Published on August 1, 2011 by Amy
The Navajo Mountain Chant is held in Arizona, nine days at the end of winter. Since March 21st is usually the beginning of Spring (thus the end of winter) I am assuming that this is usually held then on March 30th? Basically, this observance marks the seasonal transition. It happens at the end of the thunderstorms but before the spring winds come. The Navajo believe that if this ceremony was held at any other time, it would result in death from lightning or snake bite. The chant is also considered a curing ceremony, not only for physical healing in those that are ill, but also to heal relationship disharmony and restore balance in relationships.
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This ceremony goes back to the legend of Dsilyi Neyani, the oldest son of a wandering Navajo family. One day while hunting, he gets captured by the Utes. He escapes with the help of the Gods (called Yei). During the long journey to return back to his family, he faces many hazards, learning a lot about magic and ceremonial acts. A few examples are that he learns how to make sand paintings, to do the feathers dance, swallowing arrows, how to make a weasel appear and other magic, how to handle fire without getting burnt how to make the mystical “hu-hu-hu” cry that is used in the Mountain Chant dance.
When Dsilyi does return to his family, he discovers they’ve grown into an entire tribe. It takes Dsilyi 4 days and 4 nights to tell everyone what he’s gone through and learnt during his absence from them. But, it’s the rituals that he brings back that messengers are sent out to invite more people to come see them and hear what he has learnt. Today, this still holds true and visitors are more than welcome to experience the Mountain Chant.
Although it’s called the Mountain Chant, it really consists of four different ceremonies, all based on the legend of Dsilyi. But, these all differ in their presentation and interpretation. The wording of the songs that are sung vary. The most moving ceremony of all is on the last day. This is when the medicine man emerges (from the hogan or lodge) at sunset and starts to chant, while the circle of evergreens rises as if by magic. This circle is approximately 8 to 10 feet tall, each hiding a man inside who is handling it. The evergreens form a circular enclosure about 100 feet in diameter. There is only one opening and that is on the East side. All the ground inside this evergreen circle is considered sacred. In the center there is also a cone-shaped bonfire.
The bonfire is then lit. Dancers have pre-whitened their bodies with clay. They rush into the circle, leaping and waving their arms and legs wildly. They circle the bonfire first from south to west to north and then south again. The white clay that they put on their bodies is believed to protect them from the flames of the fire. Sometimes sumac wands tipped with wings of fluffy eagle down are thrown into the fire. This down flares briefly (a lot like pine cones do in a fire) and then burns away. The dancers hide a second ring of fluff, which they shake to the ends of their wands. This creates the illusion that the fluffy eagle down has been magically restored. There is another illusion called the “yucca trick” in which a yucca plant appears to grow miraculously from a bare root, then blossoms and finally shows its fruit.
The Fire Dance takes place just before dawn, when the central bonfire has now burnt down to embers. Young men drag in huge trees to feed the central fire again and the dancers make a sound with their tongues that imitates the sound of a hot fire. Then they carry a lot of shredded cedar bark that is started on fire by the coals that are at the base of this fire. Once these bundles of cedar are burning, they are tossed over the fence to the east and then in the other three directions. Men dance again in a circle around the fire, beating their own bodies as well as each other’s bodies with the flaming brands. Later on, spectators gather up bits of the burned cedar as a protection for them against fire during the coming year.
The Mountain Chant was made into a movie in 1926 by Roman Hubbell. The star was named “Crawler” because he was paralyzed from the waist down (supposedly while attempting to learn the Navajo Night Chant). But his disability did not prevent him from learning and performing the Navajo Mountain Chant.