Friday, December 18, 2009

The Navajo War Dance

Older Navajo people did not generally have access to medicines that could heal severe ailments. Mountain tobacco, herbs and a few salves often defined their medical kits. What they did have in their arsenal, however, and what they relied upon heavily, was psychology. Early on medicine men realized that by healing the mind they accomplished miracles with the body. Severe ailments were mostly unmanageable, but a measure of comfort was obtainable using these psychological treatments. Sacred ceremony was primarily effective in helping a patient heal after an emotionally damaging occurrence. One of the most effective ceremonies of this type is the war dance, which is also known as the enemy way.

Navajo Enemy Way Basket

The Navajo war dance is intended heal the battle-scared minds of Navajo warriors returning from hostile interaction with a foreign foe. It is also believed to be effective to those who struggle with ghosts of a perceived enemy. Navajo families decide if an individual is in need of the ceremony, and if a healing is deemed necessary they contact a medicine man to initiate the process. The initial treatment requires blackening the patient with soot and ash to the point where a ghost or ghost-like enemy has difficulty recognizing him under this cover of darkness. If there is a noticeable improvement, the full ceremony is commenced. At that point a new hogan must be built and a scalp obtained. A chosen member of the tribe or a close family member is sent on the warpath to gather an article associated with the ghost. This "scalp" is rolled onto a stick and carefully returned to a protected point near the newly built hogan.

Any war dance requires at least two singers; the first prepares and decorates a rattle stick and the second receives the stick at a separate location. The stick is created from a specially chosen cedar or juniper limb which is chanted over while it is cut. As prescribed by the Hero Twin Monster Slayer, a small but precise ceremony is undertaken to decorate the stick, which is representative of all vegetation. The stick is bound with buckskin and trimmed with grass, plants, sage and turkey feathers. Eagle tail feathers, deer hooves and strands of red yarn are also attached. The yarn is for the women, and represents blood cleansing the earth to make it more productive during planting and harvesting. A sacred water drum is also an essential element of the war ceremony. The drum is used to beat the ghosts of the enemy into the ground. With the aid of the drum, the first singer sings coyote, owl and burrowing owl songs.

When the rattle is complete, the patient grasps it firmly and the singer sings a song to begin the process of carrying it away. When the song is complete, the patient or a chosen representative will take the stick, mount a horse and deliver the stick to another home where the second medicine man waits to receive it. The second medicine man inhales the breath of the stick, which indicates his acceptance of the rattle. This activity begins the three nights which comprise the war dance. Those participating at the second camp will mark themselves accordingly and take up their own water drum to begin more singing. The singer in the second camp is now in charge, and chooses a young, unmarried, reliable girl to be the stick carrier and leader of the girl dancers.

Legend tells us that in the first war dance two girls were sent out to meet the warriors returning from war on Taos Pueblo. The girls encircled each warrior, beginning with the leader and proceeding down the entire line. Upon reaching the last man, they returned in like fashion. The girls of the present day represent these two young women. In modern dances, each girl selects a man from the crowd and, standing behind him, moves him in a circle once or twice and then reverses the motion. The female stick carrier continues to guard the stick, and the drum is beaten during the songs. It is said that in the first war dance warriors promised the two girls that their wishes for a better, more productive earth would be fulfilled. The warriors told them that regardless of the blood covering it from the war on Taos, the stick would produce vegetation and the girls would be in charge of rain. Therefore the girls must not release their partners without a gift from him. The two camps merge into one during the girls' dance.

During the morning of the first day, friends and relatives provide small gifts to be thrown through the smoke hole of the hogan while a serenade is sung. An oversize cigarette is provided the drummer, and an auction or gift swap is enacted. The small gifts represent booty taken in war, while the exchange represents the initiation of peace. A serenade is sung to the stick receiver, who then throws the gifts out of the smoke hole. This distribution of gifts to the serenaders and the public expresses the tribe's joy and appreciation for restoration of the earth’s productivity. The party bringing the stick from the patient’s camp now returns to the first hogan. They enter, circle the fire twice in a counterclockwise position and settle in. A scalp shooter must be secured and a singer for the concluding songs of the entire ceremonial must be agreed upon. A crow bill must then be made for the patient. A buckskin from a strangled deer, one not wounded by an arrow or pierced by a bullet, must be secured. Three ceremonial baskets are sought, one for the hair bath, one to contain an emetic and the third to contain a no-cedar mush.

On the second night of the ceremony, the singer sings selected songs, and the receiver's camp prepares to move. At the approaching dawn, both singers and camps begin the ceremony anew. With the aid of the ceremonial baskets, there is a cleansing and the emetic is prepared. The patient drinks the emetic and dispels the enemy ghost as the sun rises. When the sun is fairly high in the sky, the crowd begins to move from the receiver’s camp to the first camp. The girl carries the stick, a man holds the pot drum. When close to the camp, the patient enters the first hogan and horsemen go out to meet the crowd, discharging their guns. The receiver’s party also discharge their guns and both parties begin chasing one another in a wide circle around the hogan. They repeat this four times, after which the receiver’s party makes camp some distance from the first hogan. Food is served, representing the meal brought to the Black God at the first war dance.

The serenade is re-initiated, new gifts are flung from the smoke hole and the gift exchange or auction is concluded. The drummer is given an over-sized cigarette and relieved of duty. Feathers and vegetation are burned and tallow and red ocher are added. The substance is used to blacken the patients face in preparation of the attack on the scalp. The individual shooting the scalp and the patient's wife must be blackened. The blackening of the woman represents the restoration of the earth's productivity. Shoulder bands and wristlets representing paraphernalia of the Hero Twins are provided to the patient. The patient is also provided a decorated crow bill, which is used as an instrument to help kill the ghost of the scalp. During the singing, yucca fronds tied into knots are cut at parts of the body where ghosts can be dispelled. At this point a scalp shooter is employed. He may use a gun or an arrow to shoot at the scalp that was kept safely outside the hogan. Ashes are then thrown upon it. The patient and a couple of aids poke the scalp with the crow's bill saying; "It is dead. It is dead!" They walk away, turn their shoulder straps in the opposite direction, face the sun and inhale its breath four times. The entire gathering then inhales the breath of the sun four times. The men and women separate into distinct quarters. Others may shoot at the scalp if they choose, but the patient has concluded his attack.

After the scalp shooter has strewn the scalp with ashes and the attack on it has been concluded he carries it into the circle of dancers who face the enemy. The end men draw the circle eastward, away from the hogan entrance. This formation puts the scalp in the center, and leaves just a small opening between the two end men. Some fifteen songs mention the distant enemy’s name and motion or order him into the ground, ridding the warrior most effectually of his enemy. After the conclusion of these songs, ashes are again strewn upon the scalp and around the hogan by the scalp shooter, who now carries it out of the dance circle some distance away. The end man at the south now swings around counterclockwise to the north and the entire group of dancers face the hogan entrance. This symbolizes the return from war, originally from Taos, now any war or harmful encounter. The songs sung facing the hogan express rejoining. They tell how the warrior defeated his enemy. They shout his name out in public, something that is never done in private life.

On the last night the two singers retire and the conductor of ceremonies and the stick receiver take charge. Those who were blackened are released by untying their wristlets and removing the shoulder bands and plumes. Songs are sung as the sun dips lower in the sky and the group moves towards the hogan. They form a line with the stick carrier at one side of the entrance, the drummer at the other side, and the stick receiver immediately behind these two. As soon as the song is concluded the patient shoves a basket out bellow the entrance curtain. The stick receiver picks it up and tosses it in the air with a shout in which the entire group joins. He then sits down facing the curtain with the basket turned bottom up before him. He clasps his hands during four songs which he sings, slapping the basket with his hands. He then sings the four first songs again. When these are finished, the pot drum is brought out from the hogan and the people begin sway-singing. The basket is given as a gift to the stick receiver.

This sway-singing continues at the hogan for a time, after which the stick receiver’s party moves their drum to their camp and continues to sing and dance. About midnight, the hogan party carries their drum to the receiver’s camp, where both drums are retired. Fire may be set to the wood pile. The girl carries the stick out, and other girls follow her bringing the remaining men to dance. This continues until the night is fairly well advanced. Then the stick receiver takes the rattle stick and stands in the center of a sway-singing group with it for the rest of the night. At dawn the singer of the hogan ceremonies leads the patient outside. He eats pollen and throws a portion to the four sacred directions as an offering. The singer then asks the stick carrier to conclude the ceremonial and again intones the four opening songs, the first of which he concludes, while the stick receiver finishes the other three. When these are finished, the patient makes a pollen offering and inhales dawn’s breath four times, then all return to their own side of the living quarters. When the stick receiver’s party moves camp and returns home one of them disposes of the rattle stick in the prescribed manner with song and prayer. The stick is never used again.

This is a basic explanation of a highly elaborate ceremony. I have been informed that Navajo medicine men, based upon their attachment to different areas of the Reservation, practice numerous variations on the theme. The basic implication of the war dance describes a ceremony that focuses on the mental health and well-being of loved ones. This is brought about through sacred ceremony initiated and carried out by family and friends. There is also a conscious awareness of their close, symbiotic relationship to Mother Earth. Here at Twin Rocks Trading Post we wish you the best of the Holiday Season. We wish you the love and hope the spirit of the season has to offer. We pray that you are surrounded by the love of family and friends, that your ghosts are exorcised, that the earth embraces you and that the breath of the sun fills you with youth and vigor. Be well and prosper.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

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