on-line book icon

table of contents

Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
NPS logo

Chapter IV:

WAR TECHNIQUE As the Navaho were constantly at war during the Spanish period, and until their conquest by the United States, an account of their procedure in war is introduced here. Hill (1936) describes the ritual, weapons, and procedure in detail, and gives a photograph of a warrior in regalia. Amsden (1934:Plate 57a) illustrates a warrior. Simpson (1850) has a sketch of Narbona in war clothes. The Ethnologic Dictionary has notes on war and detailed descriptions of weapons. The 1915 Annual of the Franciscan Missions tells the story of Narbona's grandson, who grew up during the period of the greatest raiding.

The following information is largely based on Hill's description (1936): Peaceful bands, which did not wish to fight, avoided dangerous encounters and had look-outs posted to light signal fires in case of danger. The Navaho did not conduct war as a tribal affair. Rather, a leader-shaman would ask members of his locality to accompany him. One or two women might join the party of warriors, as women too could gain martial distinction. There were many different "ways" of going to war, referring to the important ritual accompaniments of preparation, departure, attack, and return. For a reprisal, which required thirty to two hundred men, the three most important ways were the Monster Slayer Way, the Enemy Way, and the Yei Hastin Way. For raids, which required only four to ten men, there were many other ways, each with different songs and prayers. The leader-shaman usually knew the ritual of only one of the important ways. For his services in organizing and leading the party, he would receive a large share of plunder. (A manuscript by Father Berard Haile, dealing with the Enemy Way, is to be published soon by the Yale University Press.)

Every able bodied man was a potential warrior, trained from boyhood in the use of weapons. Before their first war party, boys were under special taboos. They must not look off into distance, eat hot food, or sleep on their backs or stomachs. After killing an enemy, the boy was given the scalp to chew, which made him a full fledged warrior. If he wished to become a leader-shaman, he was taught by a leader who knew the way the boy wished to learn.

After the formation of a war party, the warriors spent three to five days in ritually purifying themselves, and in making the weapons and equipment under ritual conditions. Each man carried with him an awl, some sinew, soles and uppers for extra moccasins, an extra pair of pants, and a shirt. The warriors took only a little dried yucca, fruit, grass seed, and jerky with them, for they expected to eat heartily from the storehouses of the enemy.

The war shirt was made of thick buckskin, laced across the chest. A rich man might use four layers of buckskin. Eight buckskins made a knee length shirt so heavy that only a mounted warrior could wear it. The warriors decorated their hide helmets, made of two thicknesses of buckskin, with shells, and feathers from the eagle and owl. Just before the attack, a special plume was added. A wristlet made of the claws of bears, mountain lions, eagles, and owls gave extra strength and power.

Weapons were simple. In pre-Spanish times the American Indian did not have iron-tipped weapons, guns, or horses. When Backus (1860) and Simpson (1850) visited the Navaho, they saw very few rifles. A warrior had instead a sinew-backed bow, and about fifty arrows, tipped with "poison," which he kept in a quiver of mountain lion skin. He protected himself with an elliptical or round shield of buckskin or other hide. He fought with a lance if he rode one of the carefully trained war horses.

Once the party had departed, there were additional ceremonies to be performed along the way. Prophets foretold events by "stargazing" or "listening" until they had a vision; "Hand tremblers" interpreted the motions of their quivering hands in prophetic terms. The party would return if faced by an evil omen, such as a coyote crossing their trail. Ceremonies were performed immediately before the attack, and the warriors painted themselves and put on their special moccasins with snakes painted on the soles.

With much whooping, the warriors made a surprise attack. If they were attacking a pueblo, they would first scalp the people working in the corn fields, then they would wave the scalps at the villagers and kill adults and babies. They took young people for slaves. A captor sometimes adopted his prisoner as a relative. Prisoners were usually well treated. Colonel Washington reported that a captive who had married two Navaho wives preferred to remain with the tribe rather than be "rescued" and returned to his own people. Usually the Navaho plundered and took slaves without burning down the villages.

POST-WAR CEREMONIES After a successful attack, the leader, with a flint arrow point, drew in the sand four symbolic lines, charged with magical power to prevent the enemy from overtaking the party. At home, a ceremony called "swaying singing" was performed before the hogan of each warrior who had taken a scalp. The singers gathered about the scalp, shot arrows at it, swayed and sang to the accompaniment of a pottery drum. The serenaded warrior then threw some of his plunder to the singers. Gifts and "saying singing" are today part of the popular War Dance (Hill, 1936).

WAR DANCE Because scalps were magically dangerous and contaminating "medicine," they were hidden out of reach in rocks far from the hogans. If, in spite of purification by sweat baths and singing, a warrior, or his wife or children, fell prey to "war sickness" derived from contact with weapons, scalps, or clothes of the enemy, a five day War Dance was held to drive away the ghosts of the dead enemies haunting the sick. According to the Ethnologic Dictionary (1910:362), which has information about the old dances, there were two types of War Dance: one for dispelling native enemies, and one for foreign enemies; though ordinarily the term "War Dance" refers to the dance for dispelling the ghosts of foreign enemies.

In modern times, although there are no more wars, the disease can still be contracted by men or women. Parents may have brought the disease on an unborn child by seeing the bodies of Navaho slain by an enemy. If, when the child has become an old person, he should fall ill, a medicine man may diagnose the disease as "war sickness" and recommend that the War Dance (which nowadays is only three days long) be held as a cure. The Navaho believe that most diseases are due to evil spirits or the violation of a taboo. The Navaho told Hill (1936:18) that women were more frequently patients at a War Dance in modern times because, if they had been away to school and washed white men's clothes, the steam from the water brought on the old war sickness. Sickness can also be contracted by entering the ruins of the cliff dwellers, where rest bones of the Ancient People.

According to the Ethnologic Dictionary (1910:366) the War Dance originated with a mythological being, the mother of the two legendary heroes, Slaver of Monsters and Child of Water. After the two heroes had killed a monster, they hung his scalp on a tree and went off to tell their mother. They fainted; and to cure them of their "war sickness," she sprinkled an herbal concoction on them and shot an arrow over them.

After the patient had selected a Chanter to conduct the rites of the War Dance, those who have previously taken the cure or had war experience assist in the procedure. The rites vary in different districts of the reservation. Only the principal features are mentioned.

First, the Chanter's assistants prepare a yard-long wand of juniper or cedar, which has been trimmed so that only a bunch of leaves is left at the top. After it had been rubbed with deer fat and soot, a bow design is painted on it. Next, various decorations are added--turkey feathers; two eagle feathers; a spliced buckskin thong attached to the small toes of a deer; bunches of sage; a package of "medicine" containing magical objects with curative value; and in earlier years, the scalp of a foreigner. Reichard (1928:116) states that a bone from a ruin might be used; it is not clear, however, whether a bone from the ruins will serve when the War Dance is directed toward expelling the ghosts of "foreign enemies," or only when witches or other native enemies are being exorcised. The elaborate wand is finally decorated with red streamers which later are removed and presented to the guests, who welcome them because of their magical properties. They tie the streamers to the bridles of the horses, or the women treasure them to weave later into saddle blankets. For the three days of the chant, the wand is carried by a virgin who has been selected for the occasion.

The evening of the day when the wand was prepared, the men gather after dark to dance and sing. Two lines, each with a leader, face each other and take turns in chanting to the accompaniment of a pottery drum. Every night of the War Dance the picturesque "Squaw Dance," which has always aroused the interest of white spectators, may take place. Young girls choose men from the hundreds of visitors at the chant and urge them into the dancing place by tugging at their coats. The girl usually stands behind her partner and holds him by the coat as they shuffle back and forth a few times. To be released, the man pays a small sum of money. This little dance creates much amusement for the spectators.

At dawn of the second day the men divide into two parties and conduct a sham battle. In the afternoon, a minor rite, known as the "Mud Dance," may take place. Thirteen men daub themselves with mud and join the crowd, offering to cure the sick by tossing them in a blanket. This ceremony is said to have been learned from the Jemez (Reichard, 1928: 132).

At the ceremonial hogan the patient and the warriors prepare for further rites, while guests come in to leave presents, which later are thrown through the smoke hole and scattered amongst the crowd. At the western end of the hogan, opposite the door (which in any hogan faces east), sits the medicine man at an altar, preparing the soot with which the patient and his warrior attendants are to be blackened. A warrior who has killed an enemy is covered with the black substance to prevent the spirit of the dead from recognizing the killer.

The patient is then daubed with herbal mixtures, massaged, and painted. A tail feather of a roadrunner wrapped with eagle down is tied into the patient's hair; or a sacred deerskin bag containing pollen and feathers. After these rites, the patient puts on his silver jewelry and goes outside to attack and kill the ghost of the enemy who has caused the war sickness. When the unruly spirit has been overcome, the patient puts white clay on his body and shares with his warrior assistants a ceremonial repast of white cornmeal mush. For further information on the War Dance, which has frequently been described, see the Ethnologic Dictionary, 1910; Hill, 1936, (lists other sources); and Reichard, 1928.

NATC'IT Hill (1936) calls the natc'it the "gesture dance," or a victory celebration. He states (p.18): "When a Navaho was killed by an enemy a party was formed to avenge his death. If this party was victorious the leader would decide to give a natc'it. This ceremony was considered a 'tribal' affair and everyone assisted in building the ceremonial hogan. Next a patient was chosen. This was usually a warrior who had accomplished something notable in the battle. 'The patient was necessary because the Navaho cannot hold a ceremony without a patient.' A Hopi scalp was one of the essentials of the ceremony even though the victory was over another people. The hogan was built in the fall or winter and 'gesture dances' held at irregular intervals until spring.... The dancers performed around the edge of this crowd (of visitors) and when they came to a warrior they stamped their feet in front of him and called out his name. At other times the men and women formed opposing lines and danced backward and forward, the men singing and making obscene gestures.

"When spring came this 'gesture dance' was brought to a close by the performance of the 'present day War or Squaw Dance.' '... At the end of the War or Squaw Dance everyone took their digging sticks and began to plant the same day.'"

Hill goes on to say, "Reichard (1928:108-11) has described the natc'it as being primarily political in character and this may be true. However, my own informants denied that it has any such connotation. The above account certainly lacks any political phase and suggests rather an introduced ceremonial, probably a derivative of the Plains, which failed to be absorbed into Navaho culture. This was further substantiated by one informant who said, 'They dance this dance after a war. They used to make war in the north at that time. The Navaho were friends of and fought with the Utes.' The accounts of this ceremony are traditional. There is no one alive today who has ever seen the ritual performed.

There is a certain diversity of opinion among anthropologists, a Navaho informants, too, apparently, as to what the natc'it was. Reichard (1928:108) quotes Matthews as mentioning it as a ceremony lasting all winter and which was held for a prominent Navaho, Big Knee, presumably as a curative ceremony. According to Reichard's data, the natc'it was a tribal assembly, showing much Plains influence, held at two- or four-year intervals, or whenever the tribe faced a crisis caused by famine or by the need to organize for war. The assembly gathered for ceremonies occasionally through the winter, ending with the spring planting. Special brush hogans were built, with twelve Peace Chiefs living on the north side, twelve War Chiefs on the south. Women might be among the War Chiefs if they had been to war and had earned distinction. If the assembly was held because of famine, the Peace Chiefs piled up garden tools, lectured the people on farming, and conducted rites to bring good crops. In case of war, the War Chiefs led the assembly. Sick people might attend in order to be cured, but curing was an incidental purpose of the gathering.

The consistent elements regarding the natc'it thus appear to be that it was a ceremony, of Plains influence or origin, held at intervals during the winter, and involving some curative rites, and that it ended in time for the spring planting.

PEACEMAKING Peace Chiefs sent messengers to the enemy to arrange for a peace conference. The delegates smoked either pipes or cigarettes, according to their tribal customs. The Utes had long-stemmed pipes with the bowl resting on the toe of the smoker, whereas the Hopi were cigarette smokers. The versatile Navaho smoked either cigarettes or short, tubular pipes, adjusting their smoking to the customs of the negotiating tribe. Gifts and trading ended the sessions (Hill, 1936).

WAR NAMES AND NAMING Both women and men are sometimes given names referring to war. These names are usually kept secret, being revealed only in case of necessity. During the War Dance the family of the patient tells the Chanter the war name and he incorporates it into a song. For everyday reference to identify a person, the Navaho use nicknames and relationship terms, supplementing them with reference to the relative age of the individual. A person may be referred to as the son of such and such a man or woman; and if he is married and has children of his own, he may also be referred to as the father of such and such a child (Reichard 1928:100). "The name is part of one's personal power. 'It is not told in a person's presence. It should only be used in a tight pinch. When a person is in danger he may get out of it by having someone pronounce his name. Using the name wears it out."' (Ibid., p. 96). This applies to the names that suggest war. The repetition of the names of the gods and the secret names of animals to gain the attention of the supernatural beings, is a characteristic feature of Navaho mythology and chants.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Sat, Dec 9 2006 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home