APPENDIX II. The Religious Life of the Navaho
TO a proper comprehension of the place the blanket and its decoration have in the life of the Navaho it is essential that we know some of the more important features of his religious life, and to understand, even though in an incomplete manner, his mental processes.
That this is not an easy task is manifested by the fact that early and late writers have affirmed that the Navaho is irreligious, ignorant, and without tradition. As early as in the Smithsonian Report for 1855 Dr. Letherman, who resided for three years at Fort Defiance, in the heart of the Navaho country, wrote as follows:
Of their religion little or nothing is known, as, indeed, all inquiries tend to show that they have none; and even have not, we are informed, any word to express the idea of a Supreme Being. We have not been able to learn that any observances of a religious character exist among them; and the general impression of those who have had means of knowing them is, that, in this respect, they are steeped in the deepest degradation. . . . Their singing is but a succession of grunts, and is anything but agreeable. . . . Their lack of traditions is a source of surprise. They have no knowledge of their origin, or of the history of the tribe.
Most authorities agree that the Navaho is not a particularly religious Indian, for the reason, I suppose, that he does not make much ado about it. He has no public Snake Dances or other ceremonies that are likely to attract attention of a casual visitor; nor does he set up totem poles or idols in his public places. His only conspicuous appliance of worship is the altar in the medicine lodge, which is hidden from the sight of white men, excepting those who are in great favor.
These altars are fantastically ornamented with feathers, stalks, and tassels of corn, grain, grasses, and the like, and on the floor in front of the altar are strewed strange symbols in colored sand—‘‘„sand paintings,„’’ as they are called by white folks; and over these the incantations are made, prayers are said, and songs sung, to invoke happiness, and success in their every undertaking.
In contradiction of these statements let me present what Dr. Washington Matthews and Father Berard have to say upon this subject, both of them men who have given years to a thorough and persistent study of the Navaho. Dr. Matthews thus comments upon Dr. Letherman's statement, which he notes is confirmed by Major Kendrick, who for many years commanded the military post of Fort Defiance:
FIG. 234. Unique Design in ‘‘„Extra„’’ Quality. (Courtesy of J. A. Molohon & Co.) Designed by Yeh-del-spah Bi-mah. [PAGE 154]
The evidence of these gentlemen, one would think, might be taken as conclusive. Yet, fifteen years ago, when the author first found himself among the Navahos, he was not influenced in the least by the authority of this letter. Previous experience with the Indians had taught him of how little value such negative evidence might be, and he began at once to investigate the religion, traditions, and poetic literature, of which, he was assured, the Navahos were devoid.
He had not been many weeks in New Mexico when he discovered that the dances to which Dr. Letherman refers were religious ceremonials, and later he found that these ceremonials might vie in allegory, symbolism, and intricacy of ritual with the ceremonies of any people, ancient or modern. He found, ere long, that these heathen, pronounced godless and legendless, possessed lengthy myths and traditions—so numerous that one can never hope to collect them all, a pantheon as well stocked with gods and heroes as that of the ancient Greeks, and prayers which, for length and vain repetition, might put a Pharisee to the blush.
But what did the study of appalling ‘‘„succession of grunts„’’ reveal? It revealed that, besides improvised songs, in which the Navahos are adepts, they have knowledge of thousands of significant songs—or poems, as they might be called—which have been composed with care and handed down, for centuries perhaps, from teacher to pupil, from father to son, as a precious heritage, throughout the wide Navaho nation. They have songs of traveling, appropriate to every stage of the journey, from the time the wanderer leaves his home until he returns. They have farming songs which refer to every stage of their simple agriculture, from the first view of the planting ground in the spring to the ‘‘„harvest home.„’’ They have building songs, which celebrate every act in the structure of the hut, from ‘‘„thinking about it„’’ to moving into it and lighting the first fire. They have songs for hunting, for war, for gambling—in short, for every important occasion in life, from birth to death, not to speak of prenatal and post-mortem songs. And these songs are composed according to established (often rigid) rules, and abound in poetic figures of speech.
Perhaps the most interesting of their metrical compositions are those connected with their sacred rites—their religious songs. These rites are very numerous, many of them of nine days„ duration, and with each is associated a number of appropriate songs. Sometimes, pertaining to a single rite, there are two hundred songs or more which may not be sung at other rites.
In confirmation of the above statements, some of which I have italicized, Dr. Matthews was able to publish before his death, in various monographs, books, and scientific reports, a large number of these songs. For instance, in The Night Chant, which is a marvelously interesting nine-day healing ceremony of dances, songs, chants, and ritual, there are constant references to the power of beauty to transform the sick into the healthy. In the Legend of the Dawn Boy the priest, shaman, or medicine man who represents the Dawn Boy sings a song in which are the following lines:
I want many things. I have brought you pieces of precious stones and shells; these I wish wrought into beads and strung into ornaments, like those I see hanging abundantly on your walls. I wish domestic animals of all kinds. I wish good and beautiful black clouds, good and beautiful thunder storms, good and beautiful gentle showers, and good and beautiful black fogs.
Later he expresses his joy in songs that, with Beauty behind, before, above, below, and around him, he returns; that he ‘‘„holds it in his hands,„’’ and that even into old age he is ‘‘„on the trail of beauty„’’; while still later he gives thanks constantly and with much iteration that ‘‘„in a beautiful manner„’’ he walks.
When he arrives again at his home he gathers his people together and prays and sings of the beautiful things he has seen and the gifts of the gods, all of which are beautiful. Among others, he enumerates moccasins, leggins, shirt, mind, voice, plumes, soft goods [blankets, etc.], horses, sheep, white corn, yellow corn, corn of all kinds, plants, clouds, male rain, female rain, dark mist, lightning, rainbows, pollen, and grasshoppers, and then declares that all around him is beautiful, and he goes home. ‘‘„On the trail of beauty, I am, In a beautiful manner, It is finished in beauty.„’’
Their poetic imagination is evidenced in such facts as that they believe that the first iron-gray horse was made of turquoise, the first red (sorrel) horse of red stone (carnelian?), the first black horse of cannel coal, the first white horse of white shell, and the first piebald horse of haliotis shell. So horses are now, according to their color, called after the different substances of which the first horses were made. Thus the Navahos speak of dolizilin (turquoise or gray horse), bastailin (red stone or sorrel horse), baszini lin (cannel coal or black horse), yolkai lin (haliotis or spotted horse).
The hoofs of the first horse were made of tsehadahonige, or mirage stone, a stone on which paints are ground. Such stones are added to earth from six sacred mountains to form their most potent medicine. A shaman will not treat a diseased horse without this. It is used, too, when they pray for increase of stock and increase of wealth.—Dr. Matthews.
FIG 235. Daring Design of Naturalistic and Geometric Figures. [PAGE 155]
The elaborate system of religious worship among the Navahos lets them appear as a very religious people. Their anthropomorphic deities are numerous and strikingly democratic, each excelling in his peculiar sphere of independent activity or power. They are described as kind, hospitable, and industrious; on the other hand, as fraudulent, treacherous, unmerciful, and, in general, subject to passions and human weaknesses. Their lives, to a great extent, are reflected in the social condition of the Navaho; as, for instance, in the subordination to local headmen, in the manner of farming, hunting, ceremony, etc., all of which find an explanation in previous occurrences in the lives of the Holy Ones. This is especially true of the ceremonies or chants, most of which were established by the diyi-ni, or Holy Ones, for removing evil.
In these comments Father Berard simply states of the Navaho what scholars of all ages have said of the Greeks and their pantheon of gods. Wherein is the difference? Robert G. Ingersoll used to declare that „an honest god is the noblest work of man,„ and therein he stated the experience of the ages. For so long as men look to their mentality, their reason, to furnish them with gods, the latter are sure to manifest the mental inadequacies, ignorances, errors, faults, mistakes, vices, noblenesses, and general inconsistencies of their creators. It is only when men yield to the spiritual visions that, alas, in our fleshly condition come too seldom to us, that they gain a truly spiritual conception, small and faint though it may be, of the real spiritual Allness that governs and controls all things. Hence, the Navaho is not to be condemned for the limited scope of his spiritual vision, any more than are we, the so-called superior, civilized, and Christian people.
Of the chants taught by the Holy Ones, Father Berard's comments are most interesting and revelative. Few white men have the remotest conception of the dignity and grandeur, in some respects, of these barbaric rituals. The sand-altars—those exquisite symbolic picture-mosaics, made by sprinkling vari-colored sands with consummate skill upon the floor of the medicine hogan, are known to, and appreciated by, but few. Every sign and symbol upon them has a deep and profound spiritual significance; and while, naturally, all the ceremony, its songs included, appears to us as foolish, blind superstition, we should rather be humble than proud when we consider how far from perfect our own religion makes us in our actual daily living. Father Berard says:
The subject of Navaho chants is sufficiently intricate and varied to be of absorbing interest to the lover of folk-lore, as it is practically virgin soil, offering unlimited possibilities. . . . A glance at the following list of chants should suggest
He then enumerates the list of chants in two classes: first, those that do not directly deal with the yei, or gods; and, second, those as originated with and from the gods. Let us look at the wonderful scope of this first list. There are chants dealing with the ‘‘„Moving Upward,„’’ or the beginning of things in the lower worlds, and their emergence upwards. The Moving Upward Chant is still largely in demand, as it is supposed to have great power in dispelling witches and their evil craft. The War Dance, which is for the dispelling of foreign enemies; the Rite of the God Men, which was extensively in demand on raids and in war (though, as now, raids and war are prohibited by the United States government, this is seldom sung nowadays). Then there is the Rite for Dispelling Monsters—or the blackening and driving out of witches and native enemies, in contradistinction to the driving out of foreign enemies. A ceremony or chant continuously called for is that of Renewal, or Benediction. This is an essential feature of every Navaho chant. Hence, in the Night Chant, which requires nine days for its observance, one night is set apart for this chant of blessing.
Outside of its connection with the longer chants, it appears as a one-night ceremony of blessing upon the hogan, the members of the family, their chattels and real estate, their crops and occupation, such as weaving and singing, their propensities to greed, at the nubile ceremony, or the birth of a child, the dedication of a new set of ceremonial masks, for the purification of the ceremonial paraphernalia—in fact, for almost any phase of domestic life.
Then there is the Chant for Dispelling the Darts of the Male Powers of Evil, such as the lightning, rattlesnakes, and the like. When the first moccasin was made an Awl Chant was composed and handed down, but of late years it has dropped into disuse. There is also an extinct Hail Chant, and one almost extinct called the Corral Rite. It was used for corralling antelope and deer, and in the chase at large; but, as the rifle and modern weapons have almost entirely done away with the
The other chants are in some way connected with the Holy Ones. These are the Mountain Chant of the Maiden Becoming a Bear; the Chant of Beauty, by which the bear and copperhead inveigle two beautiful maidens into marriage with them; the Night Chant, of which Dr. Matthews says:
It is really a healing ceremony. It is celebrated primarily for the cure of a rich invalid, who pays the heavy expenses; but the occasion is devoted to other purposes also, to prayers for the benefit of the people at large, and, among other things, to the initiation of youths and maidens, and sometimes people of maturer years, into the secret of the Yébitsai.
The secret of the Yébitsai is this: The Yéi are the bugaboos of Navaho children. These Indians rarely inflict corporal punishment on the young, but, instead, threaten them with the vengeance of these masked characters if they are unruly. Up to the time of their initiation they are taught to believe, and, in most cases, probably do believe, that the Yéi are genuine abnormal creatures whose function it is to chastise bad children. When the children are old enough to understand the value of obedience without resort to threats, they are allowed to undergo this initiation and learn that the dreaded Yéi is only some intimate friend or relation in disguise. After this initiation they are privileged to enter the medicine lodge during the performance of a rite.
One evening I attended a Yébitsai dance, a few miles from Ganado, Ariz., on the Navaho Reservation, and, making application to the Chief Chanter of the Dance, my companion, Mr. A. W. Dubois, and myself were permitted (as I had been before) to undergo the rite of initiation. We disrobed in the medicine hogan and went through the whole rite. Afterward we took part in the concluding ceremonies of the nine days of the Night Chant, of which this Yébitsai initiation forms a part of but one night's rites.
Then there are the Chant of the Clan Dance; the Feather-Shaft Chant, sometimes called the Knife Chant, or the Life Chant, as often upon the directness of feather-shaft of the shot arrow or the piercing power of the knife one's life depends; the Bead or Eagle Chant of the Great Shiprock,
Who shall say that here is not material for study? And all are interesting. I have sat for nine nights in succession and listened to songs that must have consumed, say, five or six hours of each night in continuous performance, and there are few repetitions, yet each one must be sung correctly and entirely from memory or the whole nine days„ ceremonies are vitiated and must be gone over again. Many of the songs are beautiful, as one can conceive on re-reading those of the blessing of the hogan, which are elsewhere quoted.
As can well be understood from all that has gone before, the Navaho is a firm believer in spells, charms, portents, signs, wizardry, and witchcraft. His religion, naturally, is a crude religion largely composed of Nature Worship, and his primitive mind has sought to explain all the many diverse, strange, and especially harmful and hostile forces he finds around him, in accordance with the workings of his simple and untutored intellect. From the legends of the people we gain much information as to their beliefs. Some of these legends are quaint, interesting, beautiful, and instructive. These four adjectives may seem to be carelessly chosen, but they are not. They truthfully designate these stories. Naturally, when one gets a real peep into the mind of the Indian, his methods of thought are found to be quaint. And in these legends this quaintness is enhanced by the fact that the stories are old and have all that peculiar flavor that belongs to stories that have been handed down for many hundreds of years. And how can the stories that account for the origin of the Navaho which are different from our origin stories, be other than interesting to those who like to know how the human mind works with different people, influenced by their own peculiar environment. That some parts of their stories are horrible and dreadful may be expected, for they deal with the primitive instincts of man, where cruelty, even to murder, is no uncommon thing, and blood is made to flow freely. But just as the fierce thunder and lightning storm is often followed by the most exquisite and tender sky-effects, so are these harsh and bloody stories preceded and followed by revelations of exquisite tenderness, gentleness, kindness, and love. The instructiveness of these legends is in the opportunity they afford for the student to see the working of the primitive mind. The human mind is subject to laws of development exactly as is the body, and it has grown up from its childhood just as each man has grown up from babyhood. In
Fig. 237. Native Wool Fancy Blanket.
Fig. 238. Fancy Blanket, Native Wool.
Fig. 239. Fancy Saddle Blanket, Native Wool.
Fig. 240. Native Wool Fancy Blanket. (Matthews Collection.)
To tell the whole story of the origin of the Navahos would fill a good-sized book. The first part of the legend recounts the emergence of the people from the four lower worlds into the fifth world. The second part tells of their experience in the fifth world. The third part tells of the war gods. The fourth, of the growth of the Navaho nation.
It is in the third part that we learn the story of Yeitso, who was slain by the two heroes of the tribe who cut off his head and placed it to the east of Mount San Mateo, where it is known as Cabezon and where the lava flow is regarded as the flow of his blood.
Soon after these two heroes were born, while their mothers were baking corn cakes, Yeitso, the tallest and fiercest of the alien gods of the Navahos, appeared walking rapidly towards the hogan. Knowing that he was a fierce cannibal and would slay and eat their children, one of the mothers hastily grabbed them up, earnestly cautioning them to be perfectly silent and hid them away in the bushes, under some bundles and sticks. Yeitso came and sat down at the door just as the women were taking the cakes out of the ashes. He wanted one of the cakes, but the women refused it. ‘‘„Never mind,„’’ said Yeitso; ‘‘„I would rather eat boys. Where are your boys? I have been told you have some here and have come to get them.„'’’ Putting Yeitso off as well as they could, they finally made him believe that there were no boys around.
It was not very long after he had gone before one of the women, having to go to the top of a near-by hill, saw a number of these alien gods hastening towards their hogan from all directions. Hurrying down in great distress, she told her sister. This sister had magical power, and, picking up four colored hoops, she threw the white one to the east; the blue one to the south; the yellow one to the west and the black one to the north. These magic hoops produced a great gale which blew so fiercely in all directions from the hogan that even the great power of the alien gods was not sufficient to allow them to approach it.
The two boys that Yeitso was hunting were little fellows of superhuman origin, and, having no fathers as other boys had, were curious to find their fathers, and, in spite of the prohibitions of their mothers, would keep journeying first in one direction and then in another, determined to find their fathers, and the stories of their adventures are strange and wonderful.
One of these stories was about their visit to the underworld, where they found the ‘‘„Spider-woman.„’’ She it was who gave them their magic charms and taught them many magic formulae. One of these explains
When these boys met their giant enemies, all they had to do was to sprinkle towards them some of a certain kind of pollen and then repeat this formula: ‘‘„Put your feet down with pollen. Put your hands down with pollen. Put your head down with pollen. Then your feet are pollen; your hands are pollen; your body is pollen; your mind is pollen; your voice is pollen. The trail is beautiful. Be still.„’’
Here is one of the incidents that occurred as the two boys left the house of the Spider-woman. They came to the place known as ‘‘„Tse'yeinti'li„’’ (the rocks that crush). There was here a narrow chasm between two high cliffs. When a traveler approached, the rocks would open wide apart, apparently to give him easy passage and invite him to enter; but as soon as he was within the cleft they would close like hands clapping and crush him to death. These rocks were really people; they thought like men; they were anaye (that is, cannibalistic gods). When the boys got to the rocks they lifted their feet as if about to enter the chasm, and the rocks opened to let them in. Then the boys put down their feet, but withdrew them quickly. The rocks closed with a snap to crush them; but the boys remained safe on the outside. Thus four times did they deceive the rocks. When they had closed for the fourth time the rocks said: ‘‘„Who are ye; whence come ye two together, and whither go ye„’’ ‘‘„We are children of the Sun,„’’ answered the boys. ‘‘„We come from Dsilnaotil, and we go to seek the house of our father.„’’ Then they repeated the words that the Spider-woman had taught them, and the rocks said: ‘‘„Pass on to the house of your father.„’’ When next they ventured to step into the chasm the rocks did not close, and they passed safely on.
The boys kept on their way and soon came to a great plain covered with reeds that had great leaves on them as sharp as knives. When the boys came to the edge of the field of reeds (Lokaadikisi), the latter opened, showing a clear passage through to the other side. The boys pretended to enter but retreated, and as they did so, the walls of reeds rushed together to kill them. Thus four times did they deceive the reeds. Then the reeds spoke to them as the rocks had done; they answered and repeated the sacred words. ‘‘„Pass on to the house of your father,„’’ said the reeds, and the boys passed on in safety.
The next danger they encountered was in the country covered with cane cactuses. These cactuses rushed at and tore to pieces whoever attempted to pass through them. When the boys came to the cactuses the
Fig. 241. An Old Native Wool Dyed Blanket. (Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History.) [Page 156]">
Fig. 242. Germantown Yarn Saddle Blanket. (Author's Collection.)
Fig. 243. Germantown Yarn Saddle Blanket. (Author's Collection.)
After they had passed the country of the cactus they came, in time, to Saitad, the Land of the Rising Sands. Here was a great desert of sands that rose and whirled and boiled like water in a pot, and overwhelmed the traveler who ventured among them. As the boys approached, the sands became still more agitated and the boys did not dare venture among them. ‘‘„Who are ye?„’’ said the sands, ‘‘„and whence come ye?„’’ ‘‘„We are children of the Sun, we came from Dsilnaotil, and we go to seek the house of our father.„’’ These words were four times said. Then the elder of the boys repeated his sacred formula; the sands subsided, saying: ‘‘„Pass on to the house of your father,„’’ and the boys continued on their journey over the desert of sands.
The boys finally reached the house of the Sun God, their father. It was built of turquoise, but square like a pueblo house and stood on the shore of a ‘‘„great water.„’’ Here they were in much danger and would undoubtedly have perished had it not been that they were magically protected. For in a short time the giant who bore the Sun on his shoulder came in. He took the Sun off his back and hung it on a peg on the west wall of the room, where it shook and clanged for some time, going, ‘‘„tla, tla, tla, tla,„’’ till at last it hung still. It took some time for the bearer of the Sun God to realize that he was the father of these boys, but when he did, he greeted them with great affection and asked them their mission. They explained that the land in which they dwelt was cursed and devastated by the presence of a number of alien gods who devoured their people. Said they: ‘‘„They have eaten nearly all of our kine; there are few left; already they have sought our lives and we have run away to escape them. Give us, we beg, the weapons with which we may slay our enemies. Help us to destroy them.„’’ This petition pleased the bearer of the Sun God and he gave them clothing and a number of weapons which would enable them to accomplish what they desired. He took from the pegs where they hung around the room and gave to each a hat, a shirt, leggins, moccasins, all made of iron, a chain-lightning arrow, a sheet-lightning arrow, a sunbeam arrow, a rainbow arrow, and a great stone-knife or knife-club. ‘‘„These are what we want,„’’ said the boys. They put on the clothes of iron, and streaks of lightning shot from every joint.
After more trials of their shrewdness and powers of perception, during which time the Sun God carried them through the heavens, he finally, after making them point out the place where they lived, spread out a streak of lightning on which he shot down the children to the summit of Mount San Mateo. Here four holy people told them all about Yeitso.
Soon they heard the sounds of thunderous footsteps, and they beheld the head of Yeitso peering over a high hill in the east; it was withdrawn in a moment. Soon after, the monster raised his head and chest over a hill in the south, and remained a little longer in sight than when he was in the east. Later he displayed his body to the waist over a hill in the west; and lastly he showed himself down to the knees over a mountain in the north. Then he descended, came to the edge of the lake, and laid down a basket which he was accustomed to carry. He stooped down to drink, and so frightful was his appearance that it made the boys afraid, but by and by their courage came back and they taunted the giant when he made a threat that he was going to eat them. The Wind (which in Navaho mythology is a personification), in his kindness towards the boys, gave them warning as to the treacherous acts contemplated by Yeitso, and made it possible for them to dodge the lightning bolts that he rapidly hurled at them one after another. Escaping the giant's arrows, the brothers had time to put their own lightning arrows into place, pull the bow-string taut, and fire. Four times did the elder brother shoot, and when the fourth arrow struck the giant, it brought him to the ground, flat upon his face, his arms and legs outstretched. As he lay there, the younger brother stepped up and scalped him, and then they cut off his head and threw it away, where it may be seen to this day.
The blood from the body flowed in a great stream down the valley, and the boys stood watching it with no thought of danger until their friend, Wind, told them that it was flowing in the direction of the home of another alien god and that if it reached that far Yeitso would come to life again. Then the elder brother took his great stone-knife, which had magic power, and drew a line with it across the valley. When the blood reached this line it piled itself high until it began to flow in another direction. Here again was danger, for Wind whispered that it was flowing towards the home of another alien god known as ‘‘„Bear That Pursues,„’’ and that if it reached this far Yeitso would come to life again. Again the elder brother
Fig. 244. A Hopi Weaver at Sichomovi.
Fig. 245. A Hopi Weaver at Oraibi.
Fig. 246. Hopi Ceremonial Sash, and Woman's Sash or Belt.Fig. 247. Hopi Weaving Ceremonial Sash.Fig. 248. Hopi Priests. Method of Wearing Ceremonial Sash or Kilt in the Snake Dance.