Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
The first day of Marie's sing is a concentrated sample of the four days we put in cleansing ourselves and preparing sacrifices for the various gods. The next three days are similar except for minor variations and intensity. The early morning paintings change a little. Horned snakes are painted on the first morning; on the second there are straight and zigzag arrows; on the next, sidewinders, and on the fourth, arrows again. The cloud of the first day is black with Sky People, of the second, blue with Water People, of the third, yellow with Sun People, and of the last, pink with Summer People. The only apparent change is in the color; the design is exactly the same for the four days. The second day the fire is not as hot as on the first, the emesis not so violent, or nearly so long drawn out. These events of the third day are again conscientiously done, but even then not as strenuous as on the first.
On the second night the kitty quietly followed the guests into the hogan. Curley's-Son saw it, went to the water bucket, filled a pan with water and unobtrusively enticed it out past the door curtain. Dan and Ben did not even see him do it. When he returned, the cat remained outside.
By the end of the fourth day invitations have been offered to Wind, Water-Monster, Water-Horse, Summer, Black Sky,
[paragraph continues] Earth, Sun, Moon, Pollen Boy, and Cornfly Girl, besides to the Horned-Rattlers; all beings who assisted the first legendary heroes, the Holy Twins, to whose sufferings we owe the Shooting Chant, and who for that reason will assist us. When I came this year, I brought Red-Point a flask of water from "the eastern ocean." He uses it for painting the prayersticks of the second day. It has not been secured with the proper ceremony, but perhaps it "will bring rain. We are trying it."
During the intervals between the ceremonial acts of each day the men are working. To Marie and Ninaba they seem brief indeed, for they seize upon these moments for naps. To me, though I am not weaving, the hours seem like minutes. I am mulling over the myth of the Shooting Chant, finding, in the narrative of the adventures of the two sons of the Sun, explanations and understanding as well as the unity of all the ostensibly unconnected small acts of each performance. But to the men who are working, time has ceased to exist. They have a great deal to do, and only a short time in which to do it.
Red-Point has determined to make this sing as complete as he possibly can. So he has chosen an elaborate form of it called the Chant-of-the-Sun's-House. He has sent out announcements of the event, and each day a few of his friends have come; but the hands are few compared with the work to be done. During the time he worked as a missionary John did not participate actively in sings. If he went to one he did so because "he had to see someone on business." But he comes to ours on the second day, and because Red-Point is shorthanded, but more because his hands itch, as do mine, to work with the attractive sticks and paints, he begs to be allowed to help. The Chanter is pleased to let him try.
All the men including John work tirelessly, although, as is the Navajo custom, without haste. There are endless details to be attended to. A chant of this sort requires an unlimited supply of water and wood, to mention only two mundane needs. The largest task on hand is the repainting of the Sun's-House which is the symbol of supernatural power for the Chant. It is a booth not more than eighteen inches deep over the front of which hangs a curtain of sticks like a portière. This is about five feet wide by three high. Red-Point has not sung the Chant-of-the-Sun's-House for eight years, and the curtain must be painted anew. The pattern is exactly the same as the central part of the Sun's-House sand-painting which Atlnaba so carefully wove into a tapestry last year. Wide stripes of white, black, green, and yellow occupy most of the space. With the yellow stripe as background four deities, Sun, Moon, Black Wind, and Yellow Wind, form houses for the four different kinds of snakes. Around each is a rainbow, blue (Red-Point uses green) outside, red inside. Encircling three sides of the whole is another rainbow of the same sort, no detail of which is omitted.
Now if I were painting this curtain from Atlnaba's rug or Red-Point's copy in water colors, it would not be so much work. I should paint a stick all white and lay it horizontally for the top, two or three green and lay them parallel with the first and so on. The last few which compose the snakes' houses would be the only tedious ones. But the Chanter and his assistants cannot do it this way. The sticks must hang vertically. This means that every piece less than half an inch in diameter must represent a cross-section of the whole. The designs must be applied in mosaic fashion. As a weaver must carry in her mind her entire pattern and at the same time
divide it into an infinite number of single-strand stripes, so must the painters of the Sun's-House. Each "strand" of their painting is one stick wide.
After two days of intermittent work at this John comes to my house just before sundown to prefer a request. "You look tired," I say as I offer him a smoke. "I am," he replies smiling. "It's lots of work."
"I never realized how much work a sing is," I say. "I simply cannot understand how Red-Point does it. He superintends everything by day; he never loses sight of a thing, and everything necessary is ready at the proper moment. He hardly sleeps at night. Last night it was eleven before the sing was over and this morning I heard him singing at four-thirty."
"Yes," continues John. "I just came up for a little visit yesterday morning. I did not intend to stay this long. But they need help, and I offered to try my hand at the painting."
"Did you ever help before?"
"It looks like a nice thing to do."
"It is," John replies. "The old man said I did better than some of the others who had done it before."
A pause ensues, broken finally by John. "One of the boys has been hunting his horse all day and has not found it. They need some medicine for tomorrow night and now there is hardly time for him to get it even if he could catch his horse."
"Where does he have to go for it?" I inquire.
"The nearest is Crystal."
"Why, that is sixty miles!" I exclaim.
"Yes. The old man is pretty disappointed because he
wanted this done so complete. I suggested that maybe you would be willing to go for it. I said I would be glad to do it, but I do not know how to cut the medicine properly nor do I know the prayers."
"I told him at the beginning that I should be glad to do anything of that sort I could," I protest. "I knew he needed this distant medicine fresh, but I didn't know when."
"The roads are dry and hard now. I think if we start about sunrise tomorrow we could get it in time. He said one of the boys would go with us. I said maybe you wouldn't mind getting up so early."
"All right," I agree, "but I think I better get gas tonight. I haven't enough, and no trader will be up that early."
"I will take my horse home and come back with you. I am kind of worried about my horses. I left them in the corral without any hay. And nobody is home. I will let them out and look around the place."
I drive to Ganado, get gas and supplies, and visit my friends for several hours. I am sorry to miss a part of the ceremony but am glad the part I have to miss is not new, merely a repetition of what has gone before. About nine I pick up John and we arrive at Red-Point's hogan as the men are eating, preparatory to the evening sing. A discussion is under way as Tom sits hatted and kerchiefed as if he were going somewhere. Just before we arrived the man I call the "Man-with-the-Voice-Wrapped-Up-in-Cotton-Batting" had inquired where he was going. He answered, "To the southeast to get Douglas fir."
As we come in, someone suggests: "But it is just as far that way as to Crystal. Both kinds grow at Crystal. Why don't you get it all on one trip?"
John now takes command. "When do you have to have it?" "At noon tomorrow."
John quietly and persuasively addresses himself to me. "Gladys, would you mind starting tonight? We could throw your bed in the car and go as far as we get, then camp, and in the morning cut our medicines. If we have good luck we could be back by noon, when they need this Douglas fir. The roads are good now, and there is no sign of rain."
"Sure, I can be ready in five minutes. I'll be down to eat before we start. I will pick you up, and you can load the car on the way out."
So agreeing, I repair to my house to assemble my camp kit and strap my blanket roll. I join John and Tom at the cooking shade in a few minutes, and after a hearty meal we are off. Never has the road been better, and I almost pray Jonathan will not do anything to delay us. He runs like a charm, and we find ourselves near our destination a little after midnight. In the darkness John and Tom have missed the dim tracks which lead to the Pass where the trees we seek grow, and John suggests we camp here until daylight. We do so, to find ourselves eaten up by mosquitoes. John and Tom are so weary that even the millions of these pests do not seriously annoy their slumbers. For once in my life I anticipate the dawn; more eagerly than Red-Point I discern its first pale gleam. Out of pity for the guides I linger a bit over my abbreviated ablutions and fixing my bed for travelling. But these beasts are unendurable; besides we have work to do, so I call the boys. I persist loudly before they remember where they are and why. The mosquitoes soon bring back consciousness.
In the cool of early dawn we drive a few miles to a road
[paragraph continues] I had travelled once before. It winds through green pastures watered by a clear, fresh-running brook. As we ascend the steep slope of the mountain, the meadows narrow, and the road is bordered on both sides by dense rows of tall firs and spruces. There is no undergrowth, and the long luscious grass is dotted here with a blue flower, there with a yellow, and farther on with a bright dash of scarlet. We cross the stream and arrive at our destination, a flat on the edge of a ravine. Gigantic pines grow on the flat; we stop to camp near a Douglas fir which is at least eighty feet high. As John lights a fire and collects with little effort the fuel to enlarge it, I remember that upon the occasion of my previous visit during which it had rained continuously, I had registered this as one of my patterns for paradise.
The men are off to cut the branches of the Douglas fir and Colorado blue spruce, both of which grow across the ravine. As I am making the coffee, I decide to be decent enough to wait politely until the boys come back. Within the short time it takes it to boil my decency evaporates. I do not know how long they will be gone, I argue to myself. I take a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll, another cup and another roll. I am very sleepy. There are no mosquitoes here, the morning is even too young for flies. I have slept soundly for an hour and a half when the boys return and we have a regular breakfast.
We start back with a large gunny sack of the fir branches. Tom had cut several pieces of blue spruce very carefully so that each formed a cross with two arms; to the butt end he had tied a knot of the blue cloth in which he carries them. During the trip home he takes care always that the spruce branches never leave the cloth; when we are moving the
bundle lies lightly on his lap, when we stop he lays it tenderly on the seat.
"How did you cut the medicine?" I ask John as we drive along.
"Red-Point gave Tom a flint knife from his bundle and a little sack of pollen. He told him the prayer to say as he cut a branch and sprinkled it with pollen. You know Tom has been learning from Red-Point."
A few miles west of Fort Defiance we stop once more for some sticks of wild rose, which complete the list of medicines for which we were sent. Jonathan buzzes along in a determined and businesslike manner, and at 11:35 we enter the ceremonial hogan to the congratulations of the men making the prayersticks there.
On the night which begins the fifth day the performance differs only slightly from the previous four. The Sun's-House is finished and stands at the back of the hogan, a protection and a blessing to it. The top and sides of the booth are covered thickly with the green fir branches, through the holes of the Sun, Moon and Wind houses wooden snakes move back and forth. Above the curtain four carvings of clouds stick up. In Atlnaba's weaving birds stood on these clouds. Here by invisible means a bluebird, a bluejay, a blackbird, a wild canary, and a yellow warbler, very realistic, fly about above the booth as they sing clearly and sweetly. From now on this pantomime accompanies each performance. Often Curley's-Son is strangely absent.
Old-Mexican's-Son sleeps in the hogan this night. The next morning as I drive him home he reports, "You know there is something to that Sun's-House. About three-thirty I got
awake and felt something like a presence. I told Red-Point, and he said, "That's right, no one can sleep with the Sun's-House present." Very early he woke up Marie and Ninaba and placed them in front of it. As the pollen carried a prayer, the birds sang, and they sounded just like bluebirds, too. Then Red-Point made them go outside and facing the rising sun; they set up the things from his bundle which will guard the house from evil while they are making the sand-painting of the day. As he stuck each object in the sandpile, he chanted a long prayer. You know there is something in these Navajo prayers that gets me. That's why I like to go to sings."
"It was the prayer which woke me," I agree. "I couldn't hear the words but it is the setting which is holy. The night the sheep were struck by lightning I woke about midnight and heard Red-Point praying down near the sheep corral. The parts of the sing the white people never see are the most impressive. The lighting of the prayersticks and these prayers in solitude carry the answer to the power of the chant. Even I who do not believe can understand how these acts can really cure these people because they believe so implicitly."
As we ride on in silence I muse, "It could not be otherwise when from babyhood a Navajo has heard:
On the high mountain peaks he sought the gods and found them.
Truly with my sacrifice he sought the gods and found them.
Somebody doubts it, so I have heard.
"I do not doubt it."