Critical Essays Navajo Chants and Witchcraft


House Made of Dawn takes its title from a prayer that forms part of a long, extremely elaborate Navajo ritual, the Night Chant. This prayer, along with other texts and a volume of information about the Night Chant ceremony, was transcribed and edited during the 1890s by an army physician and self-trained anthropologist named Washington Matthews. Navajo chantways are not, like Pueblo agricultural ceremonies, tied to a seasonal cycle. They are specific for illnesses of various kinds, and how much of a given ceremony is performed for an individual may depend on several factors, including how much the patient's family can afford to pay. In House Made of Dawn, Abel is not treated with a full-fledged ceremonial performance, but is "sung over" informally and without public ceremony by Ben Benally; nevertheless, the power of the prayer's words is strong, returning at the healing moment of Abel's dawn run.

The need for Abel to have a ceremony is related to his status as a returning warrior. The figure of the warrior is central to much American Indian myth and storytelling. The warrior — and often warrior brothers or warrior twins — has an important place in traditional lore. House Made of Dawn emphasizes the unclean aspects of war-making: the pollution of mind and spirit that accompanies organized violence. Abel returns from war — drunk, alienated, and battered in spirit as he is later to be battered physically in the urban jungle of Los Angeles. Traditionally, a warrior needed to be cleansed and purified after his return home in order to keep the violence of combat from infecting the community and sometimes to neutralize or transform the power of the captured spoils. Certain Navajo ceremonials are carried out precisely for this purpose of purification after war; one of these is Blessingway, which some people say was in danger of dying out until after World War II, when so many returning veterans needed the ceremony that it was revived.

Benally mentions the Blessingway chant, but Momaday does not appear to draw on this ceremonial-which honors Changing Woman, the central figure of the Navajo pantheon — in House Made of Dawn.

References to another chant, however, are implicit in the text. The Mountain Chant, also mentioned by Benally, centers on the story of Changing Bear Maiden. After he remembers hearing Angela's tale of a woman who had mated with a bear, Benally briefly recounts this story of a woman who embodies the mystical power and strength of the bear. On his deathbed, one of Francisco's significant memories is of a bear hunt. The power of bears and bear shamanism is documented in all the circumpolar cultures-Siberian, Alaskan Eskimo, Scandinavian and Germanic, Greenland, and Lapp, and its southward distribution is noted in China, Europe, and down to South America. The governing myth of Mountainway, the story of Changing Bear Maiden, informs the references to bears and bear hunts as described and remembered by the characters in House Made of Dawn.

The two poetic translations incorporated into the text of House Made of Dawn are replete with references to specific elements of Navajo thought, myth, and tradition. In both texts, the balance of elements is essential. The first passage, from which the novel takes its title, emphasizes the balance of opposites throughout in its invocation of dawn/evening light, male rain/female rain, and so on. Male rain is sometimes characterized as a strong, pounding rain, and female rain as mist or standing water. Pollen and grasshoppers are part of the cycle of corn. Pollen is everywhere associated with growth, fruitfulness, new life, and holiness. Sprinkling pollen — whether corn pollen, cattail pollen, or pollen from other sources — is an integral part of many rituals. The prayer is sung as one of four honoring the presiding deities of the ceremonial. A "smoke" is referred to; according to the study by Washington Matthews, at certain points in the Night Chant ceremony a kind of cigarette is fashioned from a reed filled with tobacco and other herbs and smoked to cleanse the inner being of the patient. The invitation to the god suggests that the patient will be cured not merely of a specific ailment but will be restored throughout his body and, indeed, will be blessed with riches and long life.

The second poem refers to Turquoise Woman who, with her counterpart and sister, White Shell Woman, was one of the First People who fashioned the world at the dawn of creation. Belted Mountain may be one of the four sacred mountains in Navajo geography. These mountains are variously identified, although most identifications include Mount Taylor in New Mexico and the San Francisco peaks in northern Arizona. The mountains are alive; each is inhabited by an animating spirit, one of the gods or Holy People who also participated in the work of creation and who reappear in certain ceremonials to bless the people. Images like the rainbow, lightning, black clouds, and corn reappear in this poem also. Particularly significant is the rainbow, formed by the fusion of sunlight and water, which in Navajo philosophy serves as the bridge between heaven and earth, the pathway that is the correct and appropriate way of living for humans and their connection with the powers of the universe.

Benally also mentions Yeí bichai. These are the Holy People of Navajo religion. They include major deities like Talking God (also called Calling God), who figures importantly in the Nightway, and more recent additions to the pantheon who have less power and importance. Part of the realization of the Nightway ceremonial includes two representations of the Yeí bichai. Sand paintings are constructed depicting the Holy People; these paintings are considered to contain some of the power of the sacred personage, and the patient will enter the painting (thus destroying it) as part of the invocation to the spirits to enter and cleanse the patient. The Yeí bichai also take part, represented by dancers in costume and body paint, in the culminating dance of the final evening.

Witchcraft is important to the plot of House Made of Dawn, although the theme is not explored in detail. Various scholars have documented how pervasive and strong is belief in witches throughout different cultures of the Southwest. Most studies of the phenomenon among Pueblo Indians stress that witchcraft is not inherent in any being, human or otherwise, but that it is a misuse of sacred power that is morally neutral. Witches are believed to be able to change into the shapes of animals, and it is their motivation that renders their activities evil. They seek selfish, personal gain or simply malicious destruction. Hence, witches can be "just anybody," as one person described them; they are not essentially or purely evil, but are individuals with near-supernatural power, which they use for bad ends.

Tosamah's commentary on Abel's trial indicates that Abel had believed that the albino could turn into a snake, and Benally, reflecting how belief in witchcraft is easy to understand in the context of the remote, mysterious landscape of the reservation, mentions the kinds of catastrophes attributed to witches — crop failure, death of children, and unexplained changes in weather. However, the albino in House Made of Dawn is not associated, by Abel or anyone else, with any disasters or even mishaps that might be attributed to malevolent intentions. The witchcraft that Abel attributes to the albino is one of the most enigmatic points in a very ambiguous text.

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