Bear as Healer – “He Who Frightens Away Illness”

THE NAVAJO MOUNTAIN WAY CHANT

 

 

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Navajo ceremonial practices emphasize healing human illness, emotional, mental, and physical, while restoring balance and harmony between humans and the rest of Nature. The most sacred of these ceremonies occur during the winter months. The best known of these is probably the Night Chant that lasts nine days and nine nights and is held sometime around the winter solstice – the timing of these ceremonies is fluid. Like the Night Chant the Mountain Way Chant probably stretches back into prehistoric times from 60,000 – 4000 B.C.E.

 

This second and equally sacred although less well known ceremony is also a nine-day/nine night chant that marks a transition between the seasons of winter and spring. The Mountain Way Chant takes place in late winter before thunderstorms strike and the spring winds arrive (around the spring equinox). One of its purposes is to call up the rains. It is also a ceremony led by a medicine man that addresses in particular, the mental uneasiness and nervousness associated with transitions, helping to bring individuals and their extended families back into balance and harmony.

 

Navajo cures target body, mind, and spirit, calling on everyone – the individual, kin, the medicine man, and the Spirits of Nature to help restore harmony. Before a medicine man (they are seldom women), is called, a hand trembler (often a woman), will diagnose the source of illness. Through prayer, concentration, and sprinkling of sacred pollen, her hand will tremble and pinpoint the cause, which then determines the proper ceremonial cure. Then the “singer” (medicine man) who knows the proper ceremony is called and preparations are set in motion.

 

There are nearly a hundred Navajo chants and each is nuanced and complex. All reflect different aspects of the Navajo Creation myth. Each includes purification rites, chants, songs, dancing, prayer sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective, everything must be done exactly as prescribed in the Navajo Creation Story. Besides these nine day ceremonies there are others whose ceremonies require four days, and many simpler ones requiring only a single day, each with its own dry-painting (sand painting).

 

In this essay I will not attempt to discuss the entire Mountain Way Chant – its much too complex – but will focus on the roles that the bear gods play in the sand paintings, mention briefly the role of plants, trees, and discuss bear songs that are pivotal to this ritual.

 

To the Navajo, bear gods are sacred and central to the healing of disease and disharmony all year long but especially in the early spring, (curiously, the Mountain Way Chant occurs just before the bear’s actual emergence from the den). The Navajos also understand that bears are close relatives and call them “The Mountain People”.

 

The Dine’ who now number over 200,000 in population, are the largest, and one of the most culturally intact Indian tribes in North America. Reigning over a reservation of some 25,000 square miles in size, the Navajos, like many other tribal peoples have long respected and honored bears as being fellow “beings” with whom they share the land. For the Navajo the bear is the Guardian of the West.

 

Historically there were two main species of bear that resided in Navajo territory: the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and the black bear (Ursus americanus). While the grizzly bear has been hunted to extinction in the Southwest, the Black bear still inhabits mountainous areas including those within the Navajo Reservation. Bears are believed to be guides and guardians embodying great strength and self-knowledge.

 

The Navajo also believe that bears have tremendous healing powers (western scientific studies are just beginning to tap the mysteries behind a bear’s ability to heal itself, recycle body waste, and prevent bone and muscle loss during hibernation).

 

To the Dine’ the bear also embodies the powers of introspection, soul searching, insight. Additionally the powers of the bear also include death and rebirth. The bear apparently dies in the fall (because it hibernates) and is reborn in the spring; and the female emerges (every two years, hopefully) with new cubs or last year’s yearlings in tow. For all the above reasons bears have played a major role in Navajo tribal legends and ceremonialism. It is hardly surprising that they are central figures in the Mountain Way Chant.

 

On the fifth night of the Mountain Way Chant a dry painting of the bear in his den is created under the direction of the medicine man. Using powdered clays of various colors, the purpose of the ceremonial painting drawn in the center of the Hogan, is to summon up the powers of the bear as healer to frighten the patient, and thus banish illness and disharmony. The name of the first painting is called “Frighten Him On It.”

 

The bear as a powerful healer “scares” illness/disharmony away. The bear also appears in the same capacity (in an identical sand painting) during the fifth night during the Night Chant.

 

The sketch pictured as a whole represents the den of a hibernating bear. Colored earth picture bear-tracks leading in; bear-tracks and sundogs* are represented at the four quarters, and the bear himself, streaked with sunlight, is the center image. The twigs at the entrance of the bear den represent the trees, behind or under which bears often dig their dens in the sides of mountains. Everything in the sand painting is supposed to remind the individual of bears. The person enters the painting and sits down on the animal. The room is bathed in deep silence. Suddenly, a man, painted and clothed as a bear (historically a grizzly), rushes in, uttering terrifying snarls and huffs. All the assembled participants join in to frighten the illness away.

 

There is a second sand painting used on the sixth night of the Mountain Way Chant that is supposed to be a representation of the bears’ home in the Carrizo Mountains (not pictured). In the center of this painting is a bowl of water covered with black powder. The edge of the bowl is adorned with sunbeams, and external to it are the four sunbeam rafts, on which the Nature Spirits, the Yei stand. There is a close relationship between the Yei and the bears. In the Mountain Way Chant, Talking God, Water Sprinkler (often pictured as a rainbow) Growling God (bear), and Black God are always present.

 

Bears and Light are related. In the first dry painting there is light that surrounds the bear and light in the form of sundogs that are positioned in each of the four directions. In the second, sunbeams are present in the center and also in each of the four directions providing places for the Yei to stand. It’s very difficult not to draw the conclusion that the light that we are speaking of is an inner light, not an outer one, and this is consistent with the qualities of healing, insight, and introspection that the Navajos associate with the bear.

 

After each sand painting has been created and used for a healing it is then destroyed. With the bear painting erasure begins by destroying the tracks of the bear and moves around the circle obliterating the four directions beginning in the west.

 

Many aromatic plants are also used during these ceremonies to help restore harmony reflecting the importance of the ‘plant people’ to the Dine’ and to the bears.

 

The last dance of the Mountain Way Chant occurs inside a huge Circle of Spruce boughs that are brought in to a circle and then burned at the very end of the ceremony. Although this next point does not directly refer to bears I want to mention it briefly. Although grizzlies did not, Black bears co – evolved on this continent with trees during the last ice age and even today cannot be found in areas where they are absent. Black bears must have trees to climb in order to protect themselves and their young from predators. My point: Black bears and trees co –exist as a unit. And the importance of spruce boughs representing the sacred trees in these ceremonies cannot be stressed enough.

 

What follows are translations of three songs “that the women who have become bears sing.” These women have become holy people.

 

(1)The maiden that becomes a bear

walks far around

on the black mountain.

She walks far around.

Far spreads the land.

(this song is repeated once substituting blue for black –

black represents a male bear, blue a female bear)

 

(2)The young woman who becomes a bear

sets fire in the mountain

in many places; As she

journeys on

there is a line of burning mountains.

 

(3) In ancient times during a year of great drought

the holy ones set fire to the mountains and the waters.

The smoke arose in great clouds from which rain descended onto the land.

The woman who sought the gods found them.

 

Throughout the Mountain Way Chant both male and female bears are present at different times as bears and as holy people.

 

As a Black bear researcher I am struck by the correspondence between the details of the first painting and the way bears actually hibernate. Black bears prefer to den with openings to the south side, and because they walk in their own tracks they can enter and leave a den invisibly leaving no tracks at all. Note that in this sketch of the painting the tracks only go one way.

 

I am also struck by another healing aspect of the bear that doesn’t seem to appear in the extensive research I did for this essay, and that is the bear’s apparent ability to treat itself when it is ill by ingesting certain plants. It may be that these plants are part of the ceremony but are not mentioned by name (or names that I would recognize). Certainly the Navajo knew about these plants and tubers because they were the first naturalists, people who learned directly from animals, plants, trees, through keen observation.

 

That the bear would be so important to Native peoples in the Northern Hemisphere is also not surprising if one considers that Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is among the oldest recognized patterns in the sky. This prominent cluster of bright stars is circumpolar for mid-northern to polar latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Interestingly, throughout the Americas Indigenous people of all tribes called this constellation the Great Bear.

 

Although today this star cluster conjures up other images to other peoples – stories about this particular constellation may date back to the Ice Age when ancient people could cross over the Bering Strait to North America. At that time, cultures in both Siberia and Alaska shared a common heritage. It is even possible that the constellation Ursa Major actually got its name 50,000 years ago because of a Paleolithic bear cult that existed in Europe.

 

Maybe the next time you look up into a velvet night sky towards the North you will see the Great Bear and think of him as being one of the most important animal healers of all time.

 

 (1) For those that don’ t know – sundogs occur when ice crystals acts as prisms, separating the sunlight into different colors and forming a sundog. … Mainly, sundogs are visible while you are facing and looking towards the sun while rainbows occur in just the opposite location. Here in New Mexico one sees them frequently.

 

Postscript: It is important to note that although the Navajo have lived in the Southwest for about 1,000 years, they are related to the woodland Indians of western Canada and Alaska. They speak Athabaskan, the language native to the western sub arctic and once lived in the boreal forest and made their living much the way Athabaskan peoples do today. When they migrated south along the Rockies they ended up in Arizona and other Southwestern states, and took on attributes of the Pueblo peoples. But the foundation of their culture lies in the North Country. It is theorized that they may have reached this continent by way of Siberia. However, some sources suggest that Native peoples have been here all along. Navajo people did not hunt bears unless they were starving because they considered all bears their relatives and complex rituals surrounded any necessary kill.

The Bear Goddess and the Tree

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She wore a fur coat and drove

a flaming chariot that flew through the night.

Its fiery wheels threw sparks, like stars..

One point of light leapt onto frozen ground,

sprouted roots and grew a Tree…

When the Snow Bear came to the mountain

It was the longest night of the year.

She reached up to a sky of diamonds and ice,

plucked a star and flung it far…

It landed in Juniper’s thick branches…

The little tree’s berries ripened and fell.

Her green boughs glowed with pride.

Juniper had been chosen to light up the night.

Wafting sweet fragrance on wild winter winds

as a Blessing for All, the little tree soul took flight!

12/21/16

Working notes:

For a number of years I decorated my northern white cedar, the Guardian Tree in front of my little log cabin with crystals that were once a part of a chandelier that belonged to my mother’s family. In the center of my tree I put a large crystal star that shimmered at night when the lights were lit, while the rectangular beveled crystals reflected a rainbow of colors. I never thought much about this little ritual of tree lighting (beyond feeling that it was exactly the right thing to do each November when the nights come so early) until I came to New Mexico and met the young juniper in my front yard. I cared for her in much the same way as I cared for my cedar tree in Maine, and in November decorated her blue-green branches with white lights…

It was only after writing this poem that I recognized the full implications of my actions. Every year I enact a personal mythical story as I decorate my winter solstice tree to honor the dark days of winter, The Great Bear, the winter solstice, the changing season and the power of hope.

In Native American traditions the bear (polar, black, grizzly) is the animal most frequently associated with medicinal plants, flowers, and roots that are used to heal. Bear healing circles were common in many tribes.

By calling up the Great She Bear (whose celestial aspect is the constellation of the Great Bear) I am invoking the Animal Powers to move through our lives, to heal what has been broken in ourselves and in the culture. When the bear throws the star and it lands in the tree, the three become embodied as one. The star (symbol of hope), the animal and plant powers are united and together they “light up the darkest night.” During these troubled times I am reminded that the tie that binds us to each other, to the Cosmos and to the Earth can be renewed if we take the story seriously and choose appropriate actions.

I use the image of the polar bear as the Great Bear Goddess (found in every Indigenous culture north of the equator) to help us remember that animals like the polar bear are dying because of our indifference to global warming. This breaking of “the ties that bind us” to other species must be attended to or we will be facing extinction ourselves.