The Navajo Mountain Chant:
Frighten Him On It – Sand painting used in the Mountain Chant, circa 1907″ by E.S. Curtis
A Feminist Perspective
Like the Navajo Night Chant celebrated at winter solstice the Navajo Mountain Chant is the last important winter ceremony, one that marks the shift in seasons and the return of the light. The Mountain Chant was once nine days in duration; today it has apparently been shortened to a four day ceremony. It is celebrated in early February and each night different holy songs are sung.
The Mountain Chant is also a very complex healing series of ceremonies. Elaborate sand paintings are created and then destroyed after each healing. Disease may be diagnosed by either a woman or a man, but a Medicine man always leads the ceremonies. The intention is to cure a person of the disharmony that is creating the illness. The ceremonies are also enacted to pray to the holy people (Yei) for rain, and to receive assistance with the crops, and most importantly they are done to restore balance and harmony between the People and nature.
A cultural myth is re-enacted and many songs also celebrate different aspects of nature. The colors blue and black represent the dark powers that need to be overcome in order to bring in the light. On the last night a large circle is constructed from evergreens. It opens to the east and surrounds a huge bonfire that is lit at dawn on the last morning of the chant. Fire is sacred and burns away evil. Fire and Water are the two elements that are invoked.
The current Navajo story centers around a wandering Navajo youth who has many adventures, discovers magic, finds water and learns how to handle fire without getting burned. The young man returns from his journey to find that his people have become a whole tribe and the Mountainway Chant revolves around his extraordinary adventures, and the beauty of different aspects of nature. No women are involved at all.
However, Washington Matthews, a surgeon who lived in the 1800’s studied the Navajo extensively and recorded the oral songs of the nine-day ceremony that include both men and women although the youth’s story is still somewhat central (Gutenberg.org). These translations demonstrate that at one time women played a more equal role in these ceremonies than they do today. The original ceremonies are thousands of years old and there are a multitude of songs that can be chosen from.
In Matthew’s translation the young maiden seems to be the one who overcomes winter’s darkness by walking through it (walking over the blue and black mountains). She lights the fires that burn on the mountains, finds and converses with the spirits of the sky world (The Yei).
We know from other sources that the Bear ceremony was considered the most important healing ritual of them all, (not only in Navajo Ceremony but in other Indigenous ceremonies like those of the Lakota Sioux).
This is the only ceremony that involves a woman. There is no male correlate. This maiden has a shape – shifting ability. She can also become a bear. What follows are some of the words of the songs that were recorded during the Bear ceremony.
“The maiden Who Becomes a Bear walks far around on the black mountains. She walks far around. Far spreads the land. It seems not far to her. The Holy Young Woman walks far around on the blue mountains, she walks far around. Far spreads the land. It seems not far to her. Far spreads the land. It seems not far. It is not dim to her…”
It seems to me that the bear woman walks through the darkness with confidence and is able to see beyond into the light, and perhaps into the future.
“Young woman who Becomes a Bear sets fire in the mountains. In many places she journeys on. There is line of burning mountains…” That she lights the fires on the mountains suggests that she is able to work with fire in the holy places to banish evil, and is bringing in the light.
“Young maid who Becomes a Bear sought the gods and found them; on the high mountain peaks she sought the god s(Yei) and found them. On the summits of the clouds she sought the gods and found them.
Somebody doubts it; so I have heard.”
Here we see that it is the shape shifting Woman-Bear who is able to access the mountain spirits, the sky world, and to communicate with both. Is it possible that the shape shifting ability of the woman – bear is analogous to the medicine man in terms of spiritual power? I would argue, yes. If so, this important ceremony brings the power of woman to life as a bear!
The most intriguing lines are the last ones. Who or what is the “somebody” who doubts?
There are other holy songs that involve the maiden and the youth in Matthew’s translations, however the songs about the youth are more frequent. Although the maiden does not appear in all the chants, when she does appear it seems as if her presence carries special significance.
N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer prize -winning book “House Made of Dawn” was written about the Navajo from a Native perspective (Kiowa). During his academic career he specialized in the American Oral Traditions and the sacred concepts involved. The Navajo Mountainway prayer that follows is a loose translation from his work.
House Made of Dawn – Navajo prayer
House made of Dawn
House made of evening light
House made of dark clouds
House made of female rain
House made of dark mist
House made of male rain
House made of plants (evergreens)
House made for grasshoppers (bears)
Dark Cloud is at the door
The trail out of it is dark cloud
Zig zag lightening stands high upon it. (my italics)
A offering I make…
Restore my feet to me
Restore my legs to me
Restore my body to me
Restore my mind to me
Restore my voice to me
This very day take out your spell for me.
Happily I recover
Happily my interior grows cool
Happily I go forth…
My interior feels cool, may I walk
No longer feeling pain, may I walk
With lively feelings may I walk
As it was long ago may I walk
Happily with abundant dark clouds may I walk
Happily with abundant showers may I walk
Happily with abundant plants may I walk (trees)
Happily on a trail of pollen may I walk (pine needles)
Happily may I walk
As it was long ago may I walk.*
May it be beautiful before me
May it be beautiful behind me
May it be beautiful below me
May it be beautiful above me
May it be beautiful around me.
(May it be beautiful within me).
In beauty it is finished
In beauty it is finished.
The parentheses indicate my personal substitutions. I like this prayer every much but am mindful of the importance of not appropriating songs that do not belong to me. The deliberate substitutions are an attempt to separate myself from the Navajo tradition in a respectful and honoring way.
*I think the words “as it was long ago may I walk” are really important. Western culture has lost its way. We have forgotten that we belong to nature, and it is to nature that we will return. If we understand life to be circular then returning to a past when people lived in harmony with nature allows us to pick up those threads so that we can begin again.