of his own hogan usually, and is described (in prayers) as standing on patterns, ledges, floating through the air with jewels, and other kinds of suggestive actions which bring the person simultaneously into two dimensions; this world and the 'other world' interpenetrate and reciprocate at the point of the ritual." Thus the depiction of certain images evokes the events of the myth time, causing these events to be created again in the present; simultaneously, these depictions invoke the sacred power carried by these deities. Thus, the symbols depicted in the painting serve not only to link the mythic past with the here and now but also to summon the powers of the Holy People. These ritual symbols help the patient and all those present to focus inwardly, to participate with a "good heart," in a frame of mind characterized by hozho ntseskees (thinking in beauty). Pg. 190

Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father:Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting; 1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce.

The decisions as to the particular chant to be selected is left with the individual. Owing to the great variety of causes for disease and continued misfortune the choice is often a difficult one. If relief is not obtained the rites and ceremonies of another chant should be enlisted to secure it. In this manner a fortune is often spent. Public opinion has it that a person bitten by a snake, struck by lightning, thrown from or kicked by a horse, is pursued by some unseen power. The bite of an ant, or mad coyote, continued prostitution, or venereal excess, loss of sheep, failure of crops, sickness or death in the family or relationship, all portend some malign influence. This is also the case with dreams bearing on misfortune. A pregnant woman especially must exercise the greatest care lest she observe anything in the shape of violence. The influence of bad dreams must be removed during the time of her pregnancy, both by herself and her husband. If this has been neglected the duty devolves upon the child, even at an advanced age. In such manner each case is carefully diagnosed and discussed by the family and their relatives who, in addition, often consult astrologers and divinators for the purpose of selecting the appropriate chant. Pgs. 379-380

Expenses vary according to the nature of the chant and aggregate for public exhibitions as high as two hundred dollars and more. For the minor chants the price consists of a horse, cow, some sheep, calico, etc., according to the means of the patient. The legends inculcate that the shaman render his services without compensation in case of need. A nominal price is sometimes asked in such instances, though frequently assistance is refused entirely. Friends and relatives of the patient are, as a rule asked to assist in defraying expenses. Pg. 380

The term hatqali, chanter, implies that the bearer of this title is conversant with one or more of the chants, its prescriptions, songs and requisites. He is a recognized authority on the requisite ceremonial herbs, earths, paintings, prayersticks, etc., and should be in possession of everything necessary for conducting the chant. Persons of an especially retentive memory and natural alertness are selected as pupils by an elderly shaman. In some instances he imparts his knowledge to his son, brother or relative, provided they show some inclination for attentive study, as many years of patient application and rehearsal are required for the necessary proficiency. The pupil is ordinarily bound to repay his preceptor with the fees obtained from the first four chants after his apprenticeship. The chanter is not obliged to answer every call for his services, but is at liberty to refuse. The legends point out that a messenger was dispatched to the home of the chanter whose services were required. He place a gift before the singer, who in turn passed it form his left foot upward over his forehead, replacing the gift on his right foot. He then held it to his mouth, inhaling its breath, after which he appointed a special day as that of his arrival. The messenger then carried the pouch (jish) of the chanter of the home of the patient, announcing the day of his arrival, which was usually set at four days. At present the messenger offers the compensation, simply stating that the services of the chanter are sought. The chanter may then refuse, but ordinarily accepts upon learning the cause of the disease and the condition of the patient, and sets the time of arrival at four days. The chanter usually carries the pouch (jish) personally, though the practice of dispatching it by the messenger is also observed.

As a rule women do not perform as chanters, though some are known to have done so. Many women are well versed in the medicinal flora of the country and are often consulted. The shaman is not always in possession of the complete paraphernalia required in some chants. These are then borrowed for the occasion, and a similar courtesy is returned if possible. The patient must furnish the eatables free of charge to the shaman, as also such calicoes and other incidentals as may be required in the course of the chant and do not belong to the Jish. These incidentals which, in the Big God chant, for instance, are very numerous, become property of the chanter, in addition to the compensation previously stipulated. While the influence of the chanter is felt it has very little, if any, bearing on the government of the tribe as such. Apparently, their influence is due to their greater or lesser authority on a given chant. Very few of the existing headmen are chosen from the ranks of the chanters. Pgs. 381-382

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

It is difficult in writing of the Ways to separate the myth from its medicinal application, or even the myth from reality. The medicine men who recite the origin story in healing practice do not separate it from the daily life of the patient who is being treated. Instead, it is considered a part of daily living, the bone and breath of the one who has fallen out of harmony. In order to revitalize the patient, the medicine man/singer must return him to a state of cosmological well being. Anthropologist Gladys Reichard once said:"The singer discussing his belief, as well as the layman asking a direct question, resorts for his answer to myth, which he considers final." The Navajo Ways, then, depend upon the faith that mythological time is the same as historical time, that these two converge, making myth and daily life one. How, otherwise, could a recitation of the myths of The People actually heal them in their hour of need? Consider that a Navajo singer's oral complement of myths may involve hundreds of intricately worded verses. One error in presenting these during a ceremonial could - in the medicine man's mind - cost the patient his life. The deities are made from memory and the depth of this lore is nearly incalculable. In former times, when a medicine man made a mistake in oral recitation, he was honor-bound to quit his practice. In some cases, if his faltering caused a complication in the healing of his patient, or brought about the patient's death, he might actually take his own life.

Navajos do not have a church or a priest to preside over the ceremony. The singular presence of the medicine man is like the role of a priest, but he is also a historian, storyteller, teacher, medical doctor, psychiatrist, and often a diagnostician as well. The medicine man may, therefore, fill the roles of six different functionaries. How does the medicine man actually heal a patient by reciting a Way? In Navajo terms, the method of returning the patient to a state of grace requires that he or she be placed in spiritual and physical proximity within the holy circle of deities. This is done through the Ways, combining,singing, ceremony, and sand painting. Pgs. 22-23

The Gift of the Gila Monster, Navajo Ceremonial Tales; 1993, Gerald Hausman.

Trained practitioners among the Navajos possess the knowledge of ritual that can control dangerous things, exorcise ghosts, restore universal harmony, sometimes cope with witchcraft, and establish immunity to future contagion from the same sources." By possessing such knowledge, the ceremonial practitioner has access to prestige and power; knowledge is power in Navajo culture. While those who have such knowledge are respected, especially when certain behavioral and personality traits are also characteristic of them, at no time are Navajo singers considered infallible. They remain fallible human beings, charged with leading or performing ritual dramas according to rules established by the Holy People. If they do so correctly, the Holy People are compelled to participate and restore the one-sung-over to hozho. If the singers misuse their knowledge or make errors or omissions, their performance will be unacceptable to the supernaturals and the effectiveness of the ceremonial eradicated. Singers are often assisted during ceremonies by available others. Some of these people do errands such as gathering plants for ceremonial baths or emetic infusions; some kindle fires with firedrills, grind sandpainting pigments, or help produce sandpaintings or body paintings under the singers direction; some help with the ceremonial bath, the preparation of tokens given to the one-sung-over in certain chants, and the disposal of transitory ceremonial equipment. Some help with the actual drumming, shaking of the rattle, or singing of the songs, and in certain instances serve as dancers. In this sense, ceremonial practitioners are "stage managers (who direct) the performance of the ritual drama while reciting it." The lead singer, however, remains in charge throughout the vent, even it its unsolemn moments, and bears much of the responsibility for its correctness and efficacy. Pg. 6

Navajo Medicine Bundles or Jish, Acquisition, Transmission, and Disposition in the Past and Present; 1987, Charlotte J. Frisbie

The Rain Chant, called Nilth-tsa-baka-niha-ji, which had been a companion of the Hail Chant, had disappeared, but many of its rites, prayers, and sand paintings were now used in other ceremonies. Navajo ceremonialism never again reached the magnificence of the years before the coming of the white soldiers. Many other ceremonies had been abandoned and forgotten. Among them were the Tsa-ha-ji, or Awl Chant, and the Chil-a-chuzzie or Good Luck Dance in which the dancers painted their bodies with ashes, wore buckskin war bonnets, and danced with bows and arrows, shooting in every direction to frighten away the evil spirits. The Non-Jadi-baha-ji, or Antelope Dance, was given up when antelope ceased to be extensively hunted, and the Kay-nal-yeathi, or Shoes and leggings Ceremony, was dropped when the Navajos gave up wrapping their legs with buckskin in the manner of the Puebloans and started wearing red deer-hide shoes. Now that wars were ended there was no reason for holding the Bit-tsay-atzin, which was a ceremony for blessing the eagle feathers worn by the warriors. Thus the major ceremonies had narrowed down to five or six in number, and the others were shortened to five days, or three days, and some lasted only one night. With this abbreviation of ritual came the discarding of bulky and unwieldy equipment to the extent that medicine men were able to carry their ceremonial paraphernalia in saddlebags or blanket rolls. Pgs. 105-107

Hosteen Klah, Navajo Medicine Man and Sand Painter; 1964, Franc Johnson Newcomb.

Medicine men formerly devoted a major part of their time to performing ceremonies or dances preparatory to an attack upon the enemy or upon the return of their warriors from plunder. The purpose was to instill strength and courage into their warriors and to gain the backing of their war gods, the Slayers of the Enemy. Today they carry on the same war ceremonies, but with a changed purpose-to combat disease. On such occasions they ask the gods also for various temporal blessings, not only for the patient, but also for themselves, the relatives of the patient, and people in general. The Navajo religion demands an awesome reverence not only for the spoken word but also for the unexpressed thought. It teaches that evil springs from an evil thought. On the other hand, a good thought can heal or perform miracles. In order to avoid evil they all must "think" for a common cause. This fundamental tenet of their religion resembles that of some of the religious sects in America.

The medicine man is called upon to assist not only in ill health and ill fortune, but also in such important events as planting, harvesting, building a hogan, marriage, travel, and so forth. Just as they distinguish between their gods, so do they consider some medicine men inferior to others. They even have a word for the lesser medicine man, aze-on-il-ighi, meaning a medicine man who offers only a mouthful, uses short cuts in his rituals, and sings only a few chants when more are indicated.

Since a medicine man must chant, he must have a good voice and he must be trained from childhood. His teacher is usually an old medicine man of his own clan - often a relative. His apprenticeship may last many years, perhaps twenty or more. Only after long preparation is he permitted to conduct important chants which last several days, such as Kledzi Hatal, the Night Chant, which lasts nine days and nine nights. Then he is honored with the title of Yeibichai. Because of the long apprenticeship, most medicine men are elderly people. They are usually well past thirty before they are permitted to carry on even short dances. When he is finally ready for his calling, he invites a gathering of friends and neighbors from miles around. For three days other medicine men pray and sing for him that the gods may give him strength and power. This ceremony is comparable to ordination into the priesthood.

Without it, any ceremony that he may conduct not only may not bring the desired results, but may even be injurious. There are no special sacrifices or dances at these convocations. However, the novitiate is stripped and symbols are drawn on his body with colored sandpaints. Sometimes there will even be a sandpainting.

The medicine man is honest and sincere in his calling. He is the most powerful member of the community, and yet he may come from any family or clan, no matter what its wealth or social standing. However, the Tochini Clan does supply most of the medicine men for the Night Chant. Despite his high station in life, the medicine man does not wear distinctive clothes, robe, or insignia to distinguish him from the rest of the people who know and honor him for his accomplishments and power. Usually he is a married man. If his practice is large, his family attends to his stock. His earning power is great. He may make from four to six hundred dollars a month (without any overhead), though the main part of his income is in goods-sheep, cattle, baskets, blankets, and merchandise. Despite his supernatural powers, sometimes the medicine man may believe himself possessed of evil eyes, anaye or alien gods, and require the help of other medicine men to exorcise the evil spirits.

There are no women among the Hatali, and women rarely participate in Navajo ceremonies. In the dance of nahikai there are six yebaad, or goddesses, but the roles are usually assigned to boys or small men. Occasionally two women in ordinary feminine attire carry a wand. This is the extent to which Women are permitted to participate in the rituals. Regardless of what heights a medicine man has reached in his calling, his treatments do not always bring desired results. In such instances he blames neither his gods nor himself. The gods could not have answered the prayers if the prayers were said to the wrong gods, and the medicine man could not be blamed if the patient did not tell him the correct dream or the apprentice's trance did not produce proper clues - clues on which his diagnosis was made and for which purpose the ceremony was chosen. So if the patient has not improved, some other diagnosis has to be made and a new ceremony conducted - perhaps by some other medicine men who will call on other gods for help.

A complicated ceremony often has nothing to do with the illness itself. It is designed to impress the patient and to fix the idea of healing or recovery in his mind. In this respect Navajo religion and Navajo medicine are like some of our modern religious or psychological schools which use suggestion or hypnosis to achieve spiritual and mental health. In the last few years we have been flooded with books and with papers in medicinal journals on psychosomatic medicine. It would not be farfetched to say that Navajo medicine is basically a psychosomatic type of practice, even though it is enveloped in archaic and pagan rituals.

The medicine man is extremely versatile. Among the special abilities attributed to him are the breaking of fever, the stopping of a bleeding wound (either by means of spiritual forces or by the application of chewed-up juniper bark), the setting of broken bones, the interpretation of dreams, the use of suggestion, the proper motions for each occasion (the laying on of hands) accompanied by suitable prayer words, the location of lost articles by psychic skill, knowing where to find sand of the desired hues and how to prepare it for sandpainting, knowing how to make the dry paintings themselves, knowing hundreds of songs and being able to sing them without a mistake in word, tone, or emphasis.

He is the most learned man of the tribe, for he is the one who knows the history, legends, and traditions of the tribe. He has the ability to keep his followers spellbound, especially during long wintry nights around the fire in the hogan, when he relates magnificent stories of powerful Navajo gods who slay monsters. He knows all about beneficent and evil gods. He knows how to make the gods cure and bestow blessings upon the supplicant. And it is he who has the power-though he very seldom uses it-to call upon evil spirits to do harm when someone deserves punishment. He chants of birth while the midwife attends the woman in labor; he conducts weddings; he attends the dead and sees to it that they will be properly received in the next world. If the dead person is well dressed, for in-stance, it will be apparent that he must have been a good man to have friends to dress him, and he will ride to the world of peace if his best horse is killed and the saddle made unusable by others in this world . . . . Thus the medicine man is in charge of a man's soul and body from birth to death.

During a ceremony the medicine man will sometimes sing for hours without stopping. When he is exhausted from singing, he will pray, stopping only to eat. While he is eating and resting, his assistants take up and continue the singing. Specialization enters even into the medical practice of the Navajo medicine man. He may be an expert for one kind of ceremony, while his fellow practitioner is an expert for another kind, as no one medicine man can master all the chants known in the tribe. Thus we have specialists such as Kledzi for the Night Chant, Houchouchi for the Nine-Day Dance, Zusnati for the Fire Dance, Nilchichi for the Wind Chant, and so on.

The Navajo medicine man has no office or hospital. He sees patients in his hogan or in the patient's home, but often he orders a new medicine hogan to be built for the treatment of one particular patient or illness, and in it he will make his sandpainting and perform his most important rites. With the exception of a few dances that can be performed only in summer, and a few others that may take place only in winter, he can conduct his treatments any time and anywhere. He travels long distances. Upon arrival, he calls on local chanters for assistance with complicated ceremonies that may require many days of preparation. He has no such diagnostic equipment as a stethoscope or blood pressure instrument. He makes his diagnosis from external symptoms. Once he has determined the nature of the illness, the treatment is clear. He knows that a certain evil spirit produces only a certain type of disease. And since only a certain god can expel a certain type of evil spirit, he calls on the proper god through the proper type of ceremony.

If he has difficulty in his diagnosis, he may carefully analyze the patient's dreams for clues, just as modern psychiatrists probe the subconscious mind of patients for the cause of their mental ills. He may even hypnotize his patient, who then may by chance name the ghost that has entered his body. If this is not successful, he may call for help from another medicine man who is considered a good diagnostician; or he may have an apprentice go into a trance, hoping he will say things that will give a clue to the source or cause of the patients trouble. It is beneath the dignity of a full-fledged medicine man to go into a trance. Not only does the medicine man lack modem diagnostic equipment, but he also has no modem therapeutic aids or instruments. His most important technique is the chant which consists of words suggesting recovery. These words of suggestion are augmented by the mythological background, by melody, by repetitions, and by the beat of the tom-tom ­ all of which are auxiliary tools to the chant.

The other most common auxiliary therapeutic aids at the medicine man's disposal are corn pollen, masks, kaythans or sticks, and a rattle. Without these he could not conduct his rituals. The more important the ceremony or sickness, the more implements he will need:colored sand for sandpaintings, body paints for painting the patient's skin, sacrifices, masks, charms, rattle roarer, hoops, incense, bow and arrow, liniment, medicines, and other less essential articles. Practically all of these he uses in such a way as to produce a psychological effect on the patient and on all of those present. Thus everyone who attends the ritual receives some benefit. This is one of the reasons why so many hundreds gather to witness a treatment or ceremony.

Pollen he uses in practically every rite. This he secures from a variety of plants, but chiefly from Indian corn. He keeps it in a leather bag with some small sacred stones and other fetishes. In treating the afflicted, he puts a pinch of it on top of the head, in the ears, or on other parts of his patient as the need may be. In some ceremonies plain pollen will not do. It must have an additional magic which pollen can gain by having been first deposited on a live lizard, bird, or insect.

The medicine man knows his herbs, where to get them, and how to prepare them, even though they are of only secondary importance in the ceremony of chasing out the evil spirit by magic and the propitiation of the gods. When collecting his seeds, leaves, or roots for the preparation of powders or infusions, he is careful that the plants and earth out of which all these good things come are not offended. After locating a desired plant, he sprinkles ceremonial corn pollen over it. He talks to it, sings to it, and gives presents to it. His presents are turquoise, shell, or some other mineral - gifts he would offer to his gods or his best friends - for he considers plants to be animate creatures. After he has said prayers, he leaves the plant, going around it sunwise to gather plants of the same species in the vicinity. By starting from the east and going through the south to the west, he follows the sun and thus imitates its beneficences. Of course, it is possible that some of the herbs contain valuable drugs which some day we may be able to isolate; but if we do, these will be new drugs which are not known to Navajos as such. The amount of any real drug which we may be able to isolate must be present in today's Navajo medicinal infusions in only infinitesimal doses - not enough to produce definite therapeutic benefit. However, we must leave this problem to our research pharmacologists to ferret out. If an infusion or tea has to be made from these herbs, a medicine man is called in to prepare the concoction, say prayers, and sing for one to three nights from sunset to sunrise.

Since some chants for the same patient last several days, the medicine man brings into use a large number of herbs for the same disease. He administers them singly or in combination. The following herbs are used in some of the better known chants:rattleweed, rockcress, and others in the Night Chant; Virginia creeper and others in the Mountain Chant; in the War Dance red cedar, yarrow, pinon leaves, and meadow rue are taken internally, while pennyroyal and another grass are chewed and spattered upon the patient; in the Lightning Chant lupine, rattleweed, and eriogona; in the Ant Witchcraft Chant Eriogonum and others; in the Coyote Chant peppermint, greasewood, wild cherry, and others.

Thus we see that the Navajo medicine man has drugs for the cure of practically every kind of illness:toothache, wounds and sores, boils, mouth sores, stiff joints, rheumatism, eyesores, syphilis, pruritus, snake bites, gout, headache, dandruff, stomach trouble, diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, bronchial troubles, pimples, ear troubles, deafness, hemoptysis, baldness, and dropsy; besides medicines used as cathartics, tonics, diuretics, emetics, contraceptives, aids to anesthesia and obstetrics.

The medicine man also has other uses besides the medicinal for his plants and flowers. Spruce twigs he makes into ceremonial collars, dresses, and hoops. Pine he uses for making ceremonial arrows; while its needles he pulverizes with other plants to make black paint with which he blackens the bodies of his singers. Oak twigs he uses at the cardinal points as signs of the dedication of a medicine lodge.

The medicine man usually cuts the reed with a stone knife and elaborately paints it with colorful designs. After filling it with native tobacco, he seals it with pollen. He lights it symbolically by first raising a crystal rock toward the heavens and then touching the cigarette with it. Then he deposits it at a designated place. The god, usually portrayed by a medicine man masquerading as such, picks it up. If, after a proper examination of the symbols on the cigarette, he finds the sacrifice is properly made for the god he is representing, he will take it and in return will bless the supplicant with the requested or desired favors. Such sacrifices are called kaythans (the correct translation is "internodes of reed," but they are incorrectly called prayer sticks"). Some ceremonies require several dozen kaythans, depending on the number of patients to be treated. Others may not require any. Kaythans are placed in a sacrificial basket in a specially designated order. The expense of such articles is borne by the patient's family.

The presentation of these sacrifices is accompanied with an appropriate ceremony at which the medicine man masquerading as a god dances. ("Navajo dance," by the way, is really a misnomer for a religious rite.) Though the medicine man is assisted in singing and dancing by assistants, and at times the patient and men present join in the chanting, women so rarely take part in the rites that one safely could say a Navajo woman is a danceless, songless person. Though unmarried girls do dance in the so-called Squaw Dance, it is of recent origin and has no medico-religious significance. It is merely a social event accompanying the Indah or War Dance, much like a dance we might arrange to follow a wedding or some other serious occasion.

Navajos, Gods, Tom-toms; By S.H. Babington, 1950.

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