Navajo - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Navajo gods and other supernatural powers are many and varied. Most important among them are a group of anthropomorphic deities, and especially Changing Woman or Spider Woman, the consort of the Sun God, and her twin sons, the Monster Slayers. Other supernatural powers include animal, bird, and reptile spirits, and natural phenomena or wind, weather, light and darkness, celestial bodies, and monsters. There is a special class of deities, the Yei, who can be summoned by masked dancers to be present when major ceremonies are in progress. Most of the Navajo deities can be either beneficial or harmful to the Earth Surface People, depending on their caprice or on how they are approached. Navajo mythology is enormously rich and poetically expressive. According to basic cosmological belief, all of existence is divided between the Holy People (supernaturals) and the Earth Surface People. The Holy People passed through a succession of underworlds, each of which was destroyed by a flood, until they arrived in the present world. Here they created First Man and First Woman, the ancestors of all the Earth Surface People. The Holy People gave to the Earth Surface People all the practical and ritual knowledge necessary for their survival in this world and then moved away to dwell in other realms above the earth. However, they remain keenly interested in the day-to-day doings of the Earth Surface People, and constant attention to ceremonies and taboos is required in order to keep in harmony with them. The condition of hozoji, or being in harmony with the supernatural powers, is the single most important ideal sought by the Navajo people.
Religious Practitioners. The most respected of Navajo Ritual practitioners are called "singers." These are men (or, very occasionally, women) who can perform in their entirety one or more of the major Navajo ceremonies. They are not shamans but priests who have acquired their knowledge and skills through long apprenticeship to an established singer. They are the most highly respected individuals in traditional Navajo society and frequently act as informal community leaders. Men with a lesser degree of ritual knowledge who can perform only short or incomplete ceremonies are referred to by another term, which might be translated as "curers." There is in addition a special class of diagnosticians, or diviners, who use various shamanistic techniques to discover the source of a person's illness or misfortune and who then prescribe the appropriate ceremonial treatment.
Ceremonies. In aboriginal times there were important Navajo ceremonies connected with war, hunting, agriculture, and the treatment of illness. In the reservation period, nearly all of the major public ceremonies have come to focus on curing in the broadest sense—that is, on the restoration of harmony with the supernaturals. There are, or have been, at least sixty major ceremonies, most of which involve an intricate combination of songs, prayers, magical rituals, the making of prayer-sticks and other paraphernalia, and the making of an elaborate dry-painting using colored sands. Masked dancers also play a part in some ceremonies. Ceremonies may last for two, three, five, or nine nights, depending partly on the Seriousness of the condition being treated.
Arts. The artistic creativity of the Navajo finds expression in a wide variety of media, including poetry, song, dance, and costume. The most celebrated of Navajo artistic productions are the brightly colored rugs woven by women, and the intricate dry-painting designs executed by the singers as a part of each major ceremony. Dry-paintings were traditionally destroyed at the conclusion of each ceremony, but permanent reproductions of many of the designs are now being made on boards for sale commercially. In the present century, a number of Navajo have also achieved recognition as painters and have set up commercial studios in various western cities.
Medicine. In traditional Navajo belief, all illness or misfortune arises from transgressions against the supernaturals or from witchcraft. Consequently, medical practice is essentially synonymous with ceremonial practice. There are particular kinds of ceremonies designed to treat illnesses caused by the patient's transgressions, by accidents, and by different kinds of witchcraft. Apart from ceremonial practices, there was formerly a fairly extensive materia medica of herbs, potions, ointments, and fumigante, and there were specialists who collected and applied these.
Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, Navajo were morbidly afraid of death and the dead and spoke about them as little as possible. The dead were buried promptly and without public ceremony, although a great many ritual taboos were observed by the close kin of the deceased and by those who handled the corpse. Ideas about the afterlife were not codified in a Systematic way, but varied from individual to individual. There was no concept of rewards and punishments for deeds done in this life; it seems that the afterworld was not thought of as a happy or desirable place for anyone.