Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 3

July, 1941


By Winifred S. Tillotson.

Little Natah-lee-has-pah was ill. Her big sister, Has-Pah, came running to me, tears rolling down her brown cheeks. "Oh, Mrs. Tillotson, my little sister is worse."

"Do you want me to go over?" I asked. "Yes, please", was the response. So we went to the near-by hogan, the home of Hosteen Tah-ya, the Navajo pesh-le-kai, or silversmith.

To those unfamiliar with the Navajo Indian my question might seem strange, since Has-pah's cry would surely be interpreted as an appeal for help. In the case of a white neighbor one would go immediately to the home of illness, asking no questions. But the Navajo is dignified and reticent. Furthermore, he has been subjected so frequently to the curiosity of the inquisitive tourist that he has wrapped his mantle of dignity and reticence even more closely about him, and he resents visitors entering his hogan, or home, uninvited.

Has-pah is my housemaid and very dear friend, and her family has also accepted me as a friend and advisor. Even so, knowing the Indians as I do, I never visit them without a special invitation.

When we entered the hogan the three months' old Natah-lee-has-pah lay on a mattress on the floor. She had a severe case of bronchitis, and she was whimpering. Her eyes rolled until nothing could be seen but the whites. She was breathing very heavily and coughing frequently. The mother sat on the floor. She had the most heartbroken expression I have ever seen. She had been sitting up with the child for three nights, and she was weary from anxiety and loss of sleep. In the hogan also were the father, the aunt and two older children, Kay-ah and Kadi-ash, aged 7 and 3 years, respectively. These brothers had bronchial colds.

A Navajo hogan is shaped like a large beehive. It is made of brush and logs thickly plastered with mud. The door always faces the east. The fire occupies the center of the one room, which is circular. The smoke floats around and finally drifts but of the large hole in the center of the roof.

Navajo working on sand painting

In Tah-ya's home there were two blanket-covered mattresses on the dirt floor. There was also a cot and a bench. On the walls were boxes containing food supplies. A haunch of mutton hung from one of the posts. Near the fire were some cooking pans and a bucket. All the cooking is done over the open fire, and the meals are eaten from the cooking pans, the family sitting on the floor in a circle with the food in the center.

While Tah-ya was telling me how sick his baby was - his older daughter, Has-pah, interpreting - the mother sat motionless, never taking her eyes from little Natah-lee-has-pah. Presently there came a knock at the door, and the white doctor was admitted. He had been attending the baby for several days, and seemingly the child was no better. On this visit he tried to tell the worried mother that in time the baby would get well. He had brought some medicine which he gave to Has-pah, with directions for caring for the child. While Has-pah and I were carrying out the doctor's orders the father paced the floor. He stopped finally beside the baby and uttered a few guttural Navajo words. He then turned and abruptly left the hogan. Has-pah looked at me somberly and said, "He has gone for the Navajo medicine men. He thinks my little sister will die unless the medicine men come to save her."

The father, fear and hope his companions, hastened out upon the Painted Desert, that weird colorful land of painted steppes. Meanwhile in the hogan we watched, and tried to ease the little sufferer. The nearly exhausted mother was finally persuaded to rest.

Just before sundown Tah-ya arrived with two medicine men, one an old man; the other, much younger. He had traveled miles over the sandy wastes and had arrived at the camp of the medicine men just as they were ready to move in search of fresh pasture for their sheep. The Navajo is a nomad, and he roams over his large reservation seeking the best feed for his flocks of sheep and goats.

At the sound of their arrival the mother roused, and she and Has-pah quickly turned over one of the mattresses. I couldn't see how any improvement was made by turning over a mattress already lying on a dirt floor. Yet that was the preparation for the coming of the sha-men. The medicine men entered the hogan and squatted cross-legged on the freshly turned mattress. There was not a word of greeting; only stoical silence. Nor was there a glance at the sick child. Sensing that I was considered an intruder, and that they would not begin their ceremonies in the presence of a white stranger, I slipped away.

Has-pah later told me that the younger of the two medicine men was the one whe could tell what was the matter with the sick child; he was the diagnostician. The Navajo believes that when a person is stricken with illness he is possessed by an evil spirit, and will not become well until that evil spirit is driven out. Has-pah told me that, according to the younger medicine man, her little sister's illness was caused by the mother's attendance at a sand painting ceremony two or three months before the child was born. The mother had attended that ceremony alone. Had her husband been with her no ill effects would have resulted. This explanation was accepted by the family.

That night the sha-men had a "sing" over Natah-lee-has-pah. Sitting by my own fireside, far into the night, I could hear the beating of the tom-toms, and fragments of the weird chant in the neighboring hogan. Shortly after sunrise Has-pah knocked at my bedroom door to inform me that as a special favor, and because I was a particular friend of the family, the sha-men had consented to allow me to witness the making of the ceremonial sand painting. Knowing the Navajo beliefs and the reverence with which this religious ceremony is regarded; and knowing also that few members of the white race are so favored, I realized that this was indeed an expression of friendship and trust.

The deer of the hogan was closed. Has-pah tapped lightly, and the child, Kay-ah, let us in. The mother, in her picturesque garb of velveteen blouse, full calico skirt, buckskin moccasins and strings of turquoise and silver, sat on the floor as usual. Now, however, she was holding little Natah-lee-has-pah in her arms. There seemed no change in the condition of the patient, but the mother had lost her look of hopelessness, and her expression seemed to say, "all will be well now." The two medicine men and the father were kneeling on the floor. In front of them was a large rectangle of dry sand, about 3 feet wide, 5 feet long, and 3 inches deep. This had been smoothed by the broad battens that the mother used in weaving. At the sides of the sand oblong were little piles of colored sands, white, yellow, red, black, and a bluish grey. These pigments represent the five sacred colors of Navajo mythology. The white, yellow and red were of finely powdered sandstone; the black, of powdered charcoal mixed with sandstone; and the blue-grey, of black and white mixed.

The younger medicine man and the father were making the sand painting. The older sha-man seemed to be directing the work. They would pick up a small quantity of sand between their first and second fingers and thumb, and allow it to flow slowly as they moved their hands. As each took up his pinch of powder, he blew on his fingers to prevent adhering particles from falling on the painting. Tah-ya, the father, looked up at me, and I seemed to see a twinkle in his eye. He spoke in Navajo to Has-pah whe laughed and, turning to me, said, "My father wants to know if Mrs. Tillotson thinks he is eating the sand." The Navajo is reserved and dignified, but upon acquaintance he is often gay and even humorous.

They began their drawing near the center. They drew two gods, first the bodies, then the clothes. When they made a mistake they did not brush away the colored powder, but obliterated it by pouring white sand upon it, then making the design anew. At the bottom of the painting there was a black border which they told me represented their sacred home of the gods, Navajo Mountain. The two gods, male and female, ware represented as standing on this mountain. The zig-zag lines enbordering the two sides and extending across the bottom above the black border represented lightning.

This explanation was given to me: Long ago before human beings were created, the gods roamed over the earth, living where we now live. Later when we were created the gods retired to Navajo Mountain, where they now reside. From this mountain they watch over us and guard us from danger, and when the evil spirits take possession of our bodies and minds, if we show the gods that we need their help, and pray to them, they drive out the evil spirits and make us whole again. Navajo Mountain is therefore the Navajo Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods. To all Navajos disease means the presence of an evil spirit. Practically all their religious ceremonies are for healing the sick.

The drawing and coloring was done by spreading handfuls of colored sands, and outlining the figures with delicate lines. Many helpers are needed on an important subject, since it must be started after sunrise and completed and destroyed before sunset. This art, symbolical rather than pictorial, has been handed down from one generation of medicine men to another. No material record is kept of the paintings or chants, the memory of the sha-men being the sole medium of perpetuation.

The sand painting made in Tah-ya's hogan was a small one and was completed in about two hours. Then the mother with the sick babe in her arms was seated in the center of the sand painting. The two medicine men, with rattles made of brilliantly painted gourds, danced around her, chanting. The chant was a prayer to the gods that the evil spirit be driven out and the sick child healed. They kept up the chant for two hours. Then, gathering the sands of the painting in a blanket, they carried them to the door of the hogan and scattered them to the four winds.

Thus was completed the ceremonial which in the minds of Tah-ya and his family saved the baby. Natah-lee-has-pah improved imediately. Her eyes cleared, her cough disappeared, and in a very few days she was a smiling happy baby. Today she is the picture of health, bright shining eyes, fat rosy cheeks, and sturdy body. Whether she would have recovered without the aid of the sha-men no one can tell. But her father and mother know that it was only through the medicine men with their sand painting, chants, and prayers that their baby was saved.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005