Navajo Religion Ceremonies

Navajo RugsMany of the Dine ceremonies, including the Yebeichai (Night chantway), Enemy Way (Squaw Dance) and Fire Dance (Mountain chantway), ceremonies, last several days and require them to build special structures away from their homes. The complex and lengthy rituals include, among many, the various three-day sings, five-day sings, and the nine-day sings. These ceremonies require the use of open areas and land. The Yebichai, Ni dah and Fire Dance lasts for nearly two weeks.

Learning how to live means praying to and giving thanks for what gives life: Mother Earth, the Sun, Fire and Air. Each has gods or Holy People dwelling within. There are prayers and offerings at special places; springs, shrines, flat areas, young trees, and at home, that must be learned and passed on. All of the animals have sacred songs and prayers and each has a name used in ceremonies.

The Navajo employ many ceremonies for different needs. Most of these are related to healing, but ceremonies are also used to bless people, places, and objects, or to pray for rain or plentiful harvests. Opinions differ about the number of ceremonies currently being used and those which were in existence in earlier times. However, there is general agreement with the conservative estimate that the Navajo possess at least thirty different ceremonies.

In the Yeibichai ceremony a ceremonial hogan is needed, a ramada or cooking shack, a Yei house (four wooden posts covered with green cedar tree branches), an herb rack and a sweat lodge. The Dine may travel up to 20 miles to collect needed ceremonial herbs. The ceremony lasts for 13 days (9 days followed by 4 days of reflection after the ceremony). Sacred objects are then left in the Yei house which is left standing until it decays by natural forces. Herbs are gathered in special ways and the Medicine person knows where they are located. The plant is called by its Dine name and an offering is made to the Holy Ones. The Holy Ones are told why the plant is being taken and who the plant is for.

One of the most central and fundamental Dine ceremonies is Blessingway. With the Blessingway, as with all Dine ceremonies, “marking” or offerings of white corn meal and corn pollen are made before the ceremony begins. The purpose of the ceremony is to establish a state of balance or harmony. Blessingway songs are sung at the end of every ceremony. Blessingway is also the core of the initiation of young girls into womanhood, and new homes are blessed with songs from the ceremony. Its legends tell of the events after the Emergence, the construction of the hogan, and the sacred geography of the Dine; hence, Blessingway is perhaps the most important religious facet of traditional Dine identity. These ceremonies can only be performed in the families’ hogans and at other sacred places known to the Dine families. The Navajo hogan is a physical embodiment of the Blessingway song ritual, which recounts the perfect harmony incorporated in the creation of the world. Built in the form of a rough circle, the hogan embodies the essence of Navajo spirituality and opens its door to the east to greet the rising sun. The Blessingway song-ceremony, which begins with the creation story and recounts how first holy people were given instructions on how to build the original hogan, is a song of healing and restorative powers. To have any therapeutic effect it must be conducted within a traditional and ritually consecrated hogan.

The first tie to the land occurs when a child is conceived in the Mother’s womb. Prayers and ceremonies are performed for the unborn child which introduce the child to the Holy Ones and vice versa. When the child is born the afterbirth is offered to a young tree so as the young tree grows the child grows. The tree stands in a lifelong relationship to the person and prayers and offerings are made there throughout one’s lifetime.

Chants for the purification and blessing of the hogan belong to a multitude of rituals that are the fabric of the complex Navajo religion. Religious rites and the conduct of daily life are centered in the Navajo ideal: to live in sacred harmony, in beauty, and in blessedness. A vast knowledge of Navajo myths, history, and folk tales is needed to understand the repetitive, seemingly meaningless chants, often called “sings” or “dances.”

The Kinaalda or girl’s puberty ceremony, is performed when a girl experiences her first menstruation, and culminates in a second gathering after her second period. The ritual extends five days and four nights, during which only Blessing Songs are sung, which are the holiest, and all the ritual events are patterned after those of the first and second Kinaalda, performed for Changing Woman. The majority of the ceremony takes place in the hogan belonging to the girl’s family, which through the course of significant chanting comes to symbolize the First Hogan of First Man and First Woman, and the guests who attend the ceremony become the Holy People.

Following this, the young girl is dressed in ceremonial garb resembling that which Changing Woman allegedly wore, a “special sash” and jewelry of turquoise and white shell. After she is dressed, older females at the ceremony give her a vigorous massage, which is called “molding” the girl. This is a practice based upon the belief that at the time of initiation a girl’s body becomes soft again, as it was at birth, and thus she is susceptible to being literally reformed by the efforts of those around her. The girl runs toward the east twice a day for the first day, and three times a day for the next three days. Her running circuit is clockwise, from east to west, and so is a symbolic pursuit of the sun. Aside from running, the girl’s main duty is to grind the corn for the huge cake, called an alkaan that will be eaten on the ceremony’s final day. The alkaan is baked in a large pit in the ground, into which the helpers pour the batter that the girl mixes. The batter is blessed with cornmeal and covered with husks, in the center of which the girl places another cornhusk cross-oriented to the cardinal points. Moist earth is shoveled in to cover the batter; a fire is built up on top and kept going all night to bake the batter fully. The fourth day is devoted to singing sacred Blessingway and “free” songs. This takes place in the hogan, which is arranged in ceremonial fashion. Throughout the singing, the chief goal is the identification with Changing Woman. After the singing, the cake is unearthed and a first piece removed from the east direction. The girl gives everyone a piece, except herself, for she is not allowed to eat any. A last piece remains in the pit as a sacrifice to the earth. Most Dine consider the ceremony complete after the alkaan is distributed.

Some rites are short, like the diagnostic ritual in which the hand trembler (diviner) observes a sick person to determine the nature of his illness and the appropriate healing ceremony. A significant short rite is the morning prayer to White Dawn to welcome a new day. Pollen from corn tassels is used and is richly symbolic of purity as well as of peace, happiness, and prosperity. Pollen sprinkling along with specific chants consecrate and sanctify hogans, patients, prayer sticks, dry (sand) paintings, and cornmeal mush that is eaten ceremonially. Navajos call the haze in the air, pollen of morning sky and pollen of evening sky.

Healing ceremonies can continue for a period of ‘ one to nine days, with each being performed for the purpose of curing a particular affliction. The degree of participation required of an individual for whom a ceremony is performed is clearly defined by tradition. The person must follow exactly the medicine man’s instructions. These may include fasting, praying, performing certain actions, avoiding certain objects or people, and other ritual restrictions. Navajo ceremonies usually involve the patient, his or her family, and a medicine man and singers. Because Navajo recognize family ties on a number of different levels, a person’s “family” can be quite large. A ceremony might attract several thousand people, but the central parts of the actual ceremony are conducted inside a hogan and are witnessed only by immediate members of the family.

The roster of mythical figures in ceremony sings appears to be endless; each has an important role in the history of the Dine’, and their names instantly relate the Navajos to certain periods of time in their past. A few of these names are Rock Crystal Talking God, Happiness Boy, White Shell Woman, White Corn Boy, Yellow Corn Girl, First Man, Big Snake, Pollen Boy, and Cornbeetle Girl.

Many ceremonies also include activities which are strictly social, such as dances. The Social Song and Dance is part of the three-day Enemy way ceremony, which is held during the spring and summer solstice. In earlier times the ceremony, Enemy Way, was often performed to cleanse the warrior returning from battle from the taint of the enemy’s spirit. It now may be performed for patients suffering from illnesses diagnosed as being caused by contact with non-Navajo.

The Gourd dance is a blessing dance, which deals with the many aspects of healing, the cycle of moisture, the seasons, and the balance of maintaining harmony.

The Navajo Ribbon dance has been modified to respect the actual religious songs and dances that are part of the Great Mountain Way Ceremony, which is held in the fall and winter solstice. The purpose of this dance is to help as an ailment to cure any individual who is ill, or who may need spiritual healing. This dance is by far the most dynamic at public displays. The colors of the ribbons used in this dance are; white, turquoise, yellow, black and red, which represent the seasons, stages of life, and the six directions.

Although Navajo ceremonies are handed down from one generation to another orally, the basic framework has remained essentially unchanged. The accompanying histories may differ slightly when told by different medicine men, but the chants and other rituals are never varied deliberately. Fewer ceremonies are performed today than in earlier times, with some ceremonies having been completely lost. Others, forgotten for a period of time, have been reconstructed without the aid of a living medicine man who has actually been trained in the many details of that ceremony. Although some parts of the ceremony may have been lost or modified, the ceremony can sometimes be brought back into usage, through its reconstruction.