Navajo Mountain Chant

Navajo Mountain Chant

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Religious (Navajo)
Date of Observation: Nine days at the end of winter
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Circle of Evergreens, Fire, Plumed Arrow, Sand Paintings
Colors: Blue and black play an important symbolic role in the Mountain Chant (see CIRCLE OF EVERGREENS below).
Related Holidays: Navajo Night Chant

ORIGINS

The Navajo Mountain Chant is part of Native American religious tradition. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Navajo call themselves Diné (or Dineh), meaning "people." Their deities are known as the Holy People and include Changing Woman (see also APACHE GIRLS' SUNRISE CEREMONY ), Talking God, the Sun, Earth, Moon, and Sky. Navajo religious practices emphasize healing rituals, in terms of curing diseases as well as healing relationships among all living things.

The nine-day Mountain Chant marks a transition in the seasons. It takes place in late winter, at the end of the thunderstorms but before the spring winds arrive. Members of the Navajo Nation believe that if this ceremony were to be held at any other time of year, the result would be death from lightning or snake-bite. The chant is also considered a curing ceremony, performed not only for individuals who are sick, but also to restore order and balance in human relationships.

The legend on which the Mountain Chant is based chronicles the adventures of Dsilyi Neyani, the eldest son of a wandering Navajo family. He is captured by the Utes while hunting one day, but he manages to escape with the help of the gods (known as the Yei). During his long journey to rejoin his family, he encounters many hazards and learns a great deal about magic and ceremonial acts. For example, he learns how to make the SAND PAINTINGS that are used in the Mountain Chant, how to make the feathers dance, how to swallow swords (see PLUMED ARROW ), how to make a weasel appear and do magic, how to handle FIRE without getting burned, and how to make the mystical "hu-hu-hu-hu" cry used in the Mountain Chant dance.

When Dsilyi Neyani returns to his family, he discovers that they have grown into an entire tribe during his long absence. It takes him four days and four nights to tell the story of his wanderings, but the rituals he brings back are so compelling that messengers are immediately sent out to invite guests to witness what he has learned. Even today, the Mountain Chant remains an event to which visitors from outside the Navajo Nation are especially welcome.

The Mountain Chant consists of four ceremonies, all based on the same legend but differing considerably in terms of their presentation and the wording of the songs that are sung. Perhaps the most moving ceremony takes place on the final day. The medicine man emerges from the lodge or hogan at sunset and begins to chant, while a CIRCLE OF EVERGREENS eight to ten feet tall-each concealing the man who handles it-rises as if by magic and forms a circular enclosure about 100 feet in diameter with only one opening, facing east. The ground within this circle is considered sacred, and there is a cone-shaped bonfire in the center.

The final ceremony begins when the central bonfire is lit. Dancers with their bodies whitened by clay rush into the circle, leaping wildly and waving their arms and legs. They circle the fire from south to west to north and then south again, the white clay on their bodies protecting them from the heat of the flames (see FIRE ). Sometimes they throw sumac wands tipped with rings of fluffy eagle down into the fire. The down flares briefly and burns away, but the dancer conceals a second ring of fluff, which he then shakes to the end of the wand, creating the impression that the fluffy ball has been magically restored. A similar illusion is involved in the "yucca trick," in which a yucca plant appears to grow miraculously from a bare root, then blossoms, and finally reveals its fruit.

The Fire Dance takes place just before dawn, when the central bonfire has burned down to embers. Young men drag in huge trees to feed the central fire, and the dancers make a sound with their tongues that imitates the sound of a hot fire. They carry large bundles of shredded cedar bark, which are ignited with coals from the base of the fire. Once they are burning, the bundles are thrown over the fence to the east first and then in the other three directions. The men dance in a circle around the fire, beating their own and each others' bodies with the flaming brands. Spectators later gather up bits of the burned cedar, which is believed to offer protection against fire for the coming year.

In 1926 the Mountain Chant was made into a film directed by Roman Hubbell. The star of the film was named "Crawler" because his lower limbs were paralyzed-supposedly while attempting to learn the NAVAJO NIGHT CHANT. But his disability did not prevent him from learning and practicing the Mountain Chant.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Circle of Evergreens

The first time the Mountain Chant was performed, the circle of trees within which it took place was six miles in diameter and crowded with people. Today it is no longer this large a celebration, but the dark circle formed by the branches continues to play an important part in the ceremony. The trees represent the black and the blue spruce, both of which are mentioned in the legend of Dsilyi Neyani. In the songs sung during the Mountain Chant, black symbolizes the male principle and blue is the female.

The pairing of blue and black is common in Navajo legend. Black is usually associated with the north, the direction where evil and danger dwell. Blue is associated with the south. The home of the mountain sheep, as described in the Mountain Chant, consists of two black rooms and two blue rooms.

Fire

Fire is a symbol of annihilation among the Navajo, as it is among most Native American tribes who believe in magic. Fire is said to burn evil, and the exposure to intense heat that takes place during the Fire Dance on the final night of the Mountain Chant symbolizes the ability to control fire, which in turn controls evil.

Plumed Arrow

One of the dances performed during the Navajo Mountain Chant is the Dance of the Great Plumed Arrows. Plumed arrows are considered the most sacred of healing devices, although there is a trick involved in this particular dance. Each dancer holds his arrow up over the "patient" who is being cured by the ceremony and then thrusts it down his own throat, causing the spectators to gag in sympathy. In reality, however, this "sword-swallowing" is made possible by holding the arrowhead between the teeth and running the shaft of the arrow into a hollow casing. The patient is then touched with the arrows, which are believed to chase evil from the body.

Sand Paintings

The preparation of sand paintings takes place before the Mountain Chant begins. A large space is covered with fine sand, smoothed out as flat as a canvas. As many as twelve men may work on the sand painting at one time, letting colored sand-normally red, blue, yellow, and white-dribble through their fingers to form the desired pattern. The medicine man oversees the process and is quick to catch any errors, since a single mistake can undermine the effectiveness of the entire ceremony.

The sand painting plays an important role in the healing process. When the patient is admitted to the hogan or lodge-a typical Navajo building with earth walls reinforced by timbers-the medicine man begins to chant. When the chanting is over, he sprinkles the patient and the sand painting with a feather dipped in water. He then takes sand from various parts of the painting and applies it to parts of the patient's body. Spectators in the hogan may take sand and touch their own bodies with it, so they can share in the "cure." Afterward, the sand painting is destroyed, and the sand is taken away.

The sand paintings typically illustrate events in the legend of Dsilyi Neyani. In one sand painting, for example, there are four figures known as the Long Bodies, who helped Dsilyi during his long journey home. The black Long Body is said to belong to the north, the one under it (white) to the east, the next (blue) to the south, and the bottom one (yellow) to the west. (See discussion of sand paintings under NAVAJO NIGHT CHANT.)

FURTHER READING

Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Reichard, Gladys. Navajo Religion: A Study of Symbolism. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Navajo Mountain Chant

Nine days at the end of winter
Among the Navajo Indians of Arizona, the nine-day Mountain Chant marks a transition in the seasons. It takes place in late winter, at the end of the thunderstorms but before the spring winds arrive. The chant is also considered a healing ceremony, performed not only for individuals who are sick but to restore order and balance in human relationships.
The Mountain Chant is based on a legend that chronicles the adventures of Dsilyi Neyani, the eldest son of a wandering Navajo family. He is captured by the Utes while hunting one day, but he manages to escape. During his long journey to rejoin his family, he encounters many hazards and learns a great deal about magic and ceremonial acts—rituals that play an important role in the Mountain Chant. He is gone so long that when he finally returns, his family is now the size of a tribe and relaying his adventures to them takes several days. The rituals he brings back are so compelling that messengers are immediately dispatched to find more witnesses to what he has learned.
The Chant consists of four ceremonies, all based on the same legend. Perhaps the most moving ceremony takes place on the final day, when the medicine man emerges from the lodge or hogan at sunset and begins to chant, while a circle of evergreens eight to ten feet tall—each concealing a man holding the tree—moves to create a circular enclosure with a bonfire in the center. The bonfire is lit, and later in the evening dancers whose bodies are covered in white clay (to protect their skin from the heat) rush into the circle and perform.
CONTACTS:
Navajo Tourism Department
P.O. Box 663
Window Rock, AZ 86515
928-810-8501; fax: 928-810-8500
www.discovernavajo.com
SOURCES:
DancingGods-1931, p. 208
HolSymbols-2009, p. 615
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