Navajo Religion Medicine Men

Navajo RugsDuring his training, each medicine man must acquire his own medicine bundle, by the ritualistic gathering of a bundle from an aging medicine man or by making up a new bundle. The type of ceremony that the medicine man knows will determine the kind and size of the medicine bundle. Collection of a new medicine bundle is time-consuming and includes herbs, pollens, feathers, sacred mountain dirt, stones, scrub oak branches, juniper bark, cattail flags, wild rice grass, rock sage, bear grass, plants with pods, and many other grasses and tree branches.

The medicine man, further, must be able to identify exactly every herb, plant, and other necessary object required in particular ceremonies. Like a medical doctor, he is on call at all times but goes to the patient’s hogan to perform the necessary ceremony. The Navajo people usually know which medicine man in their area specializes in each ceremony. The chants are followed by serving food to the spectators, and, with the medicine man’s fee, the expense can be large.

The performance of a ceremony, depending upon its complexity and length, often requires financial assistance from both the immediate and extended family to pay the substantial expenses incurred. Not only must the medicine man and other healers be well paid, but also great amounts of food must be provided for guests who gather to share the blessings of the ceremony’s daily rituals, and to share the social activities as well.
[Navajo rugs – Navajo sacred lands Rainbow Bridge Utah]

Each traditional ceremony requires a separate buckskin jish, (the medicine bundle of a Navajo chanter), which contains feathers, rattles, stones, pollens, animal tissues, native herbs, ochres, and clays, and additional paraphernalia for specific chants. These Navajo medicine bundles are considered very sacred.

In addition to jish, Yei’is (masks) are also sacred and are not to be sold or possessed by non-Navajos or even Navajos untrained in their use. Archaeologist and Navajo experts say that Yei’is “are among the most sacred paraphernalia in Navajo religion.” The Navajo Tribe, which enacted its own law in 1978 protecting religious artifacts, believes that the masks are tribal property “not to be sold or traded outside the clan or tribe.” By traditional standards, a widow does not usually inherit her husband’s belongings, such as yei’is, which typically go to another ceremonial singer.

All rituals are passed down orally, and many are lengthy and extremely complex. Because of this, few medicine men know more than two or three complete ceremonies. A specific medicine man is selected to perform almost solely on the basis of his training in the ceremony required to heal the patient’s particular affliction. Involved are chants, songs, prayers, long lectures, dances, the use of sweat baths, herbs, emetics, prayer sticks, assorted fetishes, and, of course, sandpaintings. The medicine man’s relative artistic ability is of minor importance because the ceremonial sandpainting is not regarded as the creation of art. Rather, the ceremony is regarded as a collection of sacred symbols which can help restore a healthy relationship between a man and his total physical and spiritual world.

While the lengthy sings go on, the medicine man performs an extremely complicated ritual with his bundle of herbs, prayer sticks, pollen, emetics, at times, and sand and sandstone for the dry paintings. The following, taken from a Beautyway ceremony, sung to the medicine man’s ministrations, has only perplexity for the uninitiated:

Dusty Body (Rattler), youth chief, I have made
you an offering… Dusty Body maiden
chief an offering…
Pollen Body (Bull Snake), youth chief…
Pollen Body maiden chief… Arrowsnake,
youth chief…
Arrowsnake, maiden chief…

For the Navajos, however, every line of a sing is important. Under the two categories of ceremonies, Blessingway and Evilway, there are far too many ceremonies for any one medicine man (singer) to know all of them. Most medicine men specialize in one to six or seven ceremonies, and rarely will a medicine man specialize in more than eight. Everything has to be learned by memory. It takes years to learn the songs or chants, the myths and origins of each song, each ceremonial ritual, and the design and interpretation of sand paintings–if they are used. Learning is accomplished through apprenticeship to noted medicine men. After their education, medicine men have to be ceremonially ordained for each ceremony they perform.