Sandpaintings Religion and Native American Art

Navajo RugsThere are two types of Navajo sandpaintings. The first is used in the traditional healing or blessing ceremony, the second type sandpainting is an art, created on a piece of particle board or plywood.

The traditional healing or blessing ceremony is conducted by a singer or medicine man, a hataalii. This is referred to by the Navajo as an iikaah, “a place where the gods come and go.” The sandpainting is the vital element in this 2- to-9-day ceremony, which is designed to restore balance (hozho), thus restoring lost health or insuring “good things.” The Medicine man uses crushed stone, crushed flowers, gypsum, pollen, etc. The sandpainting is completed in one day and destroyed later that night.

It is not known exactly when the Navajo first produced sandpaintings. Oral traditions trace the ceremonies directly back to the Holy People in an age which cannot be measured by our standards of time. These traditions are the essence of Navajo existence and continue to be passed from one generation to another without written record. Navajo legends tell us the Holy People maintained permanent paintings of sacred designs on spider webs, sheets of sky, clouds, and some fabrics, including buckskin. When the First People, the Dineh, created by Changing Woman, were guided by First Man into the present world, they were given the right to reproduce these sacred paintings to summon the assistance of the Holy People. The Holy People told them, “Men are not as good as we; they might quarrel over the picture and tear it and that would bring misfortune; rain would not fall; corn would not grow.” Therefore, it was decreed that the people must fashion the paintings with sand and upon the earth, and the sandpainting must be destroyed by night. Although it is widely argued that the Navajo adopted sandpaintings from the Pueblo tribes, there is no dispute that the Navajo have developed the art immensely, continuing to utilize ceremonial sandpaintings much more extensively than any other tribe.

When all the preliminary activities of the ceremony, such as lectures, purifications and chants, have been accomplished, the medicine man begins the sandpainting ritual, usually in the family hogan. All the pigments of color have been carefully gathered and prepared. The principal colors; white, blue, yellow, and black are linked to the four sacred mountains as well as the directions. Red, often considered a sacred color, represents sunlight.

Sandpaintings are a very important part of almost all ceremonies. During most ceremonies, the person for whom the ceremony is being performed will sit upon the sandpainting, stimulating a closer relationship between the patient and the Holy People represented in the painting. The sandpainting serves as an integral part of the healing ceremony in providing an avenue of contact between the patient and the supernatural being who can restore harmony and relieve the suffering. The Navajo name for sandpainting, iikaah, translates to “place where gods come and go.” This name is appropriate because, if all activities are performed correctly and the patient believes in the cure, the sandpainting prepares the way for the forces or Holy People to intercede and restore hozho or balance. The sandpainting is the final act to summon those forces. The patient sits in its center and faces the open door of the hogan, which always faces east. The Holy People being summoned will arrive and infuse the painting with their healing power, dispelling evil and restoring balance. The ceremony also shields against further threats of a similar nature that may be directed toward the patient, such as witchcraft. In some ceremonies, spectators may sprinkle parts of the painting on their own bodies in order to share in the favor of the Holy Person represented in the painting.

The sandpainting can be quite small or as large as 20 feet, which means that several men and women would be needed to finish it in the allotted day. Most sandpaintings are between 6 and 8 feet. The medicine man is the director responsible for accuracy of color and design. For practical reasons, work begins in the center and works outward in a “sun-wise” pattern for religious reasons, east to south to west to north and back to east. Most sandpaintings have a protective garland around three sides to prevent evil from infusing the work from the north, west, or south. This is often a rainbow. The painting must face east for the Holy People’s entrance. In order to prevent evil from entering before the work is complete, spiritual guardians may be positioned to the east.

The relationship between the legend portrayed in a sandpainting and the actual need of the patient is difficult to understand unless viewed from the Navajo viewpoint. Although the relationship may be impossible to document in terms of Western medicine, it nevertheless does exist according to Navajo belief, and it helps account for one ceremony being chosen over another.

A ceremonial sandpainting is customarily destroyed before sundown of the day the ceremony is performed in order to dispose with it the harmful forces which previously afflicted the patient. Not all sandpaintings are destroyed immediately or in the same manner. When the ritual is completed, the patient leaves the sandpainting and all the sands are swept away in a reverse order. The sand is then either buried outside or scattered to the four directions. Failure to destroy a sandpainting or attempting to reverse any part may bring blindness or death to the transgressor. Some are simply buried in place; others are covered with a blanket and the patient may sleep on it for several days before it is actually destroyed. There is, at best, only a very brief period of time when the painting may be seen intact in all its beauty, presenting the complete design as seen in paintings of the accompanying exhibition.

he second type of sandpainting as an art, is created on a piece of particle board or plywood. Sandpainting as an art was first seen in tapestries or Navajo rugs, and later in paintings and drawings. Elements of the sacred ceremonies, some very nearly complete, are presented as a unique and lasting art form. Finely crushed stone, some natural, some permanently dyed, is applied to the glue base. Another item, the air brush, has become popular with sand painters. It allows for the rapid creation of a multi-hued background. This technique does not lessen the amount of work required for the background; it simply adds an artistic dimension. The overall design is intended to be an art presentation that uses the sacred Navajo symbols in the manner that would not be considered disrespectful. Artists hope that the beauty of this work, coupled with the traditional Navajo beliefs, will please the public and will provide a meaningful income. The Navajo accept this art form as quite legitimate.