Navajo Night Chant

Navajo Night Chant (Nightway)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Navajo)
Date of Observation: Late fall or winter for nine days
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Masks, Sacred Bundle, Sand Paintings
Related Holidays: Navajo Mountain Chant


The Navajo Night 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 nine-night ceremony known as the Night Chant or Nightway is believed to date from around 1000 B . C . E ., when it was first performed by the Indians who lived in Canyon de Chelly (now eastern Arizona). It is considered to be the most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies and one of the most difficult and demanding to learn, involving the memorization of hundreds of songs, dozens of prayers, and several very complicated SAND PAINTINGS . And yet the demand for Night Chants is so great that as many as fifty such ceremonies might be held during a single season, which lasts eighteen to twenty weeks.

The Navajo call themselves Diné (or Dineh), meaning "people." Their deities are known as the Holy People, and include Changing Woman (see also APACHE Navajo Night Chant

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.

Like the NAVAJO MOUNTAIN CHANT, the Night Chant is basically a healing ritual, designed both to cure people who are sick and to restore the order and balance of human relationships within the Navajo universe. Led by a trained medicine man-a combination doctor-priest-who has served a long apprenticeship and learned the intricate and detailed practices that are essential to the chant, the ceremony itself is capable of scaring off sickness and ugliness through the use of techniques that shock or arouse. Once disorder has been removed, order and balance are restored through song, prayer, sand painting, and other aspects of the ceremony.

Before the chant itself takes place, young children undergo a tribal initiation. After being stripped of their clothing and then struck with a yucca whip, young boys are allowed to see the "gods" (i.e., the dancers who impersonate the gods) without their masks for the first time. Girls are not whipped but rather touched with ears of corn covered with sprays of spruce.

On the day of the chant, crowds gather expectantly outside the lodge where rehearsals have been taking place. The outdoor area in which the ceremony will be held is cleared of spectators, and many fires are lit to take the chill out of the night air. The dancers, who represent the gods, are led in by the medicine man and Hastse-yalti, the maternal grandfather of the gods, along a path of meal that has been laid down for them to follow. The patient emerges from the lodge, sprinkles the gods with meal from his or her basket, and gives each one a sacrificial cigarette. The medicine man intones a long prayer for the patient, repeating each phrase four times. Then the four gods dance, with Hastse-yalti moving rhythmically back and forth and hooting at the end of every verse to show his approval.

The original Night Chant involved four teams who danced twelve times each with half-hour intervals in between-a total of ten hours. Today, however, there are often so many teams dancing that there is no time for intermissions. The dance movements resemble a Virginia Reel, with two lines facing each other. Each of the six male dancers takes his female partner, dances with her to the end of the line, drops her there, and moves back to his own side. The chant itself is performed without variation and has a hypnotic effect on the listeners. The only relief is provided by the rainmaker-clown named Tonenili, who sprinkles water around and engages in other playful antics.

The medicine men who supervise the Night Chant insist that everything-each dot and line in every sand painting, each verse in every song, each feather on each mask-be arranged in exactly the same way each time the curing ceremony is performed or it will not bring about the desired result. There are probably as many active Night Chant medicine men today as at any time in Navajo history, due to the general increase in the Navajo population, the popularity of the ceremony, and the central role it plays in Navajo life and health. But it is getting more difficult to find apprentices willing to learn the elaborate rituals. Although a medicine man typically earns between $500 and $1,000 for a nine-day Night Chant, compensation often comes in the form of livestock, baskets, cloth, jewelry, blankets, buckskin, and food for the duration of the ceremony.



There are typically twenty-four Nightway masks, although the ceremony can be performed with fewer. These masks are worn by the God Impersonators who perform the ritual dances. Some of these impersonators-Calling God, Gray God, Whistling God, Whipping God, and Humpedback God among them-wear the masks of ordinary male gods with special ornaments attached at the time of the ceremony. Other masks include the yellow and blue Fringed Mouth of the Water mask, the Black and Red God masks, the Monster Slayer mask, the Talking God mask, and the Born for Water mask.

In addition to being worn by the God Impersonators who dance on the dramatic final night of the nine-day ceremony, the masks are vital to the application of many "medicines" (including the SAND PAINTINGS ) to the patient. They also play a vital role in the initiation of the young. The masks of the female goddesses are actually worn by men, since women are not allowed to minister to the person for whom the chant is being sung.

The masks used in the Nightway ceremony are made of sacred buckskin, which must be obtained without shedding the animal's blood. The usual method consists of chasing the deer into a blind, throwing it to the ground, and smothering it by stuffing sacred meal into its nostrils. Buckskin is a symbol of life to the Navajo people.

Sacred Bundle

The medicine man's sacred bundle or jish is made up of ceremonial items such as bags of pollen, feathers, stones, skins, pieces of mountain sheep horn, and a flint blade believed to belong to the god known as the Monster Slayer. The sacred bundle also includes gourd rattles and the sacred buckskin MASKS worn by the God Impersonators.

Although the medicine man might carry other necessary items in his jish-such as incense, spruce collars, and the ground pigments used in SAND PAINTING -they are Navajo Night Chant

not considered part of the sacred bundle. Most of the items in the jish are permanent; they are not used up during the ceremony itself.

Sand Paintings

As in the NAVAJO MOUNTAIN CHANT, sand paintings play an important role in the healing rituals of the Night Chant. Twelve different sand paintings are considered appropriate for the Nightway, of which a maximum of six are usually chosen: four large and two small. The patient and his or her family normally have a say in which sand paintings are used. Each one is associated with a particular story and is accompanied by specific songs, prayers, and ceremonial procedures.

It is rarely the medicine man himself who makes the sand paintings, although he is responsible for overseeing their preparation. Usually his assistants do the actual painting, dribbling small amounts of colored sand through their fingers onto a smooth sand surface. The resulting works of art must be perfect; in other words, there can be no deviations from the design set down by the gods.

Every detail in each sand painting has a special meaning. If the plumes on the heads of the figures are on the same side as the rattle, for example, it means that rain is desired. If they are on the opposite side from the hand holding the rattle, it means that the growth of corn is the desired outcome. Standard Nightway sand painting designs include First Dancers, Whirling Logs, Water Sprinklers, Fringed Mouth Gods, Black Gods, and Corn People.

The purpose of the sand paintings is to allow the patient to absorb the powers depicted in the painting, often by sitting or sleeping on it. The medicine man applies items from the jish or SACRED BUNDLE to the gods depicted in the sand painting and then to the corresponding part of the patient's body. It is considered wrong-if not downright dangerous-to reproduce these sand paintings in any way, since they might attract the attention of the gods to a situation where no real healing is intended. Sketching and photographing them is therefore prohibited, although sometimes this prohibition can be sidestepped by removing the prayerplumes set around the painting or omitting some other detail, so that the painting itself is not really "finished."


Faris, James C. The Nightway: A History and a History of Documentation of a Navajo Ceremonial. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. 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.


American Indian Heritage Foundation

Navajo Night Chant

Nine days in late fall or early winter
The nine-night ceremony known as the Night Chant or the Nightway (Yei Bei Chei) is believed to date from around 1000 b.c.e., when it was first performed by the Indians who lived in Canyon de Chelly (now eastern Arizona). It is considered to be the most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies and one of the most difficult to learn, because it involves memorizing many songs, prayers, and the complicated designs used in sand paintings. Like the Navajo Mountain Chant, the Night Chant is basically a healing ritual, designed both to cure people who are sick and to restore the order and balance of human relationships within the Navajo universe.
The Night Chant begins when the medicine man—a combination doctor-priest who has learned the intricate and detailed practices that are essential to the chant—emerges from the lodge leading the dancers, who represent the gods. The medicine man intones a long healing prayer for those who are sick and performs several other ritual acts. Then the dancers begin. The chant itself is performed without variation and has a hypnotic effect on the listeners.
Navajo Tourism Department
P.O. Box 663
Window Rock, AZ 86515
928-810-8501; fax: 928-810-8500
DancingGods-1931, p. 233
EncyNatAmerRel-2001, p. 202
HolSymbols-2009, p. 619
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