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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

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Activities: Context Activities

Healing Arts: The Navajo Night Chant (Nightway)

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Rattle Shock Rite (1980-2002)

[5951] Anonymous, Rattle Shock Rite (1980-2002), courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona Photo Archives.
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Healing songs and chants are an important genre in Native American oral traditions. As a general rule, songs and chants seek to re-create a state rather than an event. Songs and chants are also rarely told in a vacuum: the Night Chant, for example, is composed of a whole series of practices—including dances, the construction of sandpaintings, and the use of prayer sticks—that constitute a nine-day healing ceremony traditionally performed by the Navajo. Although the Night Chant is specific to the Navajo, it provides an important example of the interrelatedness of language, healing, and spirituality in native traditions. It is one of the great masterpieces of the oral tradition.

The Night Chant is a "way" insofar as it attempts not just to break into the natural course of an illness, but in facts sets the "patient" on the path or way toward reestablishing the natural harmony and balance that allow for health. For the Navajo, who migrated to the Southwest from the northern lands sometime between seven hundred and one thousand years ago, the Night Chant is one of many ceremonial chants meant to affect the world in some concrete manner. The Night Chant is a healing ceremony, a treatment for illness, especially paralysis, blindness, and deafness. In the words of anthropologist and ethnographer James C. Faris, Night Chant practices are those that "order, harmonize and re-establish and situate social relations." Hence the ceremony emphasizes humans' ability to control their world and their responsibility to use that control in the service of balance, respect, and healing. If the Holy People—the ancestors or the spirits—inflict suffering, it is because people have broken the rules; the Night Chant attempts to put the rules back together, to restore the conditions conducive to order, balance, and health.

The ceremony begins at sunset when the chanter, the medicine man who conducts the ceremony and the only one with the knowledge of proper Night Chant practice, enters the home of the patient, the one who is to be cured. After a ritual call for participation ("Come on the trail of song")—which emphasizes the role of not only the patient but all guests present to form a community of healing—the patient sits to the west of a fire. There follow elaborate chants, songs, and dances. The first four days are devoted to purification, after which the Holy People are called upon. On the sunrise of the ninth day, the patient is invited to look eastward and greet the dawn, representative of renewal. The chant is fundamentally narrative, although not necessarily continuous, and its specific details and enactments vary greatly among different medicine men and the particular needs of the patient. Faris emphasizes the flexibility and fluidity of the elements of the story. There is no central episode that must be retold in all cases for the ceremony to be effective; rather, specific episodes arise from local situations, and no single medicine man possesses the knowledge of every possible episode. But there is generally a basic storyline, which tells of a long-ago cultural hero of particular visionary power who gathers the details of how to properly conduct the ceremony from the Holy People. The Night Chant is therefore in part a perpetual retelling of itself; it is neither entertainment nor abstract teaching, but the ritual reenactment of its own origin. In this origin is the way toward order, which is the way toward healing. Through this retelling the singer aims to bring about hózhó, or holiness, harmony, beauty.

The sandpaintings reflect this goal of balance and harmony seeking. Created for the ceremony and immediately wiped away, the sandpaintings elaborately echo some of the main patterns and images of the chant. As sacred artifacts, they are not intended to be recorded through film or painting. Because they are designed specifically to attract the attention of (and eventually embody) the Holy People, it would be a dangerous violation to allow them to exist after the proper time for spiritual contact had passed. Those included in the American Passages archive were painted by a priest based on sketches taken from the work of a medicine man who authorized them to be shown to the public. Reproductions such as these have usually been altered to diffuse their power. Surviving notes suggest that there are several inaccuracies in the Rattle Shock Rite image; for example, the owl feathers on the central figure should be spotted and decorations should be added to the belt of the central figure. Like the multiple levels of transmission that Black Elk's narrative went through (see above), the various mediations these images have undergone continue to define a communal center of identity and knowledge in opposition to the outsider—however sympathetic he or she may be.

  1. Comprehension: Which tribe is the Night Chant associated with?

  2. Comprehension: What is the Night Chant used for?

  3. Comprehension: What acts does the Night Chant involve?

  4. Context: In Silko's Ceremony, Betonie is a mixed-blood Navajo healer. In what sense can you see the Night Chant or something like it being used in this novel? How is what Tayo goes through like the ritual described above? To what extent does his ceremony take into consideration contemporary sources of illness? How does it seek to deal with these sources of pain?

  5. Context: Examine one of the sandpaintings in the archive. How does it seek to achieve harmony and balance? How does it exemplify hózhó? Compare the strategies it uses for achieving harmony and balance to those in Tapahonso's poetry.

  6. Context: Examine the Rattle Shock Rite image in the archive. Note that it is centered around four figures that represent gods of the North, South, East, and West. Why might these figures be important in Ceremony? Why do you think four might be such an essential number for many Native American beliefs (as opposed, say, to the three and seven of Christianity)?

  7. Context: Compare the text of the Night Chant to that of the Ghost Dance songs. What strategies does each use to achieve harmony and balance? How are these strategies related to the goal of each text?

  8. Exploration: Why might a Navajo not want a non-Native American to know the details of the Night Chant? Does this seem reasonable to you? Are there things about your life you wouldn't want others to know, even though their knowledge would not affect your life? Navajos believe that knowing things about people can affect people. If knowledge could give people power over you, would you be less likely to give people access to personal information?

  9. Exploration: Do you think the sandpainting images in the archive are aesthetically pleasing? How do you know "good" art when you see it? For example, to what extent is it reasonable to assume that realistic figures constitute good art?

[5741] Anonymous, Two Navaho Shaman Dry Painting to Cure and Illness (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.
Navajo sand paintings, or "dry" paintings, are meant to summon and embody the spirits of the holy people and therefore are wiped away immediately after the Night Chant ceremony.

[5742] Anonymous, Navajo Shaman Drypainting a Remedy (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Musuem of Natural History.
The Navajo Night Chant is a nine-day healing ceremony that includes dances, sandpaintings, and prayer sticks. Sandpaintings reflect the Navajo value of hózhó, or holiness, harmony, beauty.

[5743] Anonymous, Navajo Shaman Puts Finishing Touches on Remedy Painting (n.d.),
courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Navajo use sandpaintings in an elaborate, nine-day ceremony designed to cure illness by restoring order, balance, and har-mony. The paintings are wiped away as soon as the ritual is complete.

[5951] Anonymous, Rattle Shock Rite (1980-2002),
courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona Photo Archives.
Sandpaintings are used in Navajo ceremonies and are designed to attract the attention of the Holy People. This reproduction has been altered to diffuse its power.

[5953] Anonymous, Whirling Logs (n.d.), from J. C. Faris, The Nightway: A History and a History of Documentation of a Navajo Ceremonial (1990),
courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona Photo Archives.
This reproduction of a Navajo sandpainting differs from the original in subtle but significant ways. The story told in Nightway Chant changes with every shaman and patient. Sandpaintings like this often reflect main themes or images from the narrative thread of the ritual.

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