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Category Archives: America Indian and aborigin history
American Indian History Collections
The Unites States Indian part two
Dr Iwan Suwandy,MHA
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The American Navajo Indian
Navayo women and children
Navayo Indian dance
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Navajo Indians: Barboncito – Chief of the Navajo Tribe in New Mexico
Union Pasofic Navayo
Navayo Indian cloth
Navayo Indian girl
Chief of the San Yuan Navayo Indian
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NAVAYO INDIAN JEWELLARY
Navajo Indian silver smith
Native American ‘s Navajo Indian Jewelry Making
American Indian jewelry is known throughout the
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Preceding the Europeans’ arrival in the Americas, Native Indian jewellery was fairly simple in technique, consisting primarily of hammering and etching copper into pendants or earrings and fashioning copper and silver into beads. Then, in the mid-19th century, when Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo artists began to learn the art of silversmithing from their interaction with the Spanish, their metal jewelry designs burgeoned in the Southwest. Native jewelry such as the Squash Blossom necklace design (see the examples below), unique to the region – including Hopi silver overlay bracelets and Navajo turquoise inlay rings – combined and developed from that amalgamation of newly learned Spanish smithing techniques with their own traditional native designs to create distinctly Southwestern-styled jewellery unique to Native Indian culture.
Example of Squash Blossom jewellery
Image courtesy of: http://pennypatch.blogspot.com/
Each Native American Indian Tribe has its own unique style of jewelry making.
The Zuni Indian Nation (located in New Mexico): the Zuni jewellers’ distinctive designs utilize mosaic (to stunning effect – as evidenced in the example below), clusters, channel inlay, and what is commonly referred to as the petit point or needlepoint methods, using a variety of hard materials in the form of miscellaneous stones and shells.
Micro-mosaic inlay silver bracelet
The Navajo Indian Nation (located in the northern portion of Arizona and New Mexico): are famous for their Squash Blossom necklaces and their jewellers tend to use large pieces of turquoise, coral and other inlay stones. Navajo sand casting is one of the oldest silver working methods; the Navajos are the largest producers of Native American jewelry.
Silver & turquoise necklace, 1960s
The Hopi Indian Nation (located in the region of Arizona): the Hopi silversmiths favour the overlay technique with infrequent use of stones in their jewelry. According to the site, jewely-paideia.com, “Making jewelry with the overlay technique involves sawing the design out of one sheet of silver and then overlaying it on a second sheet to which it is then sweated or soldered. The background is oxidized to darken it with the top layer of the jewelry polished.”
Squash Blossom necklace & bracelet by Jack Adakai
The Santo Domingo Indian Nation (New Mexico): their techniques make use of seashells, turquoise, jet and coral and are known for their bead jewellery.
Zuni Sun-face Squash Blossom necklace
Traditionally speaking, although Southwestern Indian jewellery is more often than not executed in silver, contemporary designers are finding new ways to express their talents, such as their experimentation in the usage of gold (as the examples below demonstrate). Occasionally, they mix both metals, silver and gold, in the same piece.
Gold and turquoise
Navajo silver, turquoise & coral bracelet
by silversmith Jeanette Dale, signed: ‘JDale’
Silver & Morenci turquoise pin by Edison Smith, ca. 1975
Contemporary New Mexican jewellery
By Michael Zobel of Atelier Zobel
(Note the combination of gold and silver)
Below are two examples of the work of silver and goldsmith artisan,
Jimmy King Jr.
Inlaid link bracelet by Jimmy King Jr.
Handmade silver cuff bracelet by Jimmy King Jr.
Silver ring made with natural Pilot Mountain turquoise
by Orville Tsinnie
Zuni Channel turquoise inlay necklace
An example of Santa Fe native Richard Stump’s contemporary design:
A bracelet of silver, turquoise & coral
Below are examples of coral & silver bracelets:
Bracelet by David Cadman
By David Cadman
50 stone row bracelet by Albert Jake
Coral cluster bracelet by Albert Jake
14K gold & coral bangle by the artisan Edith Tsabetsaye
The jewellery of silversmiths, Wilson & Carol Begay:
Sandcast silver & Royston turquoise cuff bracelet
Silver & Morenci turquoise belt buckle
Sandcast silver cuff bracelet
Triple turquoise necklace by Charles Johnson
Silver belt buckle by silversmith Harrison Bitsue
Silver & Morenci turquoise cuff by Jay Livingston
Cuff bracelet by Arviso
A Darryl Yonnie silver & turquoise bracelet
Allsion Lee bracelets with Carico Lake turquoise
Silver & Lone Mountain turquoise – marked RM
A pair of R. Chee cuff bracelets with Royston turquoise
A pair of silver & turquoise cuffs by Derrick Gordon
Below is an illustration of what is known as ‘Needlepoint’
Silver & turquoise Needlepoint cuff by Calvin Eustace
Tufa cast silver & turquoise bracelet by Harry H. Begay
Silver & turquoise cuff bracelet by Frederick Brown
Cuffs designed for men:
Buffalo horn, silver, gold, turquoise & coral men’s cuff by Boyd Tsosie
Silver, gold and turquoise men’s cuff by Aaron Anderson
Al Joe Easter silver & turquoise cuff
Fossil ivory, silver, turquoise & coral cuff by Richard Tsosie
Silver & turquoise cuff by Richard Tsosie
Aaron Anderson silver & turquoise beads cuff
Tufa cast heavy bracelet by Aaron Anderson & Tommy Jackson
Tufa cast silver, turquoise & coral men’s cuff by Olin Tsingine
Turquoise & silver belt buckle by Vernon Haskie
The work of Wes Willie
Gold, coral & turquoise bracelet
Tufa cast silver & stone inlaid cuff
14K gold cuff wiht stone inlays
An example of silver and gold used in one piece
Silver, gold, turquoise & coral bracelet
Zuni cuff by Don C. Dewa
Silver, turquoise & coral
Navajo bracelet by David Tune
Silver and various inlaid stones
Millicent Rogers amassed a massive collection of Navajo jewellery, textiles and artifacts. Her namesake museum in Taos, The Millicent Rogers Museum, built to house her extensive collections, opened in 1956 by her family to preserve and showcase her extensive collection of the Southwestern art that she had lovingly assembled during her lifetime. Astoundingly, just of Millicent’s vast personal collection of silver and turquoise Southwestern jewellery alone, the museum contains over one thousand pieces .
American Indian Jewelry has been found in excavations of prehistoric ruins. Bead making is an
ancient craft. Bead necklaces are often called heishe, (see heishe necklace above right), from the
Santo Domingo word for shell. Seashells are commonly used to make beads. Oyster Shell, Mother of
Pearl, Abalone, Conch and Clam have been important trade items in the Southwest for over 1,000
Squash Blossom Necklace 1900.
Native beadwork was already extremely
However, the use of tiny glass seed beads that are popularly associated with American Indians, was
Imported Czech seed beads have been the favored medium among many Indian artists for centuries
Most Native American Indian tribes use Sterling Silver in their jewelry making, but it was not
Sterling Silver is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. Silver is very soft so copper is added
Many southwest Indian tribes have been making bead jewelry since ancient times, using the natural
Native American Indian jewelry making skills are taught from one generation to the next and
The Navajo live in the Four Corners area of the American southwest. This is the junction of northeast Arizona, southeast Utah, northwest New Mexico, and southwest Colorado. (There is a marker at the point where one can stand and simultaneously be in four different states.)
Marker at Four Corners (circa 1908)
Facing Northwest from New Mexico
According to Navajo legend, their land is enclosed by four sacred mountains and two sacred rivers.
The four sacred mountains are:
- North — Mt. Hesperus, or Dibe’ntsaaa, (West of Durango, Colorado).
- South — Mt. Taylor or Yucca Mountain, or Tsoodzil, (Near Grants, New Mexico).
- East — Mt. Blanca or Gobernador Knob, or Tsisnaajini’, (East of Alamosa, Colorado).
- West — San Francisco Peaks or Huerfanao Mountain, or Doko’oosliid, (Near Flagstaff, Arizona). This is the highest mountain in Arizona, and the city of Flagstaff is at its base.
The two sacred rivers bound the region at the north and south:
- North — San Juan River (along southern Utah border).
- South — Little Colorado River (middle of Arizona).
History of the Navajo People
The existence of the Navajo as a people cannot be dated with any accuracy prior to A.D. 1500. The Navajo, like their cousins the Apache, are descended from the Athapaskan peoples who migrated from northwest Canada to the American southwest. (The name is also sometimes written as Athabaskan, but since their language lacked a “b” it is pronounced as a “p”. To this day the Navajo and Apache languages lack a “b” sound.)
The Athapaskans settled among ancestors of the Pueblo Peoples, commonly known as Anasazi, and had a relationship with them that was, until intervention by the United States, predatory, aggressive, and typically brutal. Even after the United States forced the Navajo to stop their raids, the Navajo managed to steal a substantial amount of Hopi land and then proceeded to despoil it, even to this day.
The Athapaskans normally ranched sheep, hunted and gathered, and raised corn and peaches, but they would also periodically raid the Pueblo Peoples. These raids, which were expanded to encompass Spanish, Mexican, and other settlers, continued until Kit Carson’s famous campaign.
The Athapaskans called themselves Diné (pronounced Dee-nay) which means simply “The People”. This is the name by which the Navajo refer to themselves today, and they refer to the area of land given to them by the Ye’i (deities) as Dinétah.
The name Navajo is a corruption of Nabaxu, which is the Tanoan word for an arroyo on the Rio Grande which had cultivated fields. The name Apache, interestingly enough, comes from the Tewa word apachu, meaning “strangers” or “enemy”. This is itself interesting since the Navajo themselves, even today, regard all non-Navajos as “enemies”. This is, in fact, the origin of the name Anasazi — it means “Ancestor of Enemies”. The name Navajo first appears in a 1626 Spanish document describing the local peoples as Apaches de Nabaxu, a combination of Tewa and Spanish meaning “Enemies of the Cultivated Fields”.
Virtually everything that is known about the Navajo from before the Mexican-American War — after which the southwest became the property of the United States — comes from Spanish and Mexican records. These records are primarily accounts of the interminable skirmishes and wars, and the numerous failed attempts to christianize the Navajo. Not all accounts are of wars, however. A 1788 report by Vicente Troncoso, who was the head of the Mexican Bureau of Indian Affairs, contains a description of the Navajo way of life. His description is one of the few that exists.
An excellent history of the Navajo can be found in Campbell Grant’s book on the peoples of Canyon de Chelly.
Colonization by Spain
In 1595, the king of Spain ordered the colonization of what the Spanish called “New Mexico”, in an effort to replenish the depleted treasury. The fact that the area was already populated by various native peoples did not seem to be a particular impediment to a Spanish invasion. At that time, New Mexico was a very large area consisting of Arizona and Nevada, and parts of Colorado, today’s New Mexico, and Utah.
The Navajo quickly stole horses from the Spanish and became adept horsemen, conducting lightning fast raids on the Spanish settlements. This was a new skill for them since, at that time, horses had been extinct in the new world for millenia. The appearance of mounted humans was so startling that the Navajo recorded it in their rock art, as shown to the right.
The Spanish considered the Navajo and Apache to be a serious problem, particularly since they were nomadic and lived in small clans, unlike the peaceful Pueblo Peoples who lived in villages and were more easily monitored and controlled.
In between trying to forcibly convert the Navajo to Catholicism, and attempting to exterminate them, the Spanish conducted slave raids against the Navajo to obtain menial servants for their settlements and, more commonly, to be worked to death in Spanish mines. The Navajo retaliated by stealing horses and sheep, and by capturing Spanish women and children as slaves. Periodically one side or the other would conduct a massacre, with the Spanish doing most of the killing.
Slavery Among the Navajo
In addition to capturing the Spanish, the Navajo also captured Paiute and Pueblo Peoples to use as household slaves, farmers, and herders, or to be traded to the Spanish for horses. Since the Navajo considered weaving to be the birthright of a Navajo woman, slaves were never used for weaving, only for menial work.
The conflict between the Spanish and the Pueblo Peoples rapidly became more and more severe. The Spanish levied high taxes on the Peubleo peoples, forced them to work as menials or in the mines, suppressed their religions, and engaged in the usual rapes and massacres. Strangely enough, converts to Christianity, an important goal of the Spanish, were forced to pay additional taxes.
In 1680 the Pueblo Peoples, a peaceful people not known for violence, had finally had enough of Spanish oppression and allied with the Navajo to fight a war against the Spanish. This period is called the Pueblo Revolt. The Spanish churches, homes, and towns were destroyed, settlers were killed, and the survivors driven off to the south. The Spanish, typically, undertook brutally savage efforts to subdue the region and recolonize it.
The Spanish brutality finally became so bad that between 1680 and 1696 the Pueblo Peoples sought refuge among the Navajo and the Hopi. Surprisingly, the tall, slender, warlike Navajo welcomed the short, stout, peaceful Pueblo Peoples and the two lived together in harmony, intermarrying extensively and exchanging cultural ideas.
The intermingling of cultures led the Navajo to adopt many Pueblo beliefs, many of which were inherited from the Anasazi, into their own belief system. For example, the Pueblo Kachina became the Navajo Ye’i. The Navajo also adopted Sand Painting, rock painting, and weaving. The Hopi integrated similar beliefs into their religion.
Spanish Conquest Continues
Efforts by the Spanish, including a campaign to divide the united Pueblo Peoples into warring factions which could be conqured individually, finally began to succeed. The internicine sparring, coupled with a severe drought, resulted in the Spanish conquest being essentially completed by 1698, and a brief period of non-war ensued.
The Spanish continued to exploit and abuse the Navajo and Pueblo Peoples, however, and in 1702 the Navajo resumed raiding and the Spanish resumed their campaign of raw brutality. Spanish oppression increased until 1716 when the Navajo sought an end to the conflict. Once again, a brief period of non-war followed. Encroachment and brutality by the Spanish led to renewed raiding, which in turned caused even more retaliation.
The territory eventually passed from Spain to the newly created Mexican government in 1821, but the pattern of treaties and the breaking of treaties — as well as the raids and retaliation for them — continued while the land was under Mexican rule.
Mexico repeatedly refused to sell New Mexico and California to the United States, so, in 1846, the United States attacked Mexico in order to seize the desired territory. After a short war, which really consisted of a few minor battles, Mexico was forced to cede what is now Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. At the time, New Mexico was an enormous territory; far larger than todays’ size of the state would suggest.
The southwest now began to be occupied by Americans, and the Navajo raided them, just as they had raided the Spanish and before them the Pueblo Peoples. These raids eventually led to a number of punitive missions by the United States Army, with little success until Kit Carson’s famous campaign.
Carson Subdues the Navajo
By the time the United States acquired the southwest, the Navajo were among the richest Native Americans. Their enormous livestock thefts had resulted in impressive herds which had been multiplied through adept animal husbandry. Complaints to the United States Government between 1847 and 1851 show that the Navajo had stolen: 453,293 sheep, 31,581 head of cattle, 12,887 mules, and 7,050 horses.
Spanish horses increased the Navajo’s reach, and the territory under their control was consequently greatly expanded. The Navajo must have expected to have no more difficulty handling the United States than they had with the Mexicans and the Spanish before them. Underestimating the United States was, however, a ver serious miscalculation.
General Stephen Watts Kearney
General Stephen Watts Kearney explained, in 1846, that the New Mexicans need no longer fear Navajo raids:
“The Apaches and the Navajos come down from the mountains and carry off your sheep and your women whenever they please. My government will correct all this. They will keep off the Indians, protect you in your persons and property.”
His words were true, but it took nearly twenty years for them to take effect.
Scorched earth policy authorized
The United States Government decided to begin a campaign to destroy the Navajo’s ability to prey on white Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans. This campaign was scheduled to begin on July 1, 1863. The Commander of the Headquarters Department of New Mexico, Brigadier General James H. Carleton, and Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson were charged with destroying the Navajo’s strength using a scorched earth policy.
Christopher “Kit” Carson (circa 1890-1910)
Carson, a famous guide and “Mountain Man” was ordered to force the surrender of the Navajo by destroying their corn and other crops, killing or capturing their livestock, and burning their homes. Once the Navajo surrendered, they would be removed from the area. The Navajo were given nineteen days, until July 20, to peaceably surrender themselves and voluntarily travel to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Any Navajo remaining after that date was to be killed or captured.
War commences — and ends — quickly.
Needless to say, the Navajo did not enthusiastically embrace surrender, so Carson began executing the planned campaign. He began carefully, burning corn, capturing horses and sheep, and advancing slowly and deliberately. Native American scouts tracked down every individual Navajo and every Navajo family. Carson was careful to avoid battle or other armed conflicts because he knew that winter was coming and that the weather would be his ally.
The winter snows came quickly enough, and the Navajo became desperate. Because Carson had destroyed their crops they had no food stores. They could not hunt because of the scouts and troops. They could not gather piñon (pine nuts). Neither could they light fires to keep warm, because the light attracted scouts and troops.
Early on in the campaign the Navajo had retreated into the canyons and conducted raids. On January 6, 1864, less than six months after the campaign had begun, Carson led approximately four hundred of his troops into the Canyon de Chelly. This was the last piece of territory of any consequence that was still held by the Navajo, and the Navajo considered it to be impregnable territory. Carson’s men destroyed two thousand peach trees, the bark of which the desperate Navajo had been reduced to eating.
Surrender of the Navajo
Faced with starvation of the young and the elderly, living in icy caves, constantly threatened with death or capture, the Navajo finally surrendered. (Some clans went into hiding and never surrendered.) Relatively few Navajo had been killed in combat with soldiers, but many — primarily the young, the old, and the infirm — had died from starvation and exposure.
“Long Walk” to Fort Sumner
Captivity at Fort Sumner
Fort Sumner was in the center of Bosque Redondo, a military outpost about forty square miles at the base of the Pecos River. (Approximately 180 miles southeast of Santa Fe.) The land had originally been occupied by the Mescalero Apache, and the 400 Mescalero imprisoned at Fort Sumner still regarded it as their domain and resented the Navajo prisoners.
Navajo at Bosque Redondo (circa 1864 – 1868)
The Navajo were set to work planting corn alongside the Mescalero. Never in their entire existence had the nomadic Navajo ever used hoes or irrigation ditches. Despite planting two thousand acres with corn and digging thirty miles of irrigation ditches, every single crop failed the first year. And the second year. And the third year.
In addition to crop failures, there was little wood for fires, the housing consisted of flimsy canvas and brush shelters which gave little shelter, and the region’s alkaline water sickened the Navajo.
During their four years of imprisonment the Navajo fared so poorly — because they had no experience with the peculiar diet of such things as wheat flour, salted fatback pork and coffee — that at one point the Fort Sumner soldiers were placed on half rations in order to feed the Navajo who were dying of starvation. At the end of their confinement, rations consisted of a pound of corn and beef per day per Navajo, along with a pinch of salt. This was probably the minimum required to prevent massive starvation.
Treaty with the United States
Congress finally decided that the Navajo would be moved from Fort Sumner to some worthless piece of land where they would not longer constitute a menace and where they would not require monies to maintain. Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman — infamous for his brutal destruction of Georgia during his “March to the Sea” campaign of the American Civil War — and Colonel S. F. Tappan, Peace Commissioner, were to supervise the relocation.
A treaty was finally reached on June 11, 1868 whereby the Navajo received a reservation consisting of a portion of the lands they had occupied near the Four Corners area and in exchange agreed to cease their raids. The area selected was 5,500 square miles of sandy, wind-swept desert, where it often went twenty-five months between rains, and where waterholes were fifty miles apart.
At the time of the treaty this arid land was deemed “worthless” by the United States, years later it was found to be riddled with valuable mineral deposits. Along with this “worthless” land the Navajo were issued fourteen thousand sheep and one thousand goats — about two animals per person — along with the promise of a small allowance of seeds, farm implements, clothing, and schools. (These promises were never kept.)
The land was so inhospitable that the Navajo were expected to quietly become extinct without placing any additional burden on the United States. A week later the Navajo set out to their new home: 7,111 Navajo, consisting of 2,060 men, 2,693 women, 2,157 under 12 years old, and 201 age and sex unknown. They left on foot, with no wagons or horses, no cooking utensils, no tools, no guns, no clothing, and no matches.
Concerns of Hopi Regarding Navajo Return
The Hopi had been the Navajo’s enemies ever since the Athapaskans had first arrived in the area. The Hopi called the Navajo Tavasuh, which means “head-bangers” or “beaters”, and had no use for them. There are two versions of the role the Hopi played in the return of the Navajo, both of which illustrate the justifiable distrust the Hopi had for the Navajo.
Adopting New Ways
Navajo Woman in Traditional Dress (circa 1878)
After the treaty was signed, the Navajo adopted non-confrontational ways, returning to their farming and weaving, and adding the new skill of silversmithing.
Navajo Weaver Outside Her Hogan (circa 1885 – 1890)
Traders discovered there was a great demand for their blankets, and the Navajo were soon producing large quantities. Even today their weavings are famous and in great demand. Experiments in cast and hammered silver — the Navajo had greatly admired Spanish silverwork when they saw it for the first time — led to spectacular silver and turquoise jewelry which continues to be highly desirable. The “worthless” land of the Navajo reservation was found to contain rich deposits of oil, coal, and uranium.
Navajo Silversmith Stamping Conchos (circa 1904 – 1932)
Despite a mere 7,111 survivors of the Long Walk having returned to the barren desert alloted to them by the United States, the Navajo have prospered. Their numbers multiplied to the point that they are the largest remaining Native American tribe.
Land Disputes with the Hopi
As their wealth and power increased, the Navajo forgot their promises gven to the Hopi. Instead, they encroached on Hopi land and claimed it by right of occupancy, just as their Athapaskan ancestors did. The Hopi were still poor and few in number, so there was little they could do. A Hopi reservation of 3,863 square miles was finally established by President Chester A. Arthur’s Executive Order of 1882, but this was a fraction of the lands claimed by the Hopi.
By the 1950s the land problems had become so severe that the Hopi were ready to show the Navajo the two tiponi given to the Hopi by the Navajo as a sign of the Navajo’s honorable intentions. (How the sacred tiponi came to be in Hopi hands is an interesting story.)
Such an exhibition would obviously be an attempt to humiliate the Navajo, given the significance they associate with the Tiponi. (It is unclear, however, that the Navajo’s oppression of the Hope would cease simply based upon some slight shame. If they had any shame they wouldn’t have persecuted the Hopi so extensively.) The Hopi, who place great significance on waiting until the proper time to take action, finally decided that the time was not yet right. Instead, in the 1960’s the Hopi went to the courts to have the land that was rightfully theirs restored to them. The Navajo, naturally, objected strenuously.
This was the start of a protracted legal conflict between the Hopi and the Navajo, and the beginning of elaborate court battles which continue to this very day. The dispute is typically portrayed as a struggle between two native peoples which requires the assistance of a benevolent United States government to mediate. The truth is that these disputes resulted from the United States government’s wrongful partition of the land and assignment to the Navajo, and the core of the issue is actually mining revenue.
Lawsuit grounded in mining rights
The Navajo want the Big Mountain Diné region because the Peabody Corporation (a division of Kennecott Copper, which was since acquired by the British holding company Hanson) is strip-mining the 24 billion tons of valuable low-sulphur coal lying beneath land the size of Rhode Island. The Navajo do not, understandably, want this revenue stream disrupted.
Big Mountain Coal Slurry Transport
The name of the area is a misnomer; there is no “mountain”, nor is there a big one; just a slight rise in the land. Low sulphur coal produces less sulphur dioxide when burned, and thus less acid rain. Such coal therefore commands a greater price than ordinary coal. So far the coal slurry created by the Peabody Corporation — in order to transport the coal by pipeline to the Mohave power plant — has dropped the surrounding water table by 100 feet. This greatly concerns the Hopi who live nearby, since they share this water table and, unlike the Navajo, they cannot drink sand.
The Hopi, by way of contrast with the Navajo, do not allow their land to be mined or otherwise despoiled. They were forced to join the Navajo in signing a lease for the Big Mountain region to the Peabody Corporation in 1966, since the land had been designated as “joint use” by the United States government. The choice was to sign and receive royalties or not to sign and receive nothing. Mining would, in either case, have gone on without Hopi consent. The Hopi approach their land has clearly placed them in conflict with the multinational mining companies backing the Navajo.
The Hopi point to the poor treatment of the disputed land by the Navajo, saying that the line of demarcation between the Navajo side and the Hopi side is obvious because the Hopi side is still green while the Navajo side has been overgrazed by Navajo sheep into a desert.
This dispute is likely to continue for some time given the mineral revenues at state. The only clear winners to date are the large multinational corporations who have been strip mining the area for decades.
The Navajo as a people have not fared particularly well since losing their armed conflict with the United States government. Despite being a “sovereign nation” on paper, the US government manages, either directly or by proxy, the Navajo’s land, money, and, for many years, educated their children. For a long time Navajo children were forcibly kidnapped — as was done with other Native American cultures — and educated in government run schools. This was intended to, and did, prevent them from receiving an education in the Navajo language and traditions, and thus destroy what remained of the Navajo culture. (The practice of kidnapping has since been stopped.)
The US government stripped the Navajo nation of their right to manage its own funds, requiring all moneys to be turned over to the US government for “safe keeping” and management. Navajo funds managed by the US government, including grossly undervalued royalty payments for mineral rights, were then either stolen or lost. (In 1999 the United States Secretary of the Interior was held in contempt of court and fined for deliberately obstructing the first audit ever of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).)
Because Navajo land contains valuable minerals, their reservation is now littered with toxic mine tailings and the vast scars left by strip mines. While the Navajo tribal leaders certainly consented to the rape of their land, the Navajo as a people have been ill-served by it. (Their neighbors, the Hopi fought against many of these mines as they border on Hopi territory.)
Navajo Uranium Miners (circa 1956)
The US government, acting through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) absolved the uranium mining and machining companies from the need to clean up their operations or protect people living in the area. Instead, the waste, a fine sand, was left out in the open to blow away during the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in contamination of the Four Corners area.
The air and water on the Navajo reservation have been fouled by coal fired electricity plants, notably not producing power for the Navajo, and this contributes to lung ailments. The air over the Grand Canyon is often hazy with sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from a dozen coal-fired power generation plants which export electricity to the southwest. These plants burn five million tons of coal a year — at a rate of ten tons of coal per minute — and spew 300 tons of fly-ash into the air each day. Coal mining and power generation draw 60 million gallons of water a year — nearly 7,000 gallons per hour — from the Black Mesa water table, resulting in desertification and sinking of the ground.
Map of Pollution from Coal Powerplants
Despite the vast mineral wealth that has enriched large multi-national corporations by billions of dollars, most reservation Navjo continue to live in poverty, suffering disease and illness at levels surpassing the inner city poor.
During World War II the Navajo volunteered and served with great distinction. The famous “code talkers” used native languages as an unbreakable code during various wars. The Choctaw performed a similar service during World War I, but have received virtually no recognition and their efforts have essentially been forgotten. An initial number of Navajo Code Talkers were augmented with Comanche, Cherokee, Navajo, Papago, Pima, and other Native Americans.
WWII Navajo Code Talkers on Bouganville
In addition to using native languages which usually were not accessible to the enemy, non-standard dialects and new vocabularies were invented in order to make decipherment impossible even when a native speaker was captured.
The Navajo religion is quite complex, involving deities called Ye’i (pronounced “Yay”) which represent the spiritual essence of a wordly thing, and elaborate ceremonies replete with songs. The key element is Hózhó, the concept of balance and harmony.
The religious ceremonies are very expensive when done for the benefit of an individual. Not only must the shaman be well compensated for the ceremonies, but his entire entourage must be fed and housed for the duration. Since some ceremonies last many days, the costs can be so large that it was not unknown for a family to be bankrupted by them.
The idea behind Navajo religious rituals is that of a bargain: the petitioner has “given” some offering to the Ye’i and expects something in return. The Night Way, makes this bargain clear:
I have made the sacrifice for you;
I have prepared a smoke for you;
My feet restore for me.
My legs restore for me.
My body restore for me.
My mind restore for me.
My voice restore for me.
The Navajo believe the world to be an orderly place filled with interconnected objects all existing in a state of balance and harmony. The bedrock of the Navajo religion is the concept of Hózhó, which means a combination of existing in a state of balance, harmony, wellness, peace, and completeness. A sort of integrated oneness, with the universe running like an incredibly finely adjusted watch, with everything seamlessly working together. It is a complex concept that is remarkably similar to the Chinese Tao.
The simplified translation of “to walk in beauty” trivializes the complexity of Hózhó. For the Navajo, Hózhó is everything, and when it goes awry, the orderly universe is disrupted and must be restored to its natural order. The issue is not one of aesthetics, as beauty is, but a fundamental characteristic of existence.
Ways, Sings, or Chants
Navajo periodically have Ways, or jí, which are chanting ceremonies done for every possible purpose imaginable. These are also sometimes known as “sings” or as “chants”. Since there is so much more to these ceremonies than just singing or chanting, this page refers to them as “ways”.
The Blessing Way, or Hózhó jí, is used as a general blessing ceremony to restore Hózhó, and ensures the recipient will have good luck, health, and prosperity. Religious uses include undoing mistakes made in other chants or in sand paintings, or when making prayer sticks.
The Blessing Way is the most important of the Ways, and, according to Navajo mythology, is the first Way given to the Navajo by Changing Woman. It goes as follows:
Hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shitsiji’ hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shikéédéé’ hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo
T’áá altso shinaagó hózhóogo naasháa doo
which can be rather loosely rendered as:
With oneness before me
With oneness behind me
With oneness above me
With oneness below me
With oneness all around me
With oneness within me
It is finished
with oneness restored.
It is finished
with oneness restored.
It is finished
with oneness restored.
It is finished
with oneness restored.
The Enemy Way, or ‘Anaa’ jí, is used to expunge chindi or evil spirits which plague a person. These are most commonly the result of violence, such as warriors who are plagued by the spirits of those they killed, but can also arise from failure to follow the Navajo rituals concerning ordinary death. For example, the Navajo never mention the name of someone who has died, for fear that the evil components of his spirit will haunt them. (The good components of his spirit having already moved on.) The Enemy Way originated with the great hero Monster Slayer who was troubled by the spirits of all the monsters he killed.
After the subjugation of the Navajo by Kit Carson’s famous campaign, and before the Navajo began serving in World War I and subsequent wars, the Enemy Way fell into disuse for a while. But the Navajo soon decided that the Enemy Way would remove danger from those who had contact with whites. This included children sent to boarding school and those who worked with for various non-Navajo businesses.
Interestingly enough, the Enemy Way is the only chant which does not use a sand painting.
The Night Way, or Ye’i bichai, is a lengthy, eight day curative ritual. The name combines Ye’i with bi, the word for “his” and tchai or tsai meaning “maternal grandfather”. The meaning is therefore “grandfather of the terrible, but benevolent, ones”, or, more succinctly “grandfather of the deities”. This is another name for Talking Ye’i, who is believed to lead the other Ye’i to the aid of a suffering mortal. This way is commonly called the Night Chant because one of its major components, the Dance of the Masked Gods, is held at night.
The Night Way consists of four days of cleansing and inviting the deities, four days during which the deities arrive, and a final night when the cure takes place. Ritual cleansing uses a sweat lodge for sweating and herbal brew to induce vomiting. There are various food taboos both during and for sometime after the ceremony.
Navajo Sweat House (circa 1907 – 1920)
During the other rituals a fire is built in the hogan, and the patient, nearly naked, leans over it while wrapped in a blanket. For the final night both the patient and the chanter remain awake until dawn, since the curative power of the sand painting increases when the morning sun flows into it from the east. For the next four days the patient must sleep in the ceremonial hogan, and must not go to sleep before sundown.
The Night Chant is a very serious chant, and the Navajo believe that any mistakes — either by the patient or by a shaman’s student — cause blindness, warping, crippling, facial paralysis, and deafness. These illnesses come about because the Night Chant is believed to cure them, and so any mistakes cause the illnesss instead of curing it.
The Mountain Way is a healing ritual that takes its name from the home of the Ye’i that it invokes. This way, like the Night Way, is performed only in the winter.
The Mountain Way concludes with paid performers engaging in such acts as fire handling, sword swallowing, and plants that magically grow in a few minutes. This exhibition reproduces powers related in myths, and thus summons the bearers of those powers.
The number of “miracles” is limited only by the wealth of the patient; the more money he has the more power that will be summoned. A truly wealthy man could afford to have a dozen or more dancers covered in white clay perform the Fire Dance, whirling torches around themselves and each other.
The Shooting Way is used to relieve injuries caused by arrows, lightning, and snakes. The name comes from the nature of arrows, lightning, and snakes. Since these entities caused the illness they must, of necessity, be its cure. This way is also used for indeterminate illnesses, just as the Bead Way is.
The Bead Way is used to relieve skin ailments. The name comes from a legend where a boy called Scavenger acquired the treasures of the Spider People. Among these treasures were the stones held precious to the Navajo: abalone, jet, redstone, turquoise, and whiteshell. Collectively these stones are called “whiteshell”.
Scavenger acquired these treasures because the Spider People wanted him to throw young eagles out of their nest and lowered him down a cliff to do this. But Scavenger had been warned by Talking Ye’i that the men, who had never treated Scavenger well, planned to leave him in the nest to die once he had thrown out the eagles. Talking Ye’i told him to stay in the nest and that the birds would protect him.
Scavenger stayed in the nest and the Spider People at first tried to bribe him with precious stones, then with bucksins, food, and baskets, each of which were thrown into the nest. When these tactics failed, the Spider People made torches from cedar bark, tied them to arrows, and set them aflame. They then shot the nest setting it afire.
But Scavenger and the young eagles retreated to the rocky ledge and escaped harm. When the parent eagles returned they were angry and dropped the shed moulting feathers of the young birds onto the Spider People below. Wherever the feathers hit the skin, the effect was like that of a fire ant sting, and the Spider People all ran away. The skin irritation developed into sores as punishment for the suffering that the Spider People had inflicted on Scavenger and the young eagles. (Scavenger survived intact and had more adventures.)
The Navajo believe that like cures like, so the ritual associated with the skin sores inflicted on the Spider People will cure any skin ailments. This way is also used for indeterminate illnesses, just as the Bead Way is.
There are many, many, many other chants. The War Dance dispels foreign enemies. The Rite of Good Men was used before a war or a raid, but has not been used much since the United States Government forced the Navajo to end raiding and war. The Way for Dispelling the Darts of the Male Powers of Evil deals with rattlesnakes, lightning, and other dangerous things. The Awl Way was used when a moccasin was made.
A Corral Rite was used to bring success in corralling deer and antelope; the introduction of rifles have eliminated much of the need for this chant. (The term “corralling” refers to the practice of constructing a fenced in area with an opening on one side and then driving the animals into it.)
A similar chant is the Way for the Trapping of Eagles, which aids in overcoming the magical powers of eagles enough to allow one to be captured.
The winds are kept under control using the Wind Way,
The Moving Upward Way, deals with the origin of things in the lower worlds and their emergence upwards, and is useful for dealing with witches. The Rite for Dispelling Monsters vanquishes native enemies and witches.
These are just a few of the numerous Navajo chants.
Ceremonial House (Hogan)
The Navajo name for a house is hogan. This initially was a dwelling constructed out of poles and mud in about a day. Constructing such a hogan specifically for a ceremony and then demolishing it was not especially burdensome. As the Navajo adopted octagonal hogans made from logs, however, it was impractical, in both time and materials, to destroy the hogan after the ceremony. The solution was to purify the hogan with a Blessing Way after the ceremony. Modern Navajo often share a ceremonial log hogan.
The logs must come from trees that have not been struck by lightning and the site must be one where lighting does not strike. The reason for this is that the Navajo consider lightning to be very dangerous, and scrupulously avoid all contact with it.
Ye’i (pronounced “Yay”) are the Navajo deities. (These pages will use the term “Ye’i” in place of “god” since the two are not strictly equivalent and some Navajo are annoyed by the comparison.)
The name Ye’i comes from the Zuni word for “spirit” and means “terrible, but benevolent, one”. Ye’i are also known as Xasce, or Hasche, which means “powerful one who is speechless”. The Ye’i are the Navajo equivalent of the Pueblo People’s Kachina and are intermediaries between the spirit world and humans, and work to promote prosperity. The Ye’i clearly have roots in the kachina, which began showing up in Pueblo People’s rock art in the 1300s, clearly predating the arrival of the Navajo. (While the Navajo never use Kachina dolls, modern Navajo often sell Kachina dolls to tourists. This irritates the Hopi greatly.)
Ye’i are prominent in sand paintings. Male Ye’i usually have round heads — sometimes with horns, masks, pointed caps, or other head-dresses — straight bodies, and wear kilt like garments. The headgear is sometimes feathered. The bodies are often adorned with necklaces or criss-cross patterns. Female Ye’i usually have square heads. (The Corn Maiden shown on the Navajo Art page is one such Ye’i.) Ye’i of either sex may have tassles dangling from their arms or clothes, and may carry wands, staffs, corn, or religious artifacts.
Fourteen different Ye’i
There are fourteen different Ye’i:
- Talking Ye’i, Xasce lti’i
- Calling Ye’i, Xasce oyan
- The six Male Ye’i, Xasce bakan, each with a drooping rain collar
- The six Female Ye’i, Xasce bakan, each with a dawn band and ear flaps
- Black Ye’i, Haskéshjini or Xasce shchini,
- Monster Slayer, Nayenezgani or Naye nezyani
- Born-For-Water, To’baadsistini or To’baachis’chini.
- Water Sprinkler, To’neinili, also known as Gray Ye’i, ibáhi.
- Humpbacked Ye’i, Ghaan’ask’idii or Ya’askidi
- Fringed Mouth Ye’i , Zahadolchahi
- Red Ye’i, Xasce hlichi
- The Destroyer, Hadachishi
- Whistling Ye’i, Xasce ‘iditchonsi
- Shooting Ye’i, Xasce ‘ohltohi
Talking Ye’i, Xasce lti’i is also known as the Grandfather of the Ye’i. He is paired with Calling Ye’i. He is specified as the leader of the Ye’i in the Night Way. Talking Ye’i controls the dawn, the east, and the chase. (The dawn and the east have particular importance to the Navajo, and a sand painting always has an opening at the east to allow the healing power of dawn in.)
Much of the importance of Talking Ye’i in legends and ceremonies derives from the value of his counsel. Whenever a hero reaches an impasse, Talking Ye’i appears and offers a valuable suggestion. His cry is “whu whu, whu whu, whu whu, whu whu!”.
Calling Ye’i, Xasce oyan, is paired with Talking Ye’i, but is by far the less important of the two. He is in charge of agriculture, the west, and the yellow evening light. His cry is “hahowa, hahowa, hahowa, hahowa!”.
Water Sprinkler, To’neinili, is also known as Gray Ye’i, ibáhi. Water Sprinkler has control over water from the sky and is the water carrier for the Ye’i. This Ye’i is paired with Black Ye’i. Once Black Ye’i has made a fire with lightning sparks from his firedrill, Water Sprinkler extinguishes it with rain. His cry is “yuh, yuh, yuh, yuh!”.
Black Ye’i, Haskéshjini or Xasce shchini, is the fire deity and creator of the constellations. He is the inventor of fire and the firedrill which summons it. A sacred firedrill is part of a shaman’s medicine bundle and is used to start the fires to induce sweating in healing rituals, such as the Night Way.
When Black Ye’i separated the Earth from the sky he kept the The Pleiades, or Dilyéhé, a cluster of seven stars, on his ankle. But every time he stamped his foot, the stars would fly up and hit him on the left side of his forehead. Eventually he decided that they should remain there and stamped his foot four times to make their position permanent. The seven dots on the forehead of the Black Ye’i can be seen in the sculpture above.
Fringed Mouth Ye’i
Relatively little is known about the Fringed Mouth Ye’i, or Zahadolchahi. He appears in the Bead Way, which is used to relieve skin problems, and assists the other Ye’i. The Fringed Mouth Ye’i is also known to give aid to those in dire need.
The Humpbacked Ye’i, Ghaan’ask’idii or Ya’askidi, is likely derived from the Anasazi Kokopelli. He is similar to the Fringed Mouth Ye’i of the Night Way which has a divided mask of half red and half yellow. The Hopi Mountain Sheep Kachina, or Panwu Kachina, is also similar.
The Humpbacked Ye’i is a fertility deity, like Kokopelli, and the hump is actually a satchel containing seeds and mist, often decorated with eagle feathers on the outside. These Ye’i wear sheep horns, which symbolize power, and carry staffs or planting sticks. (A planting stick is used to make a hole into which a seed, such as corn or squash, is dropped.)
The Fringe Mouth Ye’i of the Night Way is a variant of the Humpbacked Ye’i and is found in sand paintings. A female variant found in sand paintings is The Female Ye’i of the Night Way which is depicted with ears and a raised nose.
The Navajo considered stars to be very important, and painted star panels on the ceilings of caves and overhangs and incorporated them into their sand paintings. It was not until the Navajo returned from their exile in Fort Sumner in 1868, however, that a serious interest in cosmology developed among the Navajo. Navajo cosmology has thirty-seven constellations, some of which are similar to western culture constellations, but many are unique to the Navajo.
Constellations matching commonly accepted ones
Constellations and Stars Constellations that are similar or exact are:
- náhookos bikhá’i (Big Dipper)
- náhookos ba’áádi (Cassiopeia)
- hastiin skai and Dilyéhé (The Pleides)
- so’ hotsii (Aldebaran)
- atsétso (a star in Scorpio)
- atseéts’ósi (a star in Orion)
- Yikáísdáhi (the Milky Way)
Unique constellations include:
- sash (the bear)
- ‘anlt’ánii (the corn beetle)
- thishtso (the horned rattlesnake)
- dasani (the porcupine)
Specific Stars Recognized
The Navajo recognize a few specific stars:
- so’tso lizhin (the Big Black Star)
- so’tso litso (the Big Yellow Star)
- so’tso tigai (the Big White Star)
- so’tso deshjah (the Pronged Star)
The Pleides are important to the Navajo because of their role as a clock. The appearance of the Pleides in the eastern sky meant that the frosts would occur soon. The Pleides are so important to the Navajo that Black Ye’i wears them on his shoulder.
Using the Pleides as a celestial clock was known to other peoples. The western name for the star group, Pleides, is derived from the Greek word plein, meaning “to sail”, since the Greeks considered the sailing season to be safe once the constellation rose and dangerous when it fell.
A Navajo myth says that the Pleides and Orion had twin daughters Sa’a Naghaí (Old Age That Goes About) and Bik’e Hózhó (On the Trail of Hózhó).
Starting in the 1700s, the Navajo began creating star ceilings and also incorporated star symbols into their sand paintings. These are small, equilinear crosses (like a plus sign and not a Christian cross) drawn, painted, or stamped onto ceilings and the undersides of rock overhangs. The crosses sometimes have a tapered point.
Stars are considered to be protective, and the act of painting stars on a ceiling or overhang may have been though to keep the rock ceiling from falling, just as the real stars hold the sky up.
These sites are considered special places, and the Navajo do not like to discuss them. Shaman still leave prayer sticks and other offerings near these panels in order to assist their patients.
The sculpture of the horned Ye’i above and to the right has a constellation on the right side of the face. The cross represents a star, possibly a supernova.
Stars motifs are also important for various rituals, and appear on ceremonial rattles and dance paddles.
A site in Cuba, New Mexico, has an elaborate planetarium, with stars represented as crosses, asterisks, flying birds, dragonflies, as well as circles, animals, eagle-like birds, and horsemen with lances. The animals may represent constellations or mythological scenes. Not only is the subject matter complex, but the details are rendered in black, white, gray, and red. This level of detail is, however, unusual.
The size of a star on a ceiling seems to correspond to its brightness in the sky. Matching stars to constellations is difficult for non-Navajo, however, because the Navajo use different constellations and because the constellations themselves vary according to individual interpretation. Some of the ceilings also have stars so closely packed, likely from repeated paintings over time, that there often is no way to delineate the constellations.
Importance of Color
The four principal colors, or ‘atah’áá t’eego nidaashch’ígíí, are very important in the many rituals, including sand paintings and prayer sticks. The white cotton string used in rituals represents Hózhó, the unity and harmony of the Navajo with the world.
Embodiment of Direction or Time
Each color represents a direction, and often a time:
- Blue, or doot’izh, representing the Mid-day Sun and the South, since the cloudless south is usually blue
- Black, or izhin, representing the Night, the Sky, and the North, since dark, black clouds come from the north
- White , or igai, representing the Dawn and the East, since the white light of morning is first seen in the east
- Yellow, or itso, representing the Evening and the West, since the sunset in the west is often yellow
Four Sacred Mountains
Colors symbolize the four sacred mountains, with color being linked to the mountain’s location:
- North — Mt. Hesperus, or Dibe’ntsaaa, (West of Durango, Colorado) is symbolized using black
- South — Mt. Taylor, or Tsoodzil, (Near Grants, New Mexico) is symbolized using blue
- East — Mt. Blanca, or Tsisnaajini’, (East of Alamosa, Colorado) is symbolized using white
- West — San Francisco Peaks, or Doko’oosliid, (Near Flagstaff, Arizona) is symbolized using yellow
The Navajo also believe that the first horses, or lin, were made from minerals and shells of various colors, and refer to them based upon their color:
- iron-gray horse, or dolizi lin — made from turquoise
- sorrel horse, or bastai lin — made from red stone, possibly carnelian
- white horse — made from white shell
- piebald horse, or yolkai lin — made from haliotis shell, which is spotted
- black horse, or baszini lin, made from charcoal
Prayer sticks also rely on the importance of color, and are made from different wood depending upon the direction they are to be placed and the associated sexual symbolism. The woods used for prayer sticks are their associated directions are:
- North — uses cherry, because the fruit of the common wild cherry, Prunus demissa, ripens to black, the color of the North.
- South — uses the coyote corn shrub, Forestiera neomexicana because its small, olive shaped fruit is blue, the color of the South.
- East — uses mountain mahogeny, Cercocarpus parvifolius because it has a white aspect, and white is the color of the East.
- West — uses juniper, because its outer branchlets are, when water is scarce, a yellow green, and yellow is the color of the West.
Another type of prayer stick is made by filling a two inch length of hollow reed with pollen, bird down, and tiny fragments of stone. These are then wrapped together, usually with feathers, and symbolically “lit” with a piece of crystal.
The Navajo also name things based on whether the thing has male or female characteristics. When there are two things that are essentially alike, the Navajo label the stronger, more violent, or coarser one as being “male” and label the gentler, weaker, or finer one as “female”. The San Juan River is quite turbulent and is called he-water, or To’baka. The slower, calmer Rio Grande is called she-water, or To’baad. A gentle rain with no thunder or lighting, for example, is called “she-rain”, or ni’ltsabaad. A hard rain with thunder and lighting is called “he-rain”, or ni’ltsabaka.
The Navajo also categorize objects according to sexual stereotypes. The north, a rough, mountainous, and unforgiving land from whence the hard rains and violent winds come, is considered to be male, so its associated color, black, is also male. The south, a more pleasant region from whence warm and gentle breezes originate, is seen as female.
Shaman’s Medicine Bundle
The medicine_bundle, or jish, is used in various rituals. The contents are acquired at various points inside Dinetah, that is, inside the area of land held to be given to the Navajo by the Ye’i (deities) and considered to be sacred by them. The medicine bundle contains crushed plants, pollens, and pieces of sacred stone.
Building a medicine bundle and the buckskin bag to store it in usually takes about three years. The bag itself must come from a deer killed without a wound, which entailed capturing a deer using a rope, placing a handful of pollen in its mouth, and then holding the mouth and nose tightly until the deer suffocated. The deer would then be butchered in the normal fashion and a portion of the hide carefully saved and tanned. Using a rope to capture a deer was quite difficult, and the bag was particularly valued for this reason.
The bag’s contents took a good deal of time to acquire because each of the sacred mountains had to be visited. Undertaking a journey to even one of the mountains required a good deal of preparation, not to mention travel time, so visiting all four was an especially arduous task.
A sand painting consists of various patterns drawn using colored sand. These patterns can be figures representing various Ye’i, or they can be plants or other objects. Some sand paintings can be ten to twelve feet in diameter, while others can be as little as four feet. This is in direct contrast to the kiva painting, which is usually quite small. The shape may be round, oblong, or square. The larger sand paintings often require that the fire in the center of the lodge be moved to accommodate them.
Navajo Working on Sand Painting (circa 1890 – 1920)
Significance of Sand Paintings
Sand Paintings are a key component of many Ways, and are similar to, and likely derived from, the Pueblo Kiva painting. The Navajo name for the sand painting is ‘iikáá, meaning “the place where the Ye’i come and then go”. The reason for the “going” is that the sand painting is destroyed after it is used.
The Navajo believe that sand painting was given to them by the Ye’i. Unlike the Navajo, the Ye’i did not draw using sand. Instead, they had a flat sheet of some substance called nesha, which may have been cotton, upon which the designs were drawn. This sheet was unfolded whenever the images power was needed. Fearing misuse or destruction of the image, with dire consequences to the Navajo, the Ye’i told a shaman known as the Visionary, or Bitahatini, that the drawings could be painted upon the ground using the colors of the earth.
Sand Painting Evolution
The first sand paintings were made in the early 1700s, and by the end of the 1800s the style had essentially become standardized. There is, in fact, very little difference between a sand painting made today and one done in the late 1800s.
Figures were abstracted towards a geometric form with great angularity, unlike the rock art. Deities were stretched vertically and stylized to emphasize that their supernatural power and existence were divorced from normal human affairs. The sculpture to the left is a corn maiden. (The original appears in colors, but this one is one of Ancestral Art’s sculptures in metal. This sculpture has also been slightly modified from the original sand painting.) Note the stretched body and the angularity that is not seen in Navajo rock art. The rectangular head indicates that this Ye’i is female.
Some patterns require precise dimensions, some must be in certain proportions to other patterns, others must be aligned in certain ways, and others must be made using certain colors, If these dimensions, proportions, and colors are not maintained, the sand painting will not be effective or may have unintended results.
A sand painting is always placed such that the top is at the east, notably where the sun rises, and has guardians at the other three points of the compass. The eastward facing top allows the goodness and strength to enter the sand painting while the three guardians prevent evil from entering the sand painting on those sides. The guardian can take many forms, but is commonly a rainbow, a bear, or a fly.
A common guardian is the rainbow, which has has two different meanings. Rainbows are sometimes the trails of the Ye’i and sometimes they are the Ye’i themselves. A trail is represented using five lines of color: lines of red and blue are separated by a line of white and surrounded on either side by a line of white.
The Navajo consider the rainbow to have five colors; thus, when the rainbow represents the Ye’i it is considered to represent five female rainbow deities. These appear along with the rainbow itself. The Ye’i are depicted wrapped around the core of the sand painting, with a head at one end and the feet at the other, and with an opening at the east. The heads are square to show that the figure is female. The rainbow itself is represented in red and blue, the colors of sunshine and gentle water.
In sweat lodge decorations the five rainbow Ye’i do not appear, and instead are symbolized by placing a head at either end of the rainbow. This shows that each band represents a separate Ye’i.
A Navajo never points at a rainbow with a finger, since this is unlucky, and uses the thumb instead.
Sand Painting Power
The sand painting is believed to work because it is so symmetrical and orderly, and its creation focuses the body’s energy on balance, symmetry, and order.
Whenever a sand painting is created for non-religious reasons — such as for instruction or for artistic purposes — the Navajo always leave out or alter an element to ensure that the sand painting has no power. The alteration can be a simple as changing a color, or it may be that a figure is modified in some way. Sand paintings, suitably modified, are often reproduced as weavings, but there are those among the Navajo who frown upon what they see as a trivialization of an important rite.
Colors in a Sand Painting
The four principal colors are very important to the sand painting ritual, since each color symbolizes a different direction and thus different powers. Rain is represented using eight vertical black lines. Black symbolizes the north, from whence the rain clouds come. Color combinations also have significance. Red on black, for example, symbolizes sunlight on the back of a cloud, with red symbolizing the sun and black the rainclouds which come from the north. A yellow line crossed by black lines symbolizes rain and the evening sky.
The term sand is really a misnomer; the sand is actually finely crushed stone, or stone and charcoal, with the colors being derived as follows:
- black is obtained from charcoal mixed with a small amount of powdered red sandstone to give it weight and stability
- blue is obtained from black and white mixed, and is actually gray
- white is obtained from white sandstone
- yellow is obtained from yellow sandstone
While the “blue” is actually gray, it appears blue when seen against the sand painting’s white sand base in shadow or by firelight. Turqouise is blue, but it is too precious for use for sand paintings.
Creating a Sand Painting
The sand painting is usually made upon a fine sand base, called a séí, laid one to three inches deep, upon which the four colors will be set down. The base is smoothed using the same oaken battens that are used in weaving. The colored sand used to make the patterns is kept on trays of pine bark.
The patterns are created by the changer and his assistants who trickle the sand from between the thumb and forefinger. Careful measurements, and straight lines, are made using pieces of twine to ensure that all patterns are of the proper sizes and orientation.
A sand painting is constructed from the center out, so that new patterns do not disrupt those already laid down. Patterns are laid down in directional order, with east being first, then south, then west, and north last. The body is laid down first on top of the base, and then colored sand is layered on top of the body to create clothing and features. The order is from feet to head, since the sand painting will have power only if the movement goes upward. Deities wear the traditional Pueblo costume of sash and kilt, but often hold weapons, branches, or other symbols, and may have a crown of clouds or birds.
Mistakes are fixed by performing a Blessing Way — to restore balance — and then covering the mistake with clean sand of the same type as in the base.
Activating the Sand Painting
When the sand painting is finished it is an empty vessel that must be filled with power. This is done when the shaman sprinkles it with pollen and places special objects from his medicine bundle around it. The sand painting is now ready to be used in the final part of the healing ritual.
The patient is bathed, dried with cornmeal, and painted with symbols representing the Ye’i. A lump of turquoise is tied in the patient’s hair to represent the indestructible inner man. Sand from different parts of the sand painting are pressed against the patient, with the location of the ailment receiving most of the sand. The Navajo believe that the contact with the sand makes the patient one with the Ye’i and allows him to share in their power.
Disposing of the Sand Painting
Upon completion of the ceremony, the sand — which is believed to still retain power — is carefully swept up and discarded according to rituals lest evil happen to the shaman or to the patient. This is in contrast to the Tibetan Buhdists who simply sweep up their sand paintings and dispose of the sand as worthless, in keeping with their view of the fleeting and immaterial nature of the physical universe. The disposal contrasts with the semi-permanent kiva painting done by the Hopi.
Hero Twins or War Twins
Prominent in Navajo mythology are the Hero Twins or War Twins. The elder twin is Monster Slayer, Nayenezgani or Naye nezyani. The younger twin is Child-of-Water, To’baadsistini or To’baachis’chini. Child-of-Water is sometimes translated as Born-for-Water.
The To’baad component of the name means she-water, which is a gentle river or rain, as opposed to the violent, turbulent rivers and rain known as he-water, or To’baka. The translation as Born-for-Water has significance, since each Navajo child is “born to” the clan of his father and is “born for” the clan of his mother. Of the twins, Monster Slayer is always the more important.
Monster Slayer is represented by a bow, the weapon he used to slay the monsters in various myths. He is, in fact, sometimes known as “Bow-whose-string-extends-on-one-side”. Monster Slayer can also be represented by a fluffy head feather, rendered using red ochre in pictographs, or by zig-zag lightning.
Child-of-Water is represented using an hourglass shaped element, likely indicating the scalping that Child-of-Water performs after Monster Slayer has killed the monsters with his bow. (Historical revisionism to the contrary, the native peoples practiced scalping long before the Europeans encouraged it by paying a bounty.) The Pueblo tied scalps to rain and fertility and the Navajo adopted this belief. The hourglass sometimes stands alone in rock art, and sometimes it appears on the face or body. In pictographs the hourglass appears in red ochre.
During rituals, the Child-of-Water impersonator is painted with an hourglass in white, a color that appears to have been adopted from the Pueblo culture’s habit of decorating warriors with white paint. Both twins are sometimes represented by zig-zag lighting and by paired shields.
After the twins slew all the monsters, they went to the junction of the San Juan and Los Piños rivers. This location has shield petroglyphs representing the twins. (One of the paired shield pictographs at Todosio Canyon, along with Ye’i and other rock art including a star ceiling, was destroyed by Navajo Lake in 1963 when Navajo Dam was completed.)
Fetishes or Tiponi
The Navajo have two supremely important and very sacred fetishes, each called tiponi. The word tiponi means “Child of Importance”. There is one male figure and one female figure, both of which are wrapped in bucksin.
The male is about four inches wide and eighteen inches long. It consists of a feather and a cotton cord. Tied to the cotton cord are eagle feathers, the ends of which are tightly wrapped with cotton cord to about four inches from the end. In the center of the cord was a tail plume, the longest of the feathers.
This tiponi represents the life of all animals, and thus the life of all animals that the nomadic Navajo depended on for food. If this tiponi was damaged or destroyed the Navajo believed that the animals would die and the Navajo would perish. This tiponi therefore represents the food of the Navajo.
The female is also about four inches wide and eighteen inches long. This tiponi consists of an ear of yellow corn so old that it has turned white. Similar to the male, a long eagle feather is attached to the corn and is surrounded with smaller eagle feathers. Each is wrapped with cotton cord. Even more important then the male, this tiponi is called “Grandmother” and symbolizes the germination of all life, including that of the Navajos. The Navajo believe that damage or destruction of this tiponi would result in the death of the entire Navajo tribe.
Both of these fetishes passed into the hands of the Hopi in order to secure the Navajo’s adherence to their pledge to respect Hopi lands and property after the Navajo returned to the Four Corners Four Corners area. They have remained under Hopi control for over one hundred and thirty years.
Rock Art Sites
Rock Art Sites
Navajo rock art is usually naturalistic and typical subjects are horses, often with riders, deer, antelope, and cattle. There are also representations of Navajo deities called Ye’i.
The Navajo often used charcoal for pictographs, a practice that continues into modern times. These pictographs are fragile and usually do not survive well. Sometimes charcoal is used in combination with paint, and the paint portion survives better than the charcoal portion. Not all pictographs are made as part of rituals; charcoal drawings are often made by sheep herders, usually children, trying to dispel the intense boredom and pass the time.
The Navajo placed many of their ceremonial images on top of older Anasazi images. This could have been done to borrow the “power” of the Anasazi image or it could simply have been done as a sort of signpost to indicate that area was now under Navajo control
The Navajo Reservation
The Navajo Reservation is also the largest Indian reservation in the United States, covering a total of 17.5 million acres and stretches across northwest New Mexico, northeast Arizona, and southeast Utah. From low, dry desert elevations to mountainous regions, Navajo land is larger than some states.
Modern theory describes the Navajo people as semi-nomadic, having ventured throughout the Southwest before settling in their present location. Navajo belief is that The People emerged into the world, the fourth world, to escape a flood in the lower world.
The Place of Emergence is located in northwest New Mexico, in an area known as Dinetah. This area still carries religious, traditional and cultural significance for the Navajo people. The boundary of the Navajo Nation today roughly follows the traditional boundary set by the Four Sacred Mountains.
The early Navajo people subsisted on herds of sheep and planted large fields of corn. They quickly adapted to the use of horses and other livestock introduced into the region by the Spanish. In the years around 1860, tensions between the Navajo people and non-Indian ranchers and the US Army increased.
In 1864, after a series of skirmishes and battles, a large portion of the Navajo population was forced away from their beloved homelands to the Bosque Redondo, an experimental reservation about 400 miles away on the plains of eastern New Mexico.
The people, under the eye of US Army guards, were forced to march the entire distance. Thousands died along the way, during the four years the people spent at the Bosque Redondo, and during the walk home in 1868.
This episode of tragedy and human survival is known as “The Long Walk.” The leaders of the different clans of the Navajo people signed the Treaty of 1868 at the Bosque Redondo with the United States. The treaty set aside a reservation — a fraction of the Navajo’s original homeland — and in exchange for peace, the US Government promised to provide basic services to the Navajo people
Authentic Navajo Indian Dreamcatchers
We offer a large collection of dreamcatchers of various types and sizes. These beautiful authentic dreamcatchers are handcrafted by the Navajo Indians on the Navajo reservation. The nature of the dream catchers is that will attract all dreams to its webs as they float by. The night air is filled with good and bad dreams. Good dreams, because they’re pure and intuitive, easily navigate through the center hole small center hole in the dream catchers and slip through. Then they slide down the feather and enter the sleeping dreamer. Bad dreams are malicious in intent get tangled in the webbing of the dreamcatcher and perish with the first light of a new day. On the wall above your bed or fireplace, the dream catchers will evoke good feelings and last a lifetime
The Dream Catcher legend……..
Many years ago, grandmother found a spider in her home. It was building a web above her bed, and she spent many days watching it work and marveled at its beauty. One day, as the web was nearing completion, her grandson came to visit and he saw the spider and immediately went to kill it. Grandmother stopped him, and said that the spider had been there for several days, working hard on the web. It had not bothered her, and she had enjoyed watching it. The spider thanked Grandmother for saving its life and told her that in return for her kindness, it would give her a gift. The spider said that the web above her bed would make sure she only had good dreams – the bad dreams would get caught in the web, and would burn up when the sun rose. Only the good and important dreams would pass through this dreamcatcher
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