Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 22. The Night Chant of the Navaho

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 22. The Night Chant of the Navaho

In the Mountain Chant, the Dislyidje qacal of the Navaho, we have the Odyssey of a nomadic people, of great practical efficiency, wandering for generations in such a country as produced the earlier books of the Old Testament. It is notable that while the epics of their town-building neighbours, the Zuñi, Hopi, and Tewa peoples, are tribal, the chief literary product of the wandering Diné, like the story of Abraham, is the personal adventure of one man with the gods.

The full ceremony of the Night Chant is a nine days’ performance of symbolic rites, song sequences, and dramatic dances. The final act of all, performed in public as a sort of tribal festival, at night, within a corral of juniper boughs, takes a special name, Ilnasjingo qacal, “chant within the dark circle of branches.” This is the only part of the ceremony witnessed by whites, and conforms more nearly to our idea of dramatic entertainment.

The hero of the Dislyidje qacal is a Navaho, reared in the neighbourhood of the Carrizo Mountains, Arizona, from which he later takes his name, Dislyi Neyani, “Reared-within-the-Mountains.” Having disregarded the instruction of his father while out hunting one day, he is taken captive by the Utes and carried to their country. Here the gods, in the shape of an old woman and an owl, the little burrow-nesting owl, signify their intention of befriending him, calling him very much as Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees, and setting him, under their tutelage, on the trail toward his home.

The rest of the story is taken up with his adventures, all of a supernatural character, and all directed toward the Indian’s great desideratum, the acquirement of mystical knowledge and power. The itinerary of this journey is mapped a cross the Navaho country as was the voyage of Ulysses along the coasts of the Mediterranean, with the addition of a number of places belonging exclusively to Navaho cosmogony, the House of the Dew, the House of the Lightning, and the House of the Rock Crystal.

Reaching his old home at the end of these adventures, Reared-within-the-Mountains discovers that even after he has been washed and dried with cornmeal according to the Navaho custom, the odours of his people and their lodges are intolerable to him. Finally the difficulty is remedied by performing over him the ceremony of the Dislyidje qacal, recapitulating his adventures, and his people become tolerable to him once more.

Not long after this ceremonial purification, Reared-within-the-Mountains is out hunting with his younger brother on Black Mountain. Suddenly he speaks and says: “Younger Brother, behold the Holy Ones.” But his brother sees nothing. Then Dislyi Neyani speaks again:

  • Farewell, Younger Brother. From the holy places the gods come for me. You will never see me again, but when the showers pass and the thunders peal, “There,” you will say, “is the voice of my Elder Brother.” And when the harvest comes, of the beautiful birds and grasshoppers, you will say, “There is the ordering of my Elder Brother.”
  • And with these words he vanished.

    This incident of the passing of Dislyi Neyani is referred to in the Songs of the Thunder, of which the opening stanza of the first and the second stanza of the twelfth follow:

  • 1
  • Thonah, Thonah!
  • There is a voice above,
  • The voice of the Thunder,
  • Within the dark cloud
  • Again and again it sounds!
  • Thonah, Thonah!
  • 12
  • The voice that beautifies the land,
  • The voice above,
  • The voice of the grasshopper,
  • Among the plants.
  • Again and again it sounds,—
  • The voice that beautifies the land.
  • The ostensible purpose of any given presentation of the Night Chant is to cure sickness, but it is made the occasion of invoking the Unseen Powers on behalf of the people at large. The first four days are by way of preparation and purification, four being the sacred Navaho number, the number of the four quarters. The other five are essentially dramatic, beginning on the fifth day with an attempt to create the mise-en-scène with dry sand paintings on the floor of the Medicine Lodge.

    Heretofore all pictorial designs of this sort have been studied wholly from the point of view of their relation to the religious significance of the rite. If the sand paintings, reproductions of which are to be found in reports of the Bureau of Ethnology, instead of being spread out flat, and the ritual performed around them, were stood up on edge with the ritual performed in front, we should quickly discover what seems clearly indicated, the operation of the dramatic instinct. Disciples of Gordon Craig and the symbolists would require very little assistance from the ethnologist to make out the relevance of the sand paintings to the action going on around them.

    Nor is this the only green twig of modern stagecraft which may be observed at the Night Chant. The legerdemain of the Hoshkwan dance, in which the yucca is made to appear as growing from the newly planted root to flower and fruit in about the space of an hour, is the forerunner of the theatrical “transformation scene” still so dear to popular taste. All these things will bear study from the theatrical point of view. For the literary rendering of the lines, from which quotations have been given, we are indebted to Washington Matthews, as well as for all we know as a whole of the Night Chant, or, as it is otherwise known, the Mountain Chant.

    Like the Hako, the Navaho chant is based on a song sequence; the logical relation is scarcely discoverable without the accompanying action. Taken together, the songs, dances, and interpolated comedy of the last night’s performance, within the dark circle of branches, is akin to that most American and popular variety of entertainment, the musical comedy. The same can be said of many of the South-west ceremonials, where the social character is evident, modifying the element of religious observance.

    There is a disposition among ethnologists to regard the loosened structure of tribal performances as indicating the breaking down of religious significance. It seems perhaps rather the breaking in of the literary instinct; the unconscious movement of a people to utilize a philosophy already thoroughly assimilated and familiar as a medium of social expression.