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Earth is my mother Essay

The author’s purpose in writing was to understand for herself and to be able to present Navajo sandpaintings as “dynamically sacred living entities whose meanings lie in the process of their creation and use” (page xix). Sandpaintings, created from different colored sands and sacred objects, are not art. They are representations of mythical beings and legends created for the purpose of reestablishing someone’s health and harmony. The study of sandpaintings and their various meanings permits the reader considerable insight into Navajo land-tied religious beliefs, world view, creation myths, society, history, and even concepts of time.

The author, Trudy Griffin-Pierce, provides little autobiographical information in the book. She mentions her rootless Air Force upbringing and how her early readings were devoted to books about Native American culture, especially the Navajo. Although she is distantly related to the Catawba Indians of South Carolina, she always felt a kinship with the Navajo and lived for a time with a Navajo family, learning their traditions, history, and language. This bond drew her to Arizona after she completed her undergraduate degree in art at Florida State University.

N. Scott Momaday, in his “Forward”, adds that Ms. Griffin-Pierce is a very creative artist, capable of understanding and discussing the artistic dimension of the Navajo world. She makes the inventive and imaginative Navajo system of belief without our understanding. Ms. Griffin-Pierce received her doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1987, where she is currently Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department and teaches three courses. The information on her website at the University of Arizona reveals that this was her first published book.

She has written four newer books, The Encyclopedia of Native America (1995), Native Americans: Enduring Cultures and Traditions (1996), Native Peoples of the Southwest (2000), and Paridigms of Power: The Chiricahua Apache Prisoners of War and Naiche’s Hide Paintings (in press); and two articles, “When I am Lonely the Mountains Call Me: The Impact of Sacred Geography on Navajo Psychological Well Being”, and “Navajo Religion”. All of her writings center on the history of Indians in the United States’ Southwest. She is currently studying aging and dementia among Arizona’s Native Americans.

In Earth is my Mother; Sky is my Father, Ms. Griffin-Pierce details Navajo religious beliefs, world views, historical myths, societal structure, and astronomical concepts before she discusses the use and structure of Navajo sandpaintings. Basic Navajo religious beliefs are still followed by many Navajos who chose not to assimilate the tenets of Christianity presented to them in the 1800’s. There is no word for “religion” in the Navajo language. Spirituality, health, harmony, and beauty are inseparable. The universe is an all-inclusive whole where everything has a unique place and beneficial relationship to all other living things.

God is the “Unknown Power” worshipped through His Creation. The Navajo also have a close relationship with the Holy People, with whom they interact daily. (page 34) Navajo religious beliefs are closely tied to their intense longing for and their love of their homeland, which they consider the “point in space from which all conceptions of the cosmos proceed”. (page xv) The land and the earth is their foundation of all belief, wonder, and meaning in human existence, and the four sacred mountains are the center. There are no permanent religious centers. The Native American Church is a local peyote visionary religion.

  The Navajo have a circular concept of time that permits their mythic, spiritual world to coexist with their physical world. The author suggests that the Navajo sacred sandpaintings cannot be understood unless we accept the Navajo’s “mythopoetic context of layered time, space, and meaning”. (page 7) Navajo spirituality affirms humanity’s place in nature as a whole. Their ceremonies restore the interconnectedness of all life. They believe sickness results from failure to maintain reciprocal responsibilities with the environment, infringement of ceremonial rules, and transgressions against one’s own mind and bodies.

Her purpose in writing this book is to share a more humane, more connected view of the world and its contributions in reestablishing humanity’s alignment with the universe. (page 9) Navajos still worship gods and goddesses of specific purposes. Their deities include the Sun; Changing Woman, who brings the earthly seasons; and their children, Hero Twins, Monster Slayer, Born-for Water, First Man and First Woman, First Boy and First Girl, the trickster Coyote, and the Speechless Ones, who cannot utter words.

(page 34) These are often depicted in the sandpaintings. Navajos have a concept of the “Holy Wind”, reminiscent of the Christian Holy Spirit, as a being that exists everywhere and is in all living beings. For them this means that all living beings are related and that humanity has a responsibility to care for other living beings. Curiously, in Navajo Creation stories, the Holy People spoke, sang, and prayed the world into existence with their sacred words. Since everyone has an inner form and is part of the Holy Wind, each has a Holy Person located within.

Oneness with the universe creates a responsibility to treat one’s fellow creatures with the same respect one has towards oneself. (page 73). The Navajos were among the last American Indians to migrate from Asia to North America and were late in arriving in the Southwest. They settled in the geographical area bounded by the four Sacred Mountains in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. Their geographical isolation protected them from diseases brought by the Spaniards and provided them with access to stealing their horses, sheep, and goats. They learned weaving from the Pueblos.

The Navajo societal structure was and is matriarchal, clan, and family based, and they dwell in isolated family groups structured by the nuclear family, the matrilocal extended family, close relatives, and other relatives. Many Navajo live in frame houses today, but some still choose well-constructed hogans. (page 21) Navajo ceremonial healings involving sandpaintings are conducted by highly trained practitioners called “chanters” who have learned to sing the elaborate Navajo rituals. The Navajo chanter can cure witchcraft, exorcise ghosts, and establish immunity to illness.

 A chanter is a priest, not a shaman, and never enters the shaman’s characteristic trance state. Most chanters are men. Women become diagnosticians, or shamans who acquire knowledge in a trance state. (page 39) Navajo ceremonials are rites (rattle is not used) or chants (rattle accompanies singing. The major rites (Blessingway and Enemyway) use drypaintings with pigments made from plants, including corn, pollens, cornmeal, flower petals, and charcoal. The author explains that Enemyway is a form of exorcism against the ghosts of aliens, violence, and ugliness.

The chanting ceremonies (Holyway, Evilway, or Lifeway) use sandpaintings of different colors of sand, ocher and charcoal. Other sacred objects, vegetation, and bowls of water are incorporated into both types of ceremonies. (pages 40-41) There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different sandpainting designs. A sandpainting is a place of entry where supernaturals enter and leave, attracted by their likenesses in the painting. The establishment of this pathway lets the evil or illness in the patient be replaced by the good, or healing power of the supernatural being. (page 43) The healing ceremonies last for several days.

It takes four to six people three to five hours to complete a sandpainting six feed in diameter. The workers begin in the center and work outwards. (page 45. The Navajos’ basic concept is that the powers of the heavens and earth are drawn into the sandpainting for the purpose of healing. Time is compressed so that powerful mythic events of the past coexist with the present and restore harmony and well being to the person being healed. (page 58) The sandpainted image is intended to let the sick person project his or her mind through time and space, rising above present earthly limitations.

 The Navajo layered worldview becomes meaningless during a ceremony as all layers of heavens and underground become one. The Navajos study the constellations and star arrangements primarily for determination of seasons, and they are not part of the ceremonial core of sandpaintings, even though depictions of mythical gods of creation in the form of constellations may be used. (page 103) One of the more interesting myths is how Younger Brother went to the sky country and met an inner circle of hostile beings whom he left to stay with the friendly Star People in the outer dwellings.

These friendly Star People, whom the Navajo call “The People”, and the hostile beings are still incorporated into sandpaintings. The author concentrated on the “Mother Earth, Father Sky” sandpainting because it is the most familiar to outsiders and presents the most detailed depiction of the Navajo heavens of sandpaintings in use today. (page 175) She describes the intricate, careful, detailed process involved in making a sandpainting. Mother Earth and Father Sky must be identical in shape and size. The act of creating a sandpainting is healing because it focuses everyone’s thoughts on the principles of balance and order.

(page 177) The painting becomes “alive” to serve its transcendent purpose when the chanter strews sacred pollen on it and blesses those attending. (page 183). The sacred and blessed sandpainting forces the patient to reconnect in time and space to past and present sacred forces and reminds the patient of her connectedness to humans present physically or spiritually. (page 194) This book accomplishes the author’s stated purposes and does discuss the themes in detail. However, the information is disorganized and scattered, making the book itself hard to read.

The author’s purpose was to teach the reader how to understand and appreciate the making, content, and purpose of Navajo sandpainting, which she accomplishes. Some of the information presented about Navajo religious beliefs is curiously similar to Christianity, and the author does not sufficiently discuss whether or not these were original to the Navajo who migrated to the Americas or picked up and changed a bit from what Christian missionaries tried to teach them. The Navajo ties to the religious symbolism of their land is remarkably similar to early Hebrew thought, but no mention is made of that.

The textual sources used by the author are all documented research papers or books that are fairly recent in date. One would wish earlier sources had been consulted on some issues, but their availability is not known. The author combines quite boring detailed information with her myths and more lively text, making the book itself a challenge to complete. BIBLIOGRAPHY Southwest Studies Program. Biography of Trudy Griffin-Pierce. University of Arizona. http://web. arizona. edu/~swst/faculty/tgpierce. htm. Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. Earth is my Mother; Sky is my Father. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.


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