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The Navajo Mountain Chant is held in Arizona, nine days at the end of winter. Since March 21st is usually the beginning of Spring (thus the end of winter) I am assuming that this is usually held then on March 30th?  Basically, this observance marks the seasonal transition. It happens at the end of the thunderstorms but before the spring winds come.  The Navajo believe that if this ceremony was held at any other time, it would result in death from lightning or snake bite.  The chant is also considered a curing ceremony, not only for physical healing in those that are ill, but also to heal relationship disharmony and restore balance in relationships.

This ceremony goes back to the legend of Dsilyi Neyani, the oldest son of a wandering Navajo family.  One day while hunting, he gets captured by the Utes.  He escapes with the help of the Gods (called Yei).  During the long journey to return back to his family, he faces many hazards, learning a lot about magic and ceremonial acts.  A few examples are that he learns how to make sand paintings, to do the feathers dance, swallowing arrows, how to make a weasel appear and other magic, how to handle fire without getting burnt how to make the mystical "hu-hu-hu" cry that is used in the Mountain Chant dance.

When Dsilyi does return to his family, he discovers they've grown into an entire tribe. It takes Dsilyi 4 days and 4 nights to tell everyone what he's gone through and learnt during his absence from them.  But, it's the rituals that he brings back that messengers are sent out to invite more people to come see them and hear what he has learnt.  Today, this still holds true and visitors are more than welcome to experience the Mountain Chant.

Although it's called the Mountain Chant, it really consists of four different ceremonies, all based on the legend of Dsilyi.  But, these all differ in their presentation and interpretation. The wording of the songs that are sung vary.  The most moving ceremony of all is on the last day. This is when the medicine man emerges (from the hogan or lodge) at sunset and starts to chant, while the circle of evergreens rises as if by magic.  This circle is approximately 8 to 10 feet tall, each hiding a man inside who is handling it.  The evergreens form a circular enclosure about 100 feet in diameter.  There is only one opening and that is on the East side. All the ground inside this evergreen circle is considered sacred.  In the center there is also a cone-shaped bonfire.

The bonfire is then lit.  Dancers have pre-whitened their bodies with clay.  They rush into the circle, leaping and waving their arms and legs wildly. They circle the bonfire first from south to west to north and then south again.  The white clay that they put on their bodies is believed to protect them from the flames of the fire.  Sometimes sumac wands tipped with wings of fluffy eagle down are thrown into the fire.  This down flares briefly (a lot like pine cones do in a fire) and then burns away.  The dancers hide a second ring of fluff, which they shake to the ends of their wands.  This creates the illusion that the fluffy eagle down has been magically restored.  There is another illusion called the "yucca trick" in which a yucca plant appears to grow miraculously from a bare root, then blossoms and finally shows its fruit.

The Fire Dance takes place just before dawn, when the central bonfire has now burnt down to embers.  Young men drag in huge trees to feed the central fire again and the dancers make a sound with their tongues that imitates the sound of a hot fire.  Then they carry a lot of shredded cedar bark that is started on fire by the coals that are at the base of this fire.  Once these bundles of cedar are burning, they are tossed over the fence to the east and then in the other three directions. Men dance again in a circle around the fire, beating their own bodies as well as each other's bodies with the flaming brands.  Later on, spectators gather up bits of the burned cedar as a protection for them against fire during the coming year.

The Mountain Chant was made into a movie in 1926 by Roman Hubbell.  The star was named "Crawler" because he was paralyzed from the waist down (supposedly while attempting to learn the Navajo Night Chant).  But his disability did not prevent him from learning and performing the Navajo Mountain Chant.

Circle of Evergreens

The very first Circle of Evergreens was 6 miles in diameter and crowed with people! Today, it is not this large of an event.  But, the dark circle of evergreens is still a very important part of this event.  The trees represent both the black and blue spruce, mentioned in the legend of Dsilyi Neyani.  The songs sung during the Mountain Chant reveal that the black symbolizes the male and the blue symbolizes the female.  This is why the pairing of the colors blue and black is common in Navajo.  Black is also associated with the north, the direction where evil and danger are believed to dwell.  Blue is associated with the south. In the Mountain Chant, the home of the mountain sheep consist of two black rooms and two blue rooms.

Fire

Fire symbolizes annihilation to the Navajo people (as with most Native American tribes that believe in magic). Fire is felt to burn away evil.  And, the ability to tolerate the exposure to extreme heat during the Fire Dance on the last night of the ceremony is said to symbolize one's ability to control fire; or, in other words, to control evil in your life.

Plumbed Arrow

One of the most important dances during the Mountain Chant is called the Dance of the Great Plumbed Arrow.  These plumbed arrows are considered the most sacred of healing devices.  The dance itself has a little trick to it.  Each dancer will hold his arrow up over the "patient" who is being cured by this ceremony.  Then the dancer thrusts this arrow down his own throat, which causes the spectators to gag in sympathy.  But, what really happens is this "sword swallowing" or arrow is really done by holding the arrowhead between the teeth and running the shaft of the arrow into a hollow casing.  The patient is then touched with the arrows, which are believed to chase evil from the body.

Sand Paintings

The sand paintings are done before the Mountain Chant ceremony starts.  A large is first covered with very fine sand, which is smoothed out as flat as possible to become the canvas.  More than one man will work on the sand painting. It may be as many as a dozen at once. Each man lets colored sand (red, blue, yellow and white) dribble through their fingers to form their desired patterns.  It's the medicine man's job to oversee this process.  He is also the quality control man and is quick to point out any errors because one little mistake can undermine the effectiveness of the entire ceremony.

The sand painting is an important role in the healing process.  The hogan or lodge is a typical Navajo building with earth walls reinforced by timbers.  When a patient is admitted into the hogan, the medicine man then starts to chant.  When he is done chanting, he will then sprinkle the patient and the sand painting also with a feather dipped in water.  He will then take sand from various parts of the sand painting and apply it to parts of the patient's body.  Spectators are also allowed to take sand and touch their own bodies with it, so they can share in the cure.  Afterward, the sand painting is destroyed and the sand taken away.

What are these sand paintings of?  Typically, they represent events in the legend of Dsilyi Neyani.  One example is a sand painting of four figures known as the Long Bodies who helped Dsilyi during his long trek home.  The black long body is said to belong to the north, the white one which is under it belongs to the east, the blue one is next meaning the south and the bottom one which is yellow represents the west.

The Night Chant

Happily may I walk.
May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.

See our page regarding the Navajo Night Chant or Nightway.

 

Return to our March Holidays Listings page.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

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