Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fire Dance of the Navaho Indians


The author has spent nearly twenty years in the study of Indian manners and customs, and is now preparing an important work on the Havasupai Indians for the United States Government. In the present paper he describes his experiences at the Fire Dance of the Navahos, which few white men have ever seen. The article is illustrated with Mr. James's own photos., and with sketches specially made by experts of the United States Bureau of Ethnology.

Americans are only just waking up to a consciousness of the wonders of their own country.  Twenty years ago the Grand Canyon of the Colorado was almost unknown. Ten years ago the Snake ­Dance, which I described in a recent number of THE WIDE WORLD, had been seen by but few white men. The cliff dwellings of that region were the subject of wild and exaggerated stories, and the life of the Indians themselves was simply a sealed book.

For nearly twenty years I have been study­ing Indian life in Nevada,Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and California; and many are the almost incredible things I have seen and heard during that period.  After the Snake Dance of the Mokis, perhaps there is nothing in my experi­ence so wonderful as the exhibitions. of magic given by the Navaho shamans and the concluding ceremony in their great medicine dance, known by some as the Hosh-Kon, and by the Navahos themselves as Dsil-yid-ji-cha-thal. It receives its name from the fact that in the magic ceremonies the hosh-kon, a species of yucca, is made to grow in the presence of the spectators. This plant is shown in our second photo, and plays a large part in the daily life of the Navaho Indian.

As in the Snake - Dance, the ceremonies consist of nine days' secret rites in the logan, or lodge of the priest, medicine - man, or shaman; and the ninth day at sunset witnesses the begin­ning of the magic performances, which last nearly all night, until, just at the darkest hour before dawn, the "Dance of Hell" - a veritable dance of fiends with fire - takes place. I know that my narrative will seem outrageously wild and untrue or at least exaggerated; but I can assure my readers that it occurs exactly as I have set it down. The reports of the few eminent scientists who have witnessed the ceremony confirm in every particular the result of my own observations.

Few white men have ever seen the dance. in the first place, the Navaho is a scornful, proud, and haughty individual, who deems himself, not only the equal, but vastly the superior of any white man on earth. Knowing that the U.S. Government has set apart a certain reservation which belongs ex­clusively to him, he treats with scant courtesy the pale face who invades his private precincts with­out permission. Many a white man has paid for his temerity with his life as a result of heating the haughty Navaho in the same way as a brave belong­ing to a less self ­respecting tribe. Hence men nowadays are a little shy of in­truding themselves upon the secret cere­monies of this proud and warlike race.

The Navaho, too, hates to be the butt of any man's ridicule; and too often the white man lets him see that he considers his ­observances so much foolishness and silly superstition. This may be very true, but it is at least impolitic to say so in the presence of people who firmly believe that they, and they alone, worship in the right manner.

Now, as I rarely go anywhere without per­mission, and as I feel that the Navaho can only worship in accordance with his lights, I make it a point never to laugh or sneer at these Indians. They learned this long ago, and I therefore number among my warmest friends some of the leading shamans of the tribe, one of whom is shown in my next photo. Consequently when, in 1898, I was invited to be present at the great medicine dance given by a noted Navaho, who professed to be nigh unto death's door, I did not require a second invitation, out hastily took myself and my camera over the weary and desolate wastes and the wildly carved rock-region to tile northwest of the Navaho reservation.

The first nine days were spent in weird ceremonies within the medicine logan, but these, however interesting to me, would take too long to describe and would only weary the reader. The interior of the logan, showing the invalid himself, covered with a blanket, is seen in the photograph on the next page.

I was pretty nearly wearied out when the last day arrived; and as I knew that we should be up all night I took an extra nap, and thus prepared myself for the crown­ing ceremony; During the day a number of old tree trunks of the pinyon, cedar, juniper, and buck brush were dragged to the chosen spot and there stood on end, thus making an immense pile no less than 250 ft. in diameter, and com­posed of the most inflammable materials. A portion of this huge stack is shown in the sketch on the next page. Now, as all the cere­monies take place in the open air, and after sunset, no photo­graph of them is pos­sible, and I have, therefore, reproduced sketches from. the pictures made by the distinguished experts sent to report on these performances for the United States Bureau of Ethnology. Their accuracy and truthfulness may therefore be accepted without hesitation.

Messengers - young Indians, such as are shown in our next photo, had been sent out by the head shaman during the week to the most noted magicians and medicine-men of the tribe, and a large number of them were assembled when the evening rites began. Some were detailed to perform one ceremony and some another; but each had his allotted task.

As the sun sank slowly into the west his last rays illumined the rocks of a certain peak. The chief shaman forthwith took his place and began.  to chant a song. Immediately, as though summoned from the realms of darkness by their chief, a number of silent figures carne forward and began to build the "circle of blackness," a rude circular fence or corral, which was to surround the central fire. For an hour the shaman sang, the men working without a single stop, so that by the end of that time the corral was complete and ready for the ceremonies.

The inside of the circle was now sacred. No one must peep through or look over the fence. To the east, however, a space about 10 ft. or 12ft. wide, was left, open the sole entrance and exit. Directly the corral was finished the throng of spectators, among whom were the brother and sister of the sick man. I reproduce their portraits herewith began to enter the circle. Fires were lit at intervals inside, but as near to the outer fence as possible, and the scene became one of great animation and excitement. Chatter and gossip went on continuously, and old and young moved to and fro without let or hindrance.

About eight o'clock fifteen or twenty singers and drummers entered the circle. Seating themselves by one of the small fires they began a wild chant, accom­panied by the dull, monotonous beating of the drums, and this they kept up almost without cessation until the close of the dance next morning. The moment the song began the central stack was fired. In a moment; as it seemed, the whole of the surrounding country was lit up with a great burst of flame, lighting up the dusky bodies of the savages, and accentuating the blackness of the night.

Suddenly a whistle is heard, and there dart into the circle of light a dozen or more perfectly white figures, yelling like lost souls, and carrying in their hands dainty little wands tipped with the down of the eagle. They were perfectly nude, and their bodies were smeared over with some white substance which gave them the appearance of marble. How strange it all seemed! Moving with silent foot­steps, each man at every few steps assumed a pose. Now he marched like a conqueror, now threatening a foe above him, now striking one on the ground. Another minced like a country maiden showing off in some rustic dance; while still another bowed gracefully as though to some imaginary being in front of him. Twice they circled round the fire in this way, as we see them in the illustration, and then, sud­denly, all their efforts were bent in another direction. The fire was now blazing at its height, and the fury was appal­ling; it was like Nebuchad­nezzar's furnace at its seventh power.  To look at it with un-shaded eyes I found im­possible, and yet those white figures dashed headlong to­wards it, holding their down  tipped wands in . their out stretched hands and seeking to set light to the fluffy sub­stance from the immense flaming, roaring mass. Again and again they essayed to reach the fire, and again and again the fearful heat drove them back. Some tried to reach it by walking backwards, others crawled along on their stomachs like writhing snakes. One man turned a running somersault, turning another ere he reached the fire, but the fierceness of the flames drove him back. But finally the most determined of the band accomplished his object. Running towards the huge blazing pyramid, he flung him­self violently on his back with his head towards the fire. A moment later he was on his feet, yelling triumphantly - he had kindled the down on his wand. The others now re­doubled their efforts, and one by one they were successful. In the meantime the magic began to work. The down was com­pletely burnt from the first man's wand, but as we watched he blew upon the burnt feathers and rubbed them backward and forward with his hands. Then he raised the wand to the heavens, pointed it to the fire, and with another yell called our attention to the astonishing fact that the down had appeared on his wand again as perfect as ever. One by one the other men restored their down, each leaving the circle when he had done so. It took the last man a long time to accomplish this puzzling feat, and when at last he triumphed and left the circle of fire we gave him a hearty round of applause - prosaic, perhaps, but sincere.

After this we rested for an hour. Then there came forth the "carriers and swallowers of the great plumed arrows." At first there were but two performers, but later on ten came on the scene. Clothed in moccasins, blue stockings, and a kilt belted with large silver discs of their own manu­facture, and with bunches of feathers tied on. each arm and on the top of their heads, they presented a striking spectacle seen by the dancing light of the great fire.

Advancing towards the patient (who was now seated within the dark circle), each man held up his arrow at a point just below the feathering, at the same time giving vent to a piercing yell. Then, to our amazement, each threw his head back and slowly but surely thrust the arrow down his throat, as shown in the preceding sketch. Still with the arrows stuck down their gullets, the two savages danced a sidelong kind of dance, now back­wards and now forwards, in front of the invalid. Then, apparently quite unharmed by their startling perform­ance, they withdrew the arrows from their throats and began some mystic " healing" motion with them, touching the feet, body, hands, and head of the sick man.

This dance concluded, there followed three others which, although interesting do not demand special

It was quite late - or rather in the early hours of morning, to be precise - when the beautiful sun show took place.  This consisted of a dance, in which representations of the sun and moon were brought forth to figure in a curious ceremony. For this the magicians came on the scene again. There were twelve performers, all nearly naked, and each carried a wooden arc, covered all over with eagle plumes. A chorus and a man with a rattle accompanied them, as, not once, but several times, they made the cir­cuit of the replenished central fire. Then, in response to cries of "Thohey! Thohey!" (" Stand! Stand!") they faced towards the west and executed a pretty little dance. This finished, they knelt down, - six in a row, facing one another, and, in some curious manner, each dancer suspended his arc of eagle plumes over the head of his vis-a-vis.  The effect was beautiful in the extreme, the white, halo like headdress giving these dusky savage-faces an ethereal and even beautiful aspect.

When all were thus decorated the man with the rattle addressed them, bidding them beware of losing their sun like halo. Then, while he rattled, they chanted a song, moving and swaying their bodies meanwhile in perfect unison - and yet with circumspection, lest they should disturb  the equilibrium of their feathery headgear.

After these had vanished into the darkness there came another and different band of necromancers, eighteen or twenty in number. One had a large basket full of amole leaves, while two others carried a roughly hewn plank some fourteen feet long. Still another carried a blanket, and the rear of the procession was brought up by a dignified person carrying a, basket containing a re­presentation of the sun.  This was a small round mirror, the edges covered with eagle down, and from it radiated a large number of strikingly beautiful plumes of scarlet and deep blue. Having circled round the fire, the magicians faced towards the west, so as to shut out the view of all spectators.

Suddenly the circle opened, and we saw, to our amazement; that the blanket was spread but on the ground, while standing upright upon it, without anything to hold it, was the plank before mentioned. In obedience to the command of the chief Shaman, the sun, in the basket at the bottom of the plank, slowly climbed out and up the plank until nearly at the top, when with equal deliberation it returned. Three times this peculiar performance was repeated, and then, the circle being closed once more, the paraphernalia was removed, leaving us without any means of finding. out how the cunning trick was performed, Now came the hosh-kon part of the proceed­ings. There were more circling and dancing, nearly thirty people taking part this time, and all clothed as on ordinary occasions. One man carried a plant and root of the hosh-kon, known to white people as the soap weed, and which is shown in our second photo. The rest of the dancers carried small pinyon boughs, which they used as wands.

Originally published in The Wide World Magazine, August 1900.

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