Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Navajo Indian Mountain Chant and Dance


This paper is a most important contribution explanatory of the philosophy of the North American Indians. It gives in detail, as seen by a thoroughly equipped witness, one of the most illustrative of the ceremonies of the Navajo, a large body of Indians on the Athabascan linguistic stock now occupying a reservation which embraces parts of New Mexico and Arizona, though until a period commencing less than fifty years ago the range of these people extended much farther south. The essay is divided into (1) a translation, with incidental explanations of the myth on which the ceremonies are based, (2) the ceremonies themselves, including the mythological sand paintings, and (3) the originals and translations of the songs and prayers used in the ceremonies, which all refer to the myth. This myth exhibits the stage in mythological philosophy in which zootheism and physitheism are both represented. In it the phenomena of nature are the work of animal gods, but these gods are becoming anthropomorphic. A strong general resemblance appears between this myth and those recorded from Algonkian and Iroqnoian sources.
  In its briefest expression the myth of Dsilyi' Neyani shows his captivity among the Ute, his escape by the intervention of gods, and his travels, sufferings, and adventures in regaining his home, all of which, under divine guidance, were in the nature of an initiation into religious rites, with the injunction that these should be communicated by him to his people. Shortly after his return, having performed his duty as teacher or prophet, he disappeared to rejoin the gods, in accordance with their promise made to him during his initiatory travels. It would be impossible, without elaborating a commentary upon the text nearly equaling it in length, to point out the numerous essential similarities to be found in it with the myths of the Egyptians, the Hindus, the Greeks, and other still better known peoples, as recorded and discussed in modern literature. It is sufficient now to invite attention to the instructive evidence of similarity in the state of mythological philosophy coming from a before unexplored source and only modified by the readily understood differences of environment.
     That the myth is of great antiquity is shown by the archaic character of the language employed and by the references to obsolete customs; yet there are contained in it some passages and incidents obviously modern, for instance, the allusion to horses. It is not a cosmogony myth, though it is partly a myth of tribal history commencing at a time when the Navajo had become a distinct people ; but it is in a large degree a myth of religion, in the strict sense of that term as comprehending the relations of man to occult powers and the practices connected with such relations. The Navajo have an entirely distinct creation myth, which is long and elaborate and which Dr. Matthews has obtained and will publish hereafter. The ceremonial, lasting nine days, is one of many among the Navajo, seventeen, each of nine days' duration, being known to survive. This people, like other bodies of North Ameri can Indians, devote their winters to religion, mysticism, and symbolism, by which their whole lives and thoughts are imbued to an extent difficult to realize in modern civilization. This ceremony dramatizes the myth, with rigorously prescribed paraphernalia and formularies, with picturesque dances and shows, scenic effects, and skillful thaumaturgic jugglery. It is noticeable also that here the true popular drama is found in the actual process of evolution from religious mysteries or miracle plays, as has been its history in other lands and among other races. The ceremonies are presented by Dr. Matthews with admirable precision of observation and statement, to which he adds his sketches, furnishing the illustrations of the sand pictures, the production, manipulation, and destruction of which form the most peculiar portions of the ceremonial. It is to be remarked that the shaman has become the professional and paid artist and stage manager, under whom is gathered a traveling corps of histrions and scenic experts. The parts of the ceremonial immediately connected with the cure of disease, particularly the application of the pigments constituting the bodies of the mythic personages, afford evi dence additional to former knowledge of the origination of medical practices.