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(or Nightway)



The Navajo Night Chant (or Nightway) goes back around 1000 b.c.e. when it was first performed by the Indians that lived in the Canyon de Chelly, known today as eastern Arizona.  It is celebrated in late fall or early winter for 9 days.  We have chosen to put it in the month of November, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is always celebrated in this month.

origins 13

This is the most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies. It is also the most technically difficult and demanding to learn.  This is because it involves memorizing literally hundreds of songs, dozens of prayers and several very complicated and intricate sand paintings.  In spite of this, the demand for Night Chants remains great. And, as many as 50 ceremonies might be held during one season, which lasts 18-20 weeks.

Just like the Navajo Mountain Chant, the Night Chant is basically a healing ritual.  The intention is to either heal those that are sick, and/or, to restore order and balance to relationships within the Navajo universe.  

The Night Chant is lead by a trained Medicine Man (doctor-priest) who has had a long apprenticeship and learned the intricate and detailed practices that are essential to the chant.  The ceremony uses techniques that shock and arose in order to scare off sicknesses and ugliness.  Once disorder is gone, then order and balance are restored through song, prayer, sand painting and other aspects of the ceremony.

Young children undergo a tribal initiation before the chant takes place. They are striped of their clothing and struck with a yucca whip.  Young boys are then allowed to see the "Gods", which are the dancers who impersonate the gods,  by having them remove their masks for the first time. The girls are not whipped.  Instead, they are touched with ears of corn covered with sprays of spruce.

Rehearsals have been going on at the lodge.  On the day of the chant, crowds will gather outside this lodge. But, the outdoor area where the actual ceremony takes place is cleared of all spectators. Many fires are also lit to take the chill out of the cool night air.  As I said, the dancers represent the gods.  They are led in by the medicine man and Hastse-yalti (the maternal grandfather of the gods) along a path of meal that has been laid down for them to follow.

The patient then emerges from the lodge, sprinkles the gods with meal from his or her basket and gives each one a sacrificial cigarette.  The medicine man then intones a very long prayer for this patient, repeating each phrase 4 times.  Then the 4 gods dance, with Hastse-yalti moving in rhythm back and forth and hooting at the end of every verse to show his approval.

The original Night Chant was composed of 4 teams who danced 12 times each with half-hour intervals in between.  This is a total of 10 hours! Today there are just so many teams dancing that there is no time for any intermissions. The dance movements are a lot like the Virginia Reel, with two lines facing each other.  Each of the 6 male dancers takes his female partner, dances with her to the end of the line, drops her there and then moves back to his own side.

The chant is performed without any variation and has a hypnotic effect on the listeners.  Relief is provided by the rainmaker-clown named Tonenili, who sprinkles water around and engages in other playful antics. (This is the only relief this chant gets!)

The medicine men who supervise the Night Chant *INSIST* that everything...
...each dot and line in every sand painting,
...each verse in every song,
...each feather on each mask,
be arrange in
*EXACTLY* the same way each time the curing ceremony is performed or it will not bring about the desired result!

Today there are probably as many active Night Chant medicine men in Navajo history because of the general population increase in the Navajo nation. Because of this,  and the central role it plays in their lives and health, has made the Night Chant very popular today. But, it seems to be a dying art.  It's getting harder and harder to find apprentices who want to learn the elaborate rituals and become a medicine man.  A typical medicine man will earn $500-$1,000 for a 9-day Night Chant. However, compensation often comes not in money, but as livestock, baskets, cloth, jewelry, blankets, buckskin and food for the duration of the ceremony.

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The Night Chant has approximately 24 masks.  The ceremony can be done with less, however.  The masks are worn by the dancers who impersonate the gods in their rituals usually on the 9th day of the ceremony.  Some of the gods are:

Calling God
Gray God
Whistling God
Whipping God
Humpedback God

The masks for those gods are ordinary male gods with special ornaments attached at the time of the ceremony.  But, some of the other masks are the yellow and blue Fringed Mouth of the Water mask, the Black and Red God masks, the Monster Slayer masks and the Born for Water mask.

The masks are also important to the application of many "medicines" to the patient. And, they play a vital role in the initiation of the young.  The female goddess masks are really worn by men because women are not allowed to minister to the person for whom the chant is being sung.

The masks in the Night Chant are made of sacred buckskin, which must be obtained without shedding the animal's blood! This is done by chasing the deer into a blind, throwing it to the ground and smothering it by stuffing sacred meal into it's nostrils.  Buckskin is a symbol of life to the Navajo.

Another name for the sacred bundle is jish, and it is made up of ceremonial items like bags of pollen, feathers, skins, stones, pieces of mountain sheep horn. Also inside is a piece of flint horn that is believed to belong to the Monster Slayer god.  There are also gourd rattles and  the sacred buckskin masks worn by the God Impersonators.  

This sacred bundle is the property of the medicine man. Although he might carry other necessary things in his jish like incense, spruce collars and ground pigments (used in sand paintings), these aren't considered part of the "sacred bundle" of stuff.  Most of the items in the jish are permanent and are not used up during the Night Chant ceremony.

sand paintings

Just like in the Navajo Mountain Chant, sand paintings are important in the healing rituals in the Night Chant too.  There are 12 different sandpaintings that are appropriate for the Night Chant ceremony, of which half are usually chosen (4 large, 2 small).  The patient (and family members) usually have input into which sand paintings are used.  Each sand painting is associated with a particular story and is accompanied by specific songs, prayers and ceremonial procedures. Standard designs for the Night Chant are: First Dancers, Whirling Logs, Water Sprinkles, Fringed Mouth Gods, Black Gods and Corn people.

The medicine man rarely is the one who makes the sand paintings. But, he is the one responsible for overseeing their preparation.  It's the assistants who do the actual painting by dribbling small amounts of colored sand through their fingers onto a smooth surface.  Remember, these must be PERFECT!!!
There can be no deviations from the design set down by the gods.

Every detail in each sand painting has a meaning.  For example: If the plumes on the heads of the figures are on the same side as the rattle, it means that rain is desired. But, if they are on the opposite side from the hand holding the rattle, it means that the growth of corn is the desired outcome.

The whole purpose of these sand paintings is to allow the patient to absorb the powers depicted in them.  The patient does this by sitting or sleeping on it. The medicine man will apply items from his jish (sacred bundle) to the gods that are depicted in the sand painting.  Then he'll do it  to the corresponding part of the patient's body.

It is considered wrong --- if not dangerous --- to reproduce these sand paintings in any way, because they might attract the attention of the gods to a situation where no real healing is intended! So, sketching and photographing them is prohibited!  Sometimes, however, this prohibition can be avoided by removing the prayer-plumes that are set around the sand painting; or, by just omitting some other detail so that the painting isn't really "finished."

Return to our November Holidays Page for more celebrations.

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

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