Where the Gods Come and Go

Some background about Navajo sandpaintings


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For the Díneh, or "People" as Navajos call themselves, sandpainting is a sacred healing art linked to the time of myth and memory. For good reason, one Navajo term for sandpaintings means "place where the gods come and go."

Once, those Holy People-First Man and First Woman, First Girl and First Boy, Corn People, Snake People, and others-lived underground. When their Black World was extinguished they moved to Blue World. When Blue World ended they went to Yellow World. Then Yellow World died in a flood and First Man led them up a reed to this, the Glittering World we Earth Surface People now inhabit.

Sandpaintings are gifts from the Holy People. In one story Monster Slayer, one of the Hero Twins fathered by Sun, rewards an intrepid Navajo hero by placing four sheets of sky bearing such powerful objects as stars and lightning in each of the four directions: a white sheet in the east, blue in the south, yellow in the west, and black in the north. "Such pictures you must teach your people to draw," he says, advising the Navajo to memorize the images Holy People use in curing ceremonies. "They cannot do this on sheets of sky as we do, but they can grind to powder stones of various colors and draw their pictures on sand."

Frank Martin

Image: ©2000 Frank Martin
"The Whirling Log/Tsil-ol-ni"
A story used in Navajo healing ceremonies
26" x 26"

Sandpaintings help restore hózhó, an idea related to such concepts as "beauty," "blessing," "holy," and "balanced." But this middle ground is difficult to maintain and may vanish because of witchcraft or the violation of a taboo. "Don't throw a rock from a mountain," adults admonish children. "The Holy People put it there and might be angry." Only those willing to risk losing hózhó ignore this sort of advice.

A Navajo plagued by the loss of hózhó visits a Singer, or medicine man (though sometimes a woman), to restore the cosmic balance. The Singer has served an apprenticeship to a knowledgeable elder and obtained the power to prescribe the proper sandpainting ceremony for curing a patient's ills. Each of the five hundred different sandpaintings catalogued by anthropologists—perhaps half of those in the tribal repertoire—belongs to a "Way" received from the Holy People.

This set of songs and rituals is named for the forces working on a patient's behalf—Red Antway, Coyoteway, Hailway, and so on—in a ceremony that may last one, two, three, five, or even nine nights.

The Singer and his apprentices make a sandpainting by dribbling colored powders onto a one-to-two-inch thick bed of sand, usually laid out on the floor of a traditional cribbed-log dwelling. Pigments come from such materials as pulverized cedar charcoal, red sandstone, white gypsum, yellow ocher, pollen, cornmeal, and crushed flower petals. These paintings average about six feet square, though they range in size from a foot to twenty feet or more in diameter.

Sandpaintings' principal colors-white, blue, yellow, and black-remind Navajos of the Four Sacred Mountains bordering their traditional homeland. These mountains and some of their associations are:

White Shell Mountain (Sierra Blanca Peak, Colorado): white-east-dawn
Turquoise Mountain (Mount Taylor, New Mexico): blue-south-day
Abalone Shell Mountain (Mount Humphreys, Arizona): yellow-west-twilight
Coal Mountain (Hesperus Peak, Colorado): black-north-darkness

A painted garland that wards off evil often borders a sandpainting. Garland motifs include the rainbow, interconnected arrowheads, sunflowers, and a multicolored mirage. The sandpainting opens up at the east, the direction from which Holy People come in response to the Singer's chanted request for intercession. Such additional protectors as Moon, Sun, Bat, Buffalo, Big Snake, Beaver, and Otter may patrol this point of entry. All sandpainting images are heavily laden with meaning. For example, Beaver and Otter are used because they loaned their furry skins to the Hero Twins when Sun tried freezing his offspring by withholding warmth. Holy People often seen in sandpaintings include Big Fly, Corn Beetle, the Four Sacred Plants-corn, beans, squash, and tobacco-Stars, Lightning, Thunder, and a variety of animals, insects, and reptiles.

Sandpainting compositions are laid out in three basic patterns: linear, extended-center, and radial. Linear sandpainting figures appear along one or more lines above a ground bar. A central design dominates extended-center sandpaintings. In radial format images whirl around a center point, often an indication of a particular location such as the Place of Emergence from which the Holy People entered Glittering World.

Made to strict specifications, the sandpainting becomes a homing beacon which draws Holy People through its eastern entry to infuse the sacred space with healing powers. Their presence is invoked as the Singer repeats such song-formulas as:

With your moccasins of dark cloud come to us
With your leggings of dark cloud come to us
With your shirt of dark cloud come to us
With your headdress of dark cloud come to us
With your mind enveloped in dark cloud come to us

The ceremony climaxes when the Singer seats the patient directly on the sandpainting, rubbing pigments from the bodies of painted figures onto corresponding parts of the patient's body so, as a Nightway chant says, "life is restored in beauty"—the beauty of hózhó.

Then the sandpainting is destroyed, lest it improperly summon Holy People and anger them. Sometimes the pigments are taken outside and deposited beside a lightning-struck tree to guard the home where the ceremony was held.

Starting around 1919 and until his death, a Singer named Lefthanded (c1867–1937) broke with tradition by weaving, or supervising two of his nieces' weaving, at least seventy sandpainting rugs. Scholars persuaded another Singer called Red Point (c1865–1936) to preserve a sandpainting archive on paper which appeared in the books Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant (1937) and Navajo Medicine Man (1939). Lefthanded's rugs and Red Point's drawings seem to violate the prohibition against making permanent representations of sandpaintings. But both men probably edited their sandpainting reproductions. Even minor changes-color substitutions and omission or addition of figures, for example-switches off the beacon that summons the Holy People.

Today, many Navajos create "sandpaintings" with colored sand on glue-covered particleboard, a technique dating to the 1930s when a pair of white sign painters, E. George de Ville and his wife Mae Allendale, introduced the practice in Gallup, New Mexico. These are commercial efforts, some quite elegant, and strictly secular: intentional alteration renders the designs harmless to buyer and seller alike.

Yet even glimpses at these fragmentary parts of a much bigger whole bring new meaning and a heightened sense of awareness to the Singer's prayer in Nightway:

The world before me is restored in beauty
The world behind me is restored in beauty
The world below me is restored in beauty
The world above me is restored in beauty
All things around me are restored in beauty
My voice is restored in beauty
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty

Thanks to Dr Ron McCoy, Emporia State University
Photo courtesy of Penfield Gallery of Indian Arts

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque -Volume 14

Related Pages

American Indian Signs and Symbols article
A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article
Collecting Contemporary Navajo Weavings article
Glossary of Indian Art Terms article

Hopi Katsina Figures article
Indian Fetishes article
Pottery: Enduring Styles of the Pueblos article
What Does this Indian Symbol Mean? article

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