Native American sandpainting
In the sandpainting of southwestern Native Americans (the most famous of which are the Navajo), the Medicine Man (or Hatałii) paints loosely upon the ground of a hogan, where the ceremony takes place, or on a buckskin or cloth tarpaulin, by letting the colored sands flow through his fingers with control and skill. There are 600 to 1000 different traditional designs for sandpaintings which are known to the Navajo. They do not view the paintings as static objects, but as spiritual, living beings to be treated with great respect. More than 30 different sandpaintings may be associated with one ceremony.
The colors for the painting are usually accomplished with naturally colored sand, crushed gypsum (white), yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, and a mixture of charcoal and gypsum (blue). Brown can be made by mixing red and black; red and white make pink. Other coloring agents include corn meal, flower pollen, or powdered roots and bark.
The paintings are for healing purposes only. Many of them contain images of Yeibicheii (the Holy People). While creating the painting, the medicine man will chant, asking the yeibicheii to come into the painting and help heal the patient.
When the medicine man finishes painting, he checks its accuracy. The order and symmetry of the painting symbolize the harmony which a patient wishes to reestablish in his or her life. The accuracy of a sandpainting is believed to determine its efficacy as a sacred tool. The patient will be asked to sit on the sandpainting as the medicine man proceeds with the healing chant. The sandpainting acts as a portal to attract the spirits and allow them to come and go. Sitting on the sandpainting helps the patient to absorb spiritual power, while in turn the Holy People will absorb the illness and take it away. Afterward, when the sandpainting has done its duty, it is considered to be toxic, since it has absorbed the illness. For this reason, the painting is destroyed. Because of the sacred nature of the ceremonies, the sandpaintings are begun, finished, used, and destroyed within a 12-hour period.
The ceremonies involving sandpaintings are usually done in sequences, termed ‘chants’, lasting a certain number of days depending on the ceremony. At least one fresh, new sandpainting is made for each day.
Some Navajo laws and taboos relate to the sandpaintings, and protect their holiness:
- Women are not supposed to sing the chants associated with the yeibicheii. This is both because the ceremony has a possibility of injuring an unborn child, and because of a taboo preventing menstruating women from attending. (Many cultures considered menstruation and presence of blood to be powerful spiritual events that had to be restrained, as they represented life forces.) Post-menopausal women are more likely to be chanters or diagnosticians.
- One is not supposed to pretend to be a medicine man creating a sandpainting, or mock the medicine man in any way by mimicking him. Both the medicine man and the yeibicheii may punish you.
- Authentic sandpaintings are rarely photographed, so as to not disrupt the flow of the ceremony. For many reasons, medicine men will seldom allow outsiders inside a sacred ceremony. Because so many outsiders are curious about sandpainting, some medicine men may create pieces for exhibition purposes only, using reversed colors and variations. To create an authentic sandpainting solely for viewing would be a profane act. The sandpaintings for sale in shops and on the Internet are commercially produced and contain purposeful errors, as the real sandpaintings are considered sacred.
- The earliest credited instance of traditional Navajo sandpaintings (being rendered in colored sands as opposed to tapestry or other media) being created in a permanent form for commercial sale, have been traced to the period between 1945 and 1955. The main credit is generally given to a Navajo Hatałii named Fred Stevens, Jr. (Grey Squirrel), who developed the primary method of “permatizing” for commercial sandpaintings that is still in use today.