Long ago Barry and I began asking people who bring art into Twin Rocks Trading Post if there is any symbolism or special significance associated with their work. As anyone who has been in the trading business will tell you, American Indian art is steeped in tradition. As a result, even the most innocuous geometric patterns may have deep meaning. We are, therefore, constantly inquiring, “What does it mean?”
Mary Black & Lalana @ Twin Rocks Trading Post.
Often the artists simply chuckle at the questions, evidencing our general lack of understanding. There are times, however, when these inquiries uncover volumes of information. This additional knowledge has helped us understand the extremely complicated local cultures. It has also taught us a lot about our own traditions and allowed us to build stronger relationships with the people around us.
One example of this occurred last week when Mary Holiday Black came in with her latest weaving. It was Mary who instilled this curiosity in us when she brought in her Fire Dance basket several years ago. As she laid out the message of that weaving, Barry and I were amazed to have stumbled onto such important information about an almost extinct ceremony. At that point we were hooked.
This time, after she had secured the Kokopelli doors against the howling spring winds that persistently blew red sand high into the atmosphere, Mary unveiled a relatively simple basket adorned with brown, orange and yellow lines spiraling out from the center. “What does it mean?” I asked as Priscilla and I peered at the weaving through our reading glasses. “Ndilnihii,” Mary said. “Hand trembler,” Priscilla interpreted.
Although I tried to make sense of the design, I finally concluded it was purely abstract. Mary explained the pattern was one she had been taught as a young girl, when she was just learning to weave. She had not recreated it for several decades, but had recently determined it was time to reach back into the past for inspiration.
The Navajo believe their people must live in harmony with nature. This state of being is generally referred to as hozho. When someone becomes ill they are said to be out of balance and often go to a medicine man to discover the source of their imbalance. The medicine man can be either a hand trembler, a crystal gazer or a star gazer. This ndilnihii diagnoses the source of affliction through prayer, concentration and the sprinkling of sacred corn pollen, which causes the ndilnihii ‘s hand to tremble. The medicine man then passes his shaking hand over the patient’s body as he prays to Gila Monster. Diagnosis comes either through interpretation of the tremors or as a direct revelation from Gila Monster.
Once the origin of the problem is determined, the patient engages a hataalii, who treats the individual using herbs and one of approximately 23 different sings, including the Flint Way, Evil Way, Monster Way and the more widely known Yei-be-chei. Priscilla says this process is like going to a family practice doctor who then refers you to a specialist.
Interestingly the Veterans Administration in Phoenix, Arizona has approved the treatment of Navajo warriors returning home by the ndilnihii and hataalii. The government will now reimburse the veterans for all or part of the cost of nine ceremonies which are intended to restore hozho in the returning soldiers.
By the end of Mary’s explanation my hands were trembling, with excitement. The diagnosis: Our basket affliction, although incurable, is usually not fatal.
With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.