Navajo healing practicesThis is a featured page

Introduction to Navajo religious healing
There are three parts to Traditional Navajo religious healing, involving three branches of health practitioners – herbalists, shamans and singers (also known as medicine man or chanter). Herbalists, mainly females, deal with medicinal plants usually used for symptomatic relief, providing access to potions and herbs. Shamans or diagnosticians diagnose illnesses from various techniques, such as hand trembling and star gazing, and refer patients to the medicine man, mainly males, who then sings and curates symbolic healing ceremonies. The medicine man plays a major role in healing ceremonies.

Origin/ source of illness
In the Navajo community, language and thought guide the way natives make sense of events in their lives and thus can be observed in the beliefs and practices revolving around sickness and health in their society.

Illnesses to Navajo, in an extremely simplified explanation, are caused by a disharmony in the universe. A medicine man performs a ceremony to restore the harmony. The total number of different ceremonies practiced is unknown, and each can last up to nine nights for the important ceremonies. The presence of the immediate and extended family and other connections of the patient are required in a proper ceremony. These people present hold vital roles in the ceremony, such as dancing in costume, leading group discussions with chanter, family and patient, and chanting. The medicine man manages the group process and does the ritual chant, produce sand paintings and recite the myth identified with the ceremony.

Traditional Navajo religion focuses on healing and stresses the gravity of the causes of a disease’s origins. Diseases are not known by its symptoms or the affected bodily regions, but are known by their causal agents such as lightning, water or wind. Navajo disease etiology believes that illness generally stems from bodily contact with natural elements, and thus one becomes “infected”. Such elements include certain animals, ceremonies, and contact with foreigners, especially enemies, ghosts of deceased humans.

Diagnosis process
Although the main use of diagnosis is to search for the root cause of a sickness and its suitable ceremonial cure, it is possible that a therapy is already on-going. The very act of narrating “[allows] the patient to give meaning to her illness experience” (Milne, Howard).

Search for root cause
Throughout the Navajo spiritual healing process, diagnosis to discover the causal origins of a sickness is deemed the most important. Navajo sickness is not known by the symptoms it produces or by the part of the body it affects, but rather, by their causal agents (lightning, water, wind, etc), and to treat an ailment is to ritually address its causal agent.

Diagnosticians are thus consulted to find the origins of particular sickness, because without knowing the original cause, a patient cannot be properly treated. Navajo disease etiology holds that illness generally comes from bodily contact with various natural phenomena that causes "infection”. Such things include certain kinds of animals, ceremonies, ghosts of deceased humans, and contact with foreigners, especially enemies, living or dead. In addition, according to Navajo religious belief, the Holy People (or diyin dine'6, the Navajo term) are manifestations of natural elements such as wind, water, or lightning, as well as certain powerful animals (bear, eagle, or snake, for example) and other figures from the Navajo origin story cycle. These elements and entities are sacred and hence, have the power to cause sickness in people. Such sickness is then manifested as various physical symptoms.
However, the diagnosis process is made more complex as it is believed that ‘infection’ aftereffects do not necessarily occur right after contact, but will emerge sooner or later.
Typically, patients do not seek ritual healing until symptoms occur. Generally, patients are not stigmatized or necessarily seen as responsible for their own ‘infection’ as Navajo norms are driven by pragmatic considerations and have little to do with morality per se. Possible exceptions to this include witchcraft and incest, both of which can cause illness and both of which are strongly proscribe.

During this process, a diagnostician is always sought to determine the cause(s) during a divination rite. Misdiagnosis is feared because it can lead to a costly wrong match of ceremony that requires a lot of social support. If misdiagnosis does occur, another diagnostician is sought out. Navajos usually consult a local diagnostician who may be a family member first. However, if the recommendation failed to cure, an outside diagnostician will be approached. This explains why it is common for patients to be treated by several different diagnosticians before deciding on a course of action.

Due to experiences of misdiagnosis, coupled with ongoing rumours of ill intention and fakery, Navajos sometimes do express their lack of confidence in diagnosticians. In situations where the ceremony failed to cure, the blame is usually placed on the diagnostician rather than the medicine man who performed the ‘curing’. Nevertheless, use of diagnosticians remains necessary in choosing a right ceremonial course of action to eradicate the sickness.

Navajos practise three different diagnostic methods – stargazing, listening and hand-trembling, which all depend on a mild trance state. During stargazing, one either looks at the stars directly or through a crystal and receives information about the patient. Whereas during listening, as the name suggests, the pertinent information is heard rather than seen, and lastly hand-trembling is whereby the diagnosis is interpreted through an involuntary motion of the hand. Hand-trembling is seen as a gifted skill which cannot be developed but rather, that occurs spontaneously (usually in the context of a healing ceremonial) and is then "controlled" with help of an experienced diagnostician. Among the three methods, hand-trembling is most commonly deployed.

Normally, hand-tremblers though may be either male or female, are primarily carried out by women with the diagnosis lasting less than an hour. The consultation generally begins with the diagnostician asking the patient a few basic questions about the illness if facts are not already known (even though some diagnosticians are said to be capable of diagnosing without any information). After which, a blessing is made in the form of a line of corn pollen drawn on the fingers and up the arm, a prayer appealing for Gila Monster’s guidance is spoken, and the hand-trembler enters a mild trance. The Gila Monster belongs to one of the Holy People who will communicate information about the patient’s condition to the diagnostician. Lastly, a ceremonial cure is recommended. Overall, the diagnosis is validated when the patient correlates his/her life experiences with the diagnostician’s knowledge.

Therapeutic healing power of narrative
One interesting aspect that marks the Navajo healing is the role of narrative in their diagnosis procedure. We should note that such narratives are more than just mere recollection – they shape the illness experience itself, and impact one’s health directly. The idea behind is that the act of understanding the nature of and narrating one's illness is almost a cure itself due to the effective potential of language. The act of telling one’s story literally expulsed the causes of his/her illness (the anger, the sadness) that were lodged in the body. Diagnosis, then, aid not just in determining appropriate ceremonial action, but also in allowing the patient to come to terms with his/her sickness. In a way, this type of therapy is markedly similar to the Western psychotherapy.

Healing ceremony (‘sing’ and the medicine man)
Once diagnosed, a ceremonial chantway called the ‘sing’ is conducted by a healer (medicine man). Being the holder of truth about the Navajo way of life, the medicine man is held in great respect and honour among the Navajo people. His ‘sing’s may be intended to ameliorate the cause of suffering, or they may be intended to enhance health, the quality of social relationships, and financial well-being. Such ceremonies take place in a Hogan (the traditional Navajo dwelling) and vary from a short prayer (sometimes taking less than an hour) to a full nine-night ceremonial.

Ceremonies attempt to redress the patient's illness performatively through identification of the patient with the Holy People. The medicine man will speak prayers that the patient repeat verbatim. In these prayers, the patient is progressively identified with the Holy People until he/she is literally speaking in the first person as one of the Holy People. In the ceremony's culmination, the patient sits on a carefully prepared and properly blessed sandpainting. Sandpaintings represent the Holy People in their anthropomorphic form. The deities are said to be drawn into the ceremony by their attraction to their own likeness, and through the symbolic merger of patient and deity, healing occurs.

A young patient observes a medicine man (on the right) and helper prepare a sandpainting as part of her healing ceremony.
(image from:
A young patient observes a medicine man (on the right) and helper prepare a sandpainting as part of her healing ceremony. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Navajo Area Indian Health Service Today, IHS, 1980.)

For the Navajo patient afflicted with physical symptoms, causal reasoning is often exceedingly complex. While it is sometimes asserted that one-to-one correlations of symptom and cause exist (for example, that "lightning causes cancer" or "whirlwinds cause dizziness"), various causes can nonetheless manifest themselves in a variety of different ways.
As such, etiological factors are relatively consistent but the resulting symptoms and diseases are not. For example, a wide range of diseases is treated by the Mountain top way ceremony, including arthritis, mental disturbances, gastrointestinal diseases, genitourinary diseases, skin disorders, deafness, and eye troubles. In addition to the complexity, various ways to treat a given disease is also present. Gastrointestinal problems, for example, are treated with a variety of ceremonies, including Shooting way, Red Ant way, Mountain top way, Beauty way, and Wind way. This subordination of symptoms to causes as factors in deciding treatment is something that distinguishes Navajo medicine from Western medical healing therapies.

The therapeutic process of a rite itself can be a “talking cure” as patients narrate their illness, especially those pertaining to what is known as depression illness according to western medical models. Through narration, patient gives his or her illness experience a meaning. Such narrations structure the illness experience rather than just a recollection. The valuable potential of language itself is suggested through the belief that narrating one’s illness impacts health.

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