Our business in Gallup was concluded. It had been a great working trip this time. Lots of new contacts and lots of amazing new work. We had shed most of our feeling of being strangers, finally.
“You wanna go to a Yeii’bi’Chai, tonight?”
Maureen wore a blinding grin. Who wouldn’t? “Sure… uhh, how far is it?” We were driving a rental, subcompact Nissan.
“Not very… down towards Zuni, just north of Vanderwagon. You can follow me.”
“You sure it would be alright for us to be there? How ‘bout my Mom?” my wife asked her.
“Of course, I’m family with the patient. You’ll be there to add your prayers. Bring your Mom, too!”
We set up the time she knocked off from work and made plans. She told us to bring coats, as the nights in the high desert can get cold. We knew that much. We’d been trading in American Indian arts in the Four Corners now for probably ten years, maybe six trips a year. This time, we’d brought my mother-in-law along. She was mid-seventies but had more stamina that both of us put together. She had been our biggest start-up investor and we figured that she should get a feel for what we were doing. Maureen’s invitation had perfect timing. Seemed like a great way to cap off the trip.
The Navajo healing traditions are very much alive and well in the red rocks country. Many traditional Navajo people feel the need for these healing ceremonies equally with the need for hospital medicine. Maybe more. In a telling nod to the unique way the Navajo Nation has adapted to life in our modern world, we had heard that some Native Health Care Insurance plans now made financial provision for curing ceremonials to be covered. We were very excited to be asked to attend, and I went online back at the motel to do some additional research on what we’d be seeing later.
Yeii’ bi’ chai is the name the Navajo give to specific helping spirits that can speak with humans. Also known as “talking gods”, their help is the desired goal of many ceremonies. This one is also called a Nightway. It’s held, after dark, for eight straight nights. It’s a very expensive undertaking for the patient’s family, one that requires a serious commitment. Along with housing and feeding the singer who chants the ceremony, the eight dancers and their families, there is a new ceremonial house – a circular, log “female” Hogan needed. It must be built for the ceremony. A new rug weaving is also used along with pine boughs, herbs and lots of firewood. I read that it is considered a last resort ceremonial. Very powerful. Many poorer families can’t afford to hold one, so entire clans often help with the expenses. All blood relatives are also expected to attend, on both sides, so the food costs alone are staggering.
It’s still twilight when we finally hit the road, following behind Maureen’s pickup. At the end of a half-hour drive, she suddenly puts her blinker on for a left turn off the highway and onto… what? No road. Just a trace, where many vehicles have led the way over an old barbed wire fence, now mashed flat into the ochre dirt. The tire tracks disappear between a couple of scrub Junipers. We crawl along behind, far enough back not to eat Maureen’s dust cloud. It’s not easy going. The way is over boulders and tree roots. Bushwhacking in a Nissan. Several times I hear the scraping sound of the bottom of the car sliding over a high point, rock or branch. There’s no visibility behind as our own dust chokes the air, but ahead we can see where Maureen has gone ahead. After a couple of tense moments crawling over or around obstructions, we see a huge cleared area filled with pickups and a few cars, too. For what appears to be a random spot, deep in the New Mexico boondocks, lots of folks were able to find the place. We see Maureen’s truck stop and park ahead, so we pull in next to it.
The sun dips behind the far-western mesas and the sky turns a deep gold, then red. We sneeze a few times. The Juniper pollen is running so high right now that brushing against a branch sends up its own yellow cloud. The dust comes up as a few more stragglers pull onto the field. The day’s warmth rapidly retreats and the air goes crisp.
Streams of Navajo families are making their way from between the trucks and vans and beater cars, towards a cleared circle, where a huge crowd has gathered. Lots of cowboy hats and boots, big belt buckles, silver beads and gigantic silver cuff bracelets set with turquoise and coral accent the attendees as they find their people and settle in. Maureen brings us in very close to where her own family will be sitting. She shows us where to stand and we take our positions as the Singer begins to call upon the Yeii’bi’chai to harken. A line of eight dancers impersonate these spirits and they appear out of the darkness, drawing close to the fire. This sends huge, flickering shadows dancing everywhere against the Junipers and Pinon trees. The Singer brings the blanket draped patient out of the Hogan and leads her to a special place on a brightly woven rug near the fire, and the ceremony begins. The crowd quiets and chanting fills the air.
Part speech, part song, it’s an ancient cycle renewed each time it’s performed. Singers will specialize in a few particular ceremonies as everything must be done perfectly and all from memory. Nothing is written down, as writing down these devotions is believed to weaken them. Every night, a large, detailed sand painting is rendered by hand, from memory in the prescribed manner upon the ground using pollen and crushed stone pigments. Once completed, the rug is put over it while the patient sits upon it, bringing its power into focus through their body. The chants and songs continue to cycle several more times, joined voices ringing in the chill night air.
This is truly as far from our connected, busy lives as we have ever been. I look up at the stars glittering above my head and can truly feel the mingling of the unseen spirits around me.
Cedar is thrown upon the fire and the pungent smoke fills the air and spreads into the crowd. The patient is helped to rise and taken into the Hogan for the curing to continue.
“Psst!” A Navajo man standing nearby motions us over.
“Do you want to see inside the ceremonial Hogan?”
I shake my head, replying “Oh, I’m sure we wouldn’t be welcome inside.”
“Oh, no, Sure your wife can go in. It’s all right.”
“Well… first, though she will have to take off all her clothes. Then she can go inside.”
“I should do what?” says my wife, somewhat shocked.
“Take off all your clothes and then you can go inside the Hogan.” Two of his buddies standing nearby nod, solemnly to assure us that this is indeed true. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I kneel down and ask Maureen about it. She twists her head back, all angry eyes, then stands up and approaches our teachers. A few, sharp words in Navajo and she comes back.
“They were just goofing on you, that’s all.” She resumes her spot on the ground. I look back at the three. One says, “Sorry. No hard feelings?”
I walk over. “Nope. I get it. It’s a joke.”
The first guy nods with a big smile. I turn to leave, then turn back and ask him, “Has it ever worked?”
“Not yet.” He says with a big grin, “not yet.”
The ceremony continues for more than an hour. When my wife’s mother begins to tire, Maureen gives her a blanket for her shoulders and brings her over to the smaller, family fire where the other family elders are warming themselves. When the healing is complete for the night, the dancers file off into the darkness and the Singer, having destroyed the sand painting in the Hogan with a cedar branch, now gathers all the paint pigments to throw them into the night air, retaining the power of the painting. He sends up a loud prayer to the unseen beings and the Nightway is ended for the night.
We return to our vehicles as headlight beams begin piercing the darkness all around us. Maureen apologizes for the behavior of the guys behind us. “There’s always a few guys that have had a few beers, then show up and act like fools. I hope you weren’t offended.”
“Nope, we have ‘em back home, too. Never a short supply of fools.”