Sacred-Texts Native American Navajo
Index Previous Next
Though I had planned not to appear except as a recording agent in this publication of my work of seventeen years, I have been told that it is necessary to give some account of the origin and reason for my interest in the work. I used to go camping in the Navajo region and from guides and other campers heard of Navajo Yehbechai and so-called Fire Dance ceremonies, so with two friends went on horseback from Fort Defiance, Arizona, to Cuba, New Mexico, particularly for the purpose of seeing some ceremonies.
In those days it was almost a matter of luck if one ever could find out about the ceremonies and I was surprised to find that most of the traders, though some had lived long among the Indians, liked them and spoke Navajo, knew nothing and cared less about their religion; and among the school teachers this was the usual attitude. We happened on a Yehbechai near Chin Lee, then crossed the Chuskai mountains and came down to Newcomb, a small trading-post facing the desert with its only link to civilization a poor dirt road practically impassable when it rained. Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Newcomb gave us two little rooms, and we found they were alive to the value of Indian life around them in its religious aspect. They were very much devoted to Klah, a Medicine Man, grandson of Narbona, the great chief whom our soldiers killed under a flag of truce in 1847. Klah, who lived close by, had shown his kindness to the Newcombs on many occasions, coming over to protect Mrs. Newcomb from molestation when Mr. Newcomb was away, and being willing that they should see his ceremonies, as he trusted them not to p. 10 interfere. At that time the Indians were much afraid of the attitude of the white people which was unsympathetic to their worship and religion.
I went with the Newcombs to a Yehbechai and met Klah, who was officiating. At that time he had begun to make his sandpainting blankets, weaving them himself, making usually one or two a year to support himself, and also to record the sandpaintings. As he said to Mr. Newcomb he knew that the Navajo boys should go to school and learn to read and to speak English, but that when they had been to school they could not remember the religious myths, sandpaintings and ritual, and so he was beginning to record them. He was teaching a nephew his Yehbechai, but had no other student to whom he could pass on his knowledge. He knew the myth of the Mountain Chant and its ritual, but did not give the ceremony. He knew the Hail Chant completely and this died with him. He also gave the Blessing Chant and the Wind Chant and knew the complete Creation Myth. I saw him later at the Newcombs and began to ask him questions about the Fire Dance which I had seen, thanks to his giving me the date of it. He asked me why I questioned him, and I said truly that I was interested in religion. I had to communicate through an interpreter always, but we were friends almost at once.
He told me some nice little stories but I felt they were superficial. Then he said he wanted me to make phonograph records of his songs, for he was a great singer as a Medicine Man must be, since almost all the ceremonies consist of songs or chants; (there are eight hundred for the Creation Myth, and four hundred and forty for the Hail Chant).
Later he came to my house at Alcalde where I had secured a recording machine and some one to run it, but there was a delay, and suddenly one day he said, “I will tell you a story if you are not afraid to take it, for the only man who has recorded one of our myths” (Matthews, twenty-five or more years ago) “was paralyzed after taking it.” I said I was not afraid, p. 11 and got an interpreter, and we began. Mr. Newcomb wrote and I asked questions and checked any uncertainties through the interpreter. This has been my usual technique, except that often I have done the writing. This first story was the myth of Tsilthkehje, the Mountain Chant.
You cannot hurry the story nor ask too many questions as if it has a very definite pattern, and when after eight days’ work it was finished, Klah said, “tell her that every word of this is true.” He told this in May when there may be thunder, and the Navajos are not supposed to tell the myths except after the first frost. Their feeling seems to be that they are releasing so much power that it is not safe when thunder is possible. Klah, being so powerful and naturally fearless, took the risk, and the reason he was afraid for me and for Arthur Newcomb was that we were unprotected; so after talking for four days he said he must go back to his home to get something to protect us, and Arthur took him back—three hundred and forty miles. When the story was finished he asked us to inhale some incense and eat some medicine-substance to protect us, and this we did. He gave me some of these two medicines which I was to take every six months.
Next Fall, when I went by invitation to a Yehbechai given by him, he watched to see if I was well, and since no harm had come to the tribe, he felt that all was well and was willing to show me more, and to tell me his other myths.
He eventually told them all to me; the Creation Myth out in Santa Barbara, for I knew that he longed to see the western ocean where Estsan-ah-tlehay, The Changing Woman, lives, and later he visited me in Maine so as to see the eastern sea. I grew to respect and love him for his real goodness, generosity—and holiness, for there is no other word for it. He never had married, having spent twenty-five years studying not only the ceremonies he gave, but all the medicine lore of the tribe. He helped at least eight of his nieces and nephews with money and goods. When the Newcombs first settled at p. 12 Nava (as the Newcomb trading-post used to be called), half-way between Gallup and Shiprock, Klah was counted one of the rich men there with many sheep. He had his final initiation ceremony shortly after, when he reached as high rank as possible in his religion, and at that ceremony he gave away most of his goods. When I knew him he never kept anything for himself. It was hard to see him almost in rags at his ceremonies, but what was given him he seldom kept, passing it on to someone who needed it.
When a district nurse came to the day school his attitude was perfectly friendly and cooperative, and at one time when his favorite niece was bitten by a rattler while he was away, and she was treated by the nurse, he was delighted, but held a ceremony later over the niece to clear her mind of the snake fear. At another ceremony the nurse brought cough medicine and dosed Klah and the patient during the ceremony, also to his delight. He was teaching his Yehbechai ceremony to his nephew Beyal, but to Klah’s great grief Beyal died about five years ago and Klah was too old to teach another nephew, for he wanted as pupil a boy of not more than six years who had never been to school, as he found that after schooling they had not the capacity to memorize the long songs, prayers and myths. Later he gave the Hail ceremony so that I could see and record it, and sang the songs for recording—there are four hundred and forty of them.
After I had recorded his great ceremonies and myths I went on to other Medicine Men and always found that when I told them of Klah and the idea of the Museum to keep the records safe for their people and mine, and of the ceremonies I had already seen, they were willing to tell their myths and show me what I needed to know. When they saw Mrs. Newcomb’s sandpainting copies and found she also was really seeking for the absolutely correct version, they were anxious that their own sandpainting should be in her collection. Of course we both paid for the time occupied in working with us, as was p. 13 only fair, and in the case of myths this was often a matter of many days’ hard work. All the community of Nava finally became interested in helping us and took pride in the completeness of our knowledge and would show off Mrs. Newcomb’s knowledge of sandpaintings to visiting Medicine Men. I admired their attitude very much; no jealousy—only a joy in finding understanding and sympathy from white people in the thing they cared for the most.
I have traveled all over the Reservation trying to get in touch with the older Medicine Men who knew the big fundamental ceremonies, for I felt, and time proves me right, that I must work as fast as possible if I was to record the old pure material. Now with school boys carrying on, the ceremonies are tending to grow shorter and simpler, and that has been happening for years—the sandpaintings grow smaller and the myth, which is the last thing to be learned by a student, is forgotten. Mrs. Newcomb and I were very lucky to have come in touch first with one of the great men of the tribe, who was not only that, but a real student of his religion. Our civilization and miracles he took simply without much wonder, as his mind was occupied with his religion and helping his people. It was wonderful to travel with him, as he knew the ceremonial names and legends of all the mountains, rivers and places, and the uses and associations of plants and stones. Everything was the outward form of the spirit world that was very real to him. He became continually more deeply interested in the idea of the recording of his religion, and showed and told me more each year. He also helped Mrs. Newcomb to make a beginning of her magnificent collection of sandpaintings by telling her when and where ceremonies were being given, and explaining her purpose to the other Medicine Men. Often he would arrange that a ceremony should be given for one of his family or clan, and Mrs. Newcomb and I were welcome, as we were sponsored by Klah, and brought appropriate gifts of tobacco or food, and sometimes I would undertake to bring the needed p. 14 Medicine Man if he lived far off. Klah always knew the Medicine Men who were most respected in their form of ceremonies, and without Klah neither Mrs. Newcomb nor I could have begun nor carried on our work.
My purpose through all the work had been to establish a Museum to contain all the material we had collected, as well as all available material collected or published by others, for the use of future students of Navajo religion, art, and culture. The idea of making a building based upon the Navajo ceremonial Hogahn, as designed by the architect, Mr. Wm. P. Henderson, had Klah’s strong approval from the beginning—he was frequently consulted as to details of symbolism in the permanent decorations—and he said he wanted his medicine to be kept there after his death. Klah died within the year in which the actual building was begun, but the Hogahn Beyin, House Blessing, was held as he desired by members of his family, and to me his spirit is always an inspiration to carry on what was as much his work as it is mine.
Mary C. Wheelwright.
Alcalde, New Mexico.