The Best of Human Behavior / Art – Making the Invisible Visible


A metal “Coca-Cola” tray repurposed by a Navajo as the base for a Yei figure, in “sand painting” style. ca. 1930s-50s.

I have no memory of where I found this tray; most likely a thrift store in northern Arizona or New Mexico, along Route 66. The metal “Coke” tray was likely picked from a trash pile behind a restaurant or bar, or was given to a Navajo artist, who would have painted it, and then returned it in exchange for food or liquor. Or, he or she may have taken it to a “trading post” to trade for necessities, where it was offered for sale to tourists, along with other handmade objects. I could be completely wrong about it’s origin – part of the appeal is the ongoing mystery of its existence.

This type of “unofficial” art is what appeals to me; a story of one person’s act of everyday survival is ‘imaged” here, and can be “read” or imagined – as well as enjoyment of the object itself.


From: The Gale Group / U.S. History in Context / The Navajo

Link to excellent content and references: OVERVIEW

Birchfield, D. L. “Navajos.” Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, edited by Thomas Riggs, 3rd ed., vol. 3, Gale, 2014, pp. 259-276. U.S. History in Context

Traditional Navajo healers are called hataalii, or “singers.” Traditional Navajo medical practice treats the whole person, not just the illness, and is not conducted in isolation but in a ceremony that includes the patient’s relatives. The ceremony can last from three to nine days, depending upon the illness being treated and the ceremony to be performed. For the Navajos, illness means that there is disharmony in the universe. Proper order is restored with sand paintings in a cleansing and healing ceremony. There are approximately 1,200 designs that can be used; most can be created within the size of the average hogan floor, about 6 feet by 6 feet, though some are as large as 12 feet in diameter and some as small as 1 foot in diameter. The hataalii may have several helpers in the creation of the intricate patterns. Dancers also assist them. In some ceremonies, such as the nine-day Yei-Bei-Chei, fifteen or sixteen teams of eleven members each dance throughout the night while the singer and his helpers chant prayers.

When the painting is ready, the patient sits in the middle of it. The singer then transmits the orderliness of the painting—symbolic of its cleanliness, goodness, and harmony—into the patient and puts the illness from the patient into the painting. The sand painting is then discarded. Many years of apprenticeship are required to learn the designs of the sand paintings and the songs that accompany them, skills that have been passed down through many generations. Most hataalii are able to perform only a few of the many ceremonies practiced by the Navajos, because each ceremony takes so long to learn. Sand painting is now also done for commercial purposes at public displays, but the paintings are not the same ones used in the healing rituals. The hataalii and the sand paintings are only one example of the numerous Navajo practices and specialists attending to health in the traditional system.

Link to the rest of the content: OVERVIEW


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