Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
My behavior this third summer hardly indicates my interest in weaving. I have been at White-Sands three weeks and have not set up a blanket. There are visitors. Then the Navajo Council meets at Fort Wingate, and I attend. I am delayed at Gallup, and I take another trip.
At the Gallup Ceremonial last year I met again two traders who had befriended me during my early travels in the Navajo country, Mr. Short-Pants and Mr. Little-Man-with-the-Spectacles. I thought I had learned much about weaving, but their exhibition and erudition taught me I am far from finished. They were showing small looms with blankets half woven, each illustrating a different weave. Among them were beautiful but simple effects achieved by skilful manipulation of the warps. These traders invited me to come to their post and learn these weaves.
I am just about to start on my new and interesting quest when word comes that Red-Point is going to have a nine-day sing. The letter from my white friend says "for Marie." I am a bit worried, for when I left her Marie seemed to be in perfect health. A sing means usually one thing, that someone is ill. I hasten back to White-Sands. Red-Point is going to perform the Shooting Chant, the major chant for which he is most famous. I have already seen the forty-seven sand-paintings
any of which he may choose for a given performance, and I have the long myth on which the chant is founded. It had been written some years ago but never published, from the narration of Blue-Eyes, Red-Point's principal teacher. I have heard much about the chant, I have never seen it, nor do I understand it. In all my experience in the Navajo country I have never followed a chant through.
The very first night of my stay at White-Sands the family visits me. The sing is quite the most important affair in their minds. All efforts are being centered around it. I tell them I shall be glad to do any errands they may require with the car. Red-Point says there is one medicine they must get from a long distance, and it must be fresh when they use it. Perhaps I can get that when the time comes.
"I told Old-Mexican's-Son that if he brings any white people to this sing, each will have to pay a dollar. So I want you to put up signs. Old-Mexican's-Son can come himself for nothing, of course. He is just like my own son. White people make us pay for everything, and they ought to pay, too. Now you, you are just like my own child. That is different. I am going to tell you about everything. You must watch and get everything just right. One morning I start before sunrise, and I will wake you up."
When I reiterate my desire to help, he says, "You don't help the Singer, just the patients, Marie and Ninaba."
After he goes out, Marie and I plan what I am to get for her. She needs many yards of calico. I have three ten-yard lengths and give her those. She will need also a great deal of flour. Finally we get around to the question that interests me most. For a long time Marie has had headache and pains in her legs. When she was in Los Angeles last year her employer
took her to the hospital. The doctor pulled a tooth and said she ought to have them all out. I shudder at the very thought. So did the friendly white woman, but Marie grew no better.
One night while I was away, she felt so ill she did not sleep at all. Whereupon Red-Point decided to have the sing at once.
"Usually they think about it a long time. They get someone to tell which sing they ought to have. We don't need to do that because my father knows this is the right one. You see when I was at school at the Mission, it was struck by lightning. That is why I am sick. The Shooting Chant is the cure for diseases caused by lightning, snakes, and arrows. Since there is no doubt, my father says we will begin right away. It will last nine days. Ninaba will be with me because she often has headache, too."
Red-Point and Maria Antonia spend several days getting their large well-built hogan ready. "I am going to use my best and largest paintings," he says, "so we have to have lots of room."
My casual visits to his house have not sufficed to make me realize how much there is in it. It is a rich man's home. There are trunks and suitcases filled with valuables, cloth by the yard, velvet, baskets and other objects of bulk, not to speak of surplus food, particularly flour, sugar, and coffee. There are many things which have supernatural power; some large and bulky like the elaborately painted, wound, and feathered prayersticks he will set up around the sand-paintings; others tiny but important, like the bits of precious stones, abalone, whiteshell, redshell, jet and turquoise, and the diminutive sacks of buckskin which contain sanctified pollen. These and many other things are the tangible symbols of Red-Point's
profession as a chanter. As such, they are tied up in a bulky and orderly bundle which hangs from the ceiling logs of the hogan. And since he knows many chants he has many of these bundles. All but the one he is using are moved to the vacant house which belongs to Ben Wilson's wife.
Jewelry and beads are left hanging on their nails because they will be used. They furnish the only touch of color. Bundles of dried herbs, which always give Red-Point's house a faint and pleasant odor of having been sprinkled with incense, are also removed. Maria Antonia takes down her loom and lays it with the unfinished blanket attached across the larger supports of her rickety shade. She moves her cooking utensils to Marie's hogan.
In front of his own house Tom is erecting a large shade of piñon posts and juniper branches. Here Maria Antonia will have her headquarters during the sing, here the food will be prepared and from here dispensed. In my uncertainty as to which interest to choose, Tom erecting the shade, or Red-Point working in his hogan, I vacillate between the two. Tom's work proceeds rapidly as he digs a hole for a post here and prunes another log there. Red-Point's house has been emptied; it now looks huge where it was only large before. It is clean from sweeping and sprinkling; an earthy smell combined with the fragrance of crushed herbs pervades it, for Red-Point has settled down to preparing the medicine for the morrow and the following three days. He has larger or smaller quantities of plants lying beside him. There are more of the branches of Douglas spruce than of any other kind. He sits with his feet crossed tailor-fashion, as he does when he paints on paper, his chopping block placed before him. As he talks, he chops the medicine fine with his ax, which he holds close
to the blade. "I don't usually have to do this tedious chopping," he explains. "The patient has someone to do it. But since we do not have many to help us, and as the boys are all busy, I am doing it this time."
He tells me the name of each of the fifteen plants he uses and gives me a sample of each, explains also where it grows. He uses the entire plant of one of the mints. One called "thunder-plant" is fragrant; one of the sages he calls "frog-food"; a red pentstemon is "humming-bird's food"; there is one called "bat's food." Some are shrubs or twigs from trees such as red willow, scrub oak, and chokecherry. A water plant "on-top-of-water-it-spreads" must be secured from a spring. Red-Point chops a hard dry root, "the-vomit-of-Enemy-Slayer," and adds only a small quantity to the mixture. Most of them are found near by, but he must go far afield for a few. A still smaller number are rare indeed, and he uses only a little from the pouches in which he carefully hoards it. They all smell pleasant, some are pungent. When, after three hours' steady labor, he spreads the combined bits of greenness out widely on a blanket, it is a pleasing mass indeed. He leaves it to dry for the afternoon as he peers about in hope of dinner.
I am unwinding my legs preparatory to getting my own, when Maria Antonia comes in and asks if I won't stay and eat ceremonial gruel with them. I will. She soon brings in a clean cloth which she spreads on the ground. On it she sets a bowl of thick corn-smelling mush. There is, too, a bowl of mutton cut up in fine pieces with much strong broth, piping-hot, a basket of fresh tortillas, and the indispensable coffee. The mush is made of coarsely ground blue corn to which juniper ashes have been added. "Without the ashes," Red-Point explains, "it would be like tortillas without baking powder."
It has no salt; but the stew has plenty, and I find the combination delicious. My family seasons food much better than other Navajo I have eaten with. The women are eating the special treat in Maria Antonia's shade. After Red-Point and I are well started, Tom joins us, tired after his labor.
The first "day" of the chant begins at nine o’clock this "night." All ceremonial days are counted from sunset to sunset. There is a short rite in the large hogan. One of its main purposes is to purify the house and call the blessings of the gods. Curley's-Son, after Red-Point's instructions, takes down the dried sprigs of scrub oak which lie between the rafters of the house at the east, west, south, and north. He lays them near the door, then places fresh sprigs in their stead. He sprinkles the one over the door with white cornmeal as he murmurs, "The east pole, the pole I first leaned against." He moves to the west and strews the meal, "The west pole, the second against which I leaned." At the south he says, "In the sand I leaned against it," and at the north, "My home is covered with vari-colored goods."
The prayer and rite are for the purification of the patients and the house. By "the sand" he means the outermost earth cover of the hogan; by the "vari-colored goods," the soft bark which holds the sand in place. He continues the house blessing by throwing the meal in a sunwise direction with the words, "The floor of my house is of vari-colored stones." This refers to the first hogan that was ever made, which had four floors, one above another, of whiteshell, turquoise, abalone, and jet.
The house blessing continues:
[paragraph continues] May the house be beautiful within.
May the house be beautiful at the back.
May the house be beautiful at the center for the fireplace.
May the house be beautiful near the door where the metate rests.
May the crosspieces of the doorposts be beautiful.
At the doorway of my house where Pollen Boy stands may it be beautiful.
At the doorway of my house where Cornfly Girl stands may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where talking gods are standing may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where house gods are standing may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where plants are may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where trees are may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where stones are may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where Mountain Woman is may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where Water Woman is may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where bluebirds are may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where blue swallows are may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where spotted yellow birds are may it be beautiful.
Surrounding my house where robins are may it be beautiful.
At Pelado Peak may it be beautiful.
At Mt. Taylor may it be beautiful.
At Mountain-of-Variegated-Beads may it be beautiful.
At San Francisco Peak may it be beautiful.
At Black Mountain may it be beautiful.
[paragraph continues] At San Juan Mountain may it be beautiful.
At Whirling Mountain may it be beautiful.
At Spruce Butte may it be beautiful.
At Rain Mountain may it be beautiful.
At Corn Mountain may it be beautiful.
At Pollen Mountain may it be beautiful.
At Corn fly Mountain may it be beautiful.
At Old-Age-Walking and on the Trail-of-Beauty may it be beautiful.
After Red-Point gives him more pollen and instructions, he takes out the old dried herbs, strews them with pollen, and deposits them in a tree.
By this time the family, except, of course, Maria Antonia (she will not come since Curley's-Son and Tom are Red-Point's helpers) and the two patients, are in the house, the women on the right of the entrance or fire, that is, at the north, the men at the left. I have decided when in doubt to imitate Atlnaba. There is a space at the back center of the hogan where a blanket is laid for Marie and Ninaba to sit on. As they walk solemnly in at the south side of the fire, Ben and Dan begin to giggle uncontrollably and contagiously. Ninaba bites her lip and Marie has difficulty in subduing her mirth. It takes very little to set her off, as I have often found. We as audience are not out of place if we smile, joke, or even laugh heartily, but it is not proper for those-sung-over to sit giggling incontinently.
(The next day Marie tells me that Dan whispered to Ben, "Everybody is so busy getting his moccasins ready, I am going to make little moccasins for the pussy to wear to the sing," referring to the kitten which was crawling over them.
[paragraph continues] She tells me this with pride in her eye at Dan's "cuteness"; but at the time he said it, Red-Point with a word, not harshly but nevertheless firmly given, tried to quiet the boys. A word was not sufficient and they remained out of order, constantly tempting their mother until Tom took them out and gave them a talking-to.)
During this time Red-Point is taking a number of objects from his bundle which he lays carefully in one of the ceremonial baskets at his side. Tom and his brother tie herbal medicines to these prayersticks as Red-Point sings the proper songs to the accompaniment of a rattle, also from the bundle, made of buffalo hide. They make an altar by laying a blanket and on it placing the prayer-bundles properly tied. Two thickly folded pieces of new calico are placed behind them, and Marie and Ninaba are told to undress.
They leave all their clothing except their skirts on the blanket where they are sitting and take their places on the calico, their bare feet stretched out straight before them. Red-Point now performs many acts, all of which must be in a particular order. Tom and his brother have tied the bundles with a special knot. Red-Point blows medicine mixed with water over the patients, then takes each bundle and presses it firmly from hips to soles of feet, along the arms from shoulder to palm, at two sides of chest and back, at back of neck, at forehead and back of head, as well as at both sides, and finally at the top of the head. With each movement he makes a blu-blu-blu sound with his thick protruding lips.
After this he pulls the string of each bundle and draws one over the soles of the feet, the palms, chest and head. Finally he marks each patient with another kind of liquid medicine, and they bathe their bodies with it. Tom brings two coals
which he blows into a glow, Red-Point puts a little plant powder on them. The patients breathe in the smoke and rub it over their bodies. The pressing and ravelling are done to take away fever. The burning of the incense is the Amen or doxology to each rite in a Navajo chant. Since this one is to continue for nine days, tonight's performance is short and we retire at about eleven-thirty.
For the entire duration of the sing and four nights after it, all connected with it intimately, that is, patients, Chanter, and helpers, must observe absolute sexual continence. For this reason the patient or patients sleep in the ceremonial hogan with the Chanter. If there is only one woman patient, a helper not her husband sleeps there, too, to act as a chaperon. Self-restraint is not the only reason for the custom. It may be necessary to begin rituals before the first peep of dawn on some of the days, and the Chanter must have his patients where he can wake them at a moment's notice.