Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

The Squaw dance: undated early photo by Joseph Howard McGibbeny (1891–1970).

With Bruno Nettl’s wise reflections on Native American musical cultures in mind, among the many groups that he and others have studied, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp of the ceremonies of the Navajo (Diné) [1]—most populous among the indigenous peoples in the southwestern USA (Hopi, Pueblo, Apache, Yuma, Pima, and so on).

Again, apart from the intrinsic merits of such research, the topic suggests fruitful perspectives for our studies of Chinese folk ritual and the sacred–secular continuum.

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:


From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

Modern Navajo history is just as troubled as that of other indigenous peoples—savage army repression from the 1840s leading to the Long Walk of 1864, followed by containment on reservations, assimilation in boarding schools, and the relocations and environmental degradation wrought by the mining industry since the 1960s. Yet their ceremonial life has remained lively. The Navajo language is still widely spoken (note this fine riposte); the wartime code talkers make an absorbing theme.

First I’ll give an outline of Navajo ceremonies, and then get to grips with a classic study of the Enemy Way, its soundscape and cultural values. Last But Not Least, for those of us unable to attend such rituals in person, I’ll offer a few audio and visual materials, which make an essential complement to silent, immobile text!

While many general themes in ritual are widespread (see e.g. Catherine Bell and Frits Staal), societies around the world slice their ritual pies in different ways. Many rituals, or segments, are multi-purpose (on a jocular note, do enjoy Stewart Lee’s youthful illustration of ritual redundancy).

In China, beyond the ancient binary classification of Daoist rituals as zhai Fasts and jiao Offerings, later we find yin and yang rituals for the dead and the living (more broadly, red rituals for the living, white for the dead), or a tripartite taxonomy such as funerary, earth, and temple scriptures, and so on (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.15–20). Even a list of different types of jiao Offering is extensive. And scholars may adopt their own categories, such as exorcism, healing, pestilence rituals, rites of affliction, and rituals for domestic blessing.


Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Navajo ceremonies may last for up to nine days and nights. Among several sites, the focus of healing rituals is the circular log hogan (by the mid-20th century, often a specially-constructed edifice rather than an everyday dwelling), inside which the medicine man (the Navajo term hatali “singer” isn’t gender-specific, though most are indeed male) deploys his jish bundle and depicts sand paintings [2] (see films below). Altars are also constructed outside the hogan.

Again the ritual taxonomy is complex. Among a wide range of Navajo ceremonies (Night Chant Way, Mountain Chant Way, and so on), some have become obsolete—their ritual activities have long been changing, albeit more subtly than other areas of their life such as material culture. But the Blessing Way (Hózhójí), the core ritual, is frequently held; it may be performed for expectant mothers shortly before birth, for young men leaving for the armed forces, and for kinaalda puberty rituals for girls (for which, see films below); moreover, parts of the Blessing Way feature within most other Navajo ceremonies. [3]

The Enemy Way
On the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), a ceremony for countering the harmful effects of ghosts, I gladly turn to a monograph that Nettl cites often—an early classic of ethnomusicology:

(cf. later influential classics of ethnomusicology relating musicking to culture, such as Neuman, The life of music in north India, and accessible books like Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian chonicles, and indeed Proulx, Accordion crimes).

Navajo cover

McAllester’s study is based on fieldwork in the Rimrock area of Arizona over four and a half months from 1950 to 1951. Utilising an already substantial body of anthropological studies, in a mere 96 densely-packed pages—many of which are devoted to transcriptions and musical analysis—he manages to provide a wealth of information on the relation of sound to ritual culture and aesthetic values.

Apart from making formal recordings, McAllester lists the public Enemy Way ceremonies that he attended in September 1950—including one of my favourite fieldwork tips ever, which heads this post (cf. More fieldwork tips).

diary 1

diary 2As Nettl went on to observe, the very term for “music” is far from universal—an issue that McAllester addresses in his Introduction. Distinguishing existential and normative values, he notes:

There was no general word for “musical instrument” or even for “music”. A face-finding question such as “What kinds of musical instruments do you use?” (really intended to start the informant thinking and talking about music) had to be phrased, “Some people beat a drum when they sing; what other things are used like that?”. A “fact” in the Navajo [4] universe is that music is not a general category of activity but has to be divided into specific aspects of kinds of music. I learned, moreover, that beating a drum to accompany oneself in song was not a matter of esthetic choice but a rigid requirement for a particular ceremony, and a discussion of musical instruments was not an esthetic discussion for the Navajos but was, by definition, a discussion of ceremonial esoterica.

Similarly, the question “How do you feel when you hear a drum?” was intended to evoke an esthetic response. But the Navajo “fact” is that a drum accompaniment is rarely heard except with the public songs of the Enemy Way, and if you feel queer, especially dizzy, at the ceremonial, it is a clear indication that you, too, need to be a patient at this particular kind of “sing”. What I took to be a somewhat general esthetic question was, for the Navajos, a most specific ceremonial question and was interpreted by the average informant as an enquiry into his state of health.

At the beginning of my work I intended to limit my investigation to secular music, reserving any considerable study in the tremendous field of Navajo religious music for a later time. I soon discovered the Navajo “fact” that all music is religious and that the most nearly secular songs in melody, in textual content, and in the attitudes of the performers were derived from the Enemy Way chant mentioned above, a religious ceremony designed to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghosts of slain outsiders. The dancing which accompanies certain parts of this rite is widely known as the Navajo Squaw Dance, and it is the singing which accompanies this dance, together with certain other kinds of public songs of the Enemy Way, to which I refer.

It was possible, eventually, to construct a hierarchy of different kinds of music according to the degree of secular emphasis. In the value-orientations of the Navajos I could find no music that was believed to be purely secular, but the public Enemy Way songs and certain songs of the Blessing Way were secular as well as religious and could be used in secular contexts.

It was necessary, of course, to try to ascertain, for music, the Navajo definition of “religious”. Questioning revealed little or no native preoccupation with a differentiation between that which is religious and that which is secular. The Navajo has not compartmentalised his life in this respect. […]

When a traditional Navajo is asked how he likes a song, he does not consider the question “How does it sound?” but “What is it for?”. […]

The social aspect of Navajo singing is another important part of the desired. Here too, a change from traditional values is taking place, and a conflict between younger and older generations may be seen. The question, “What do we want?” is in a state of flux, and the question, “What ought we to want?” has come very much to the fore. Sex roles and age roles emerge as important factors in Navajo normative values as regards music. Here too, significant changes are taking place due to the encroachment of white American culture and new religious ideas.

Thus it may take one a while to grasp McAllester’s distinction between “sacred” and “secular” forms—an etic problem that he created for himself. He explains his focus on the public songs, but (as often) our binary concepts may obstruct understanding.

Uses and functions
As we saw above, ritual taxonomy is complex. The Enemy Way is remarkably versatile, its purposes diverse. While it has “martial” origins in alluding to the two great wars in Navajo mythology, its formal intention is

to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghost of an outsider; that of a white man or some other other non-Navajo such as a European, an Asiatic, or a member of some other Asian tribe.

And though McAllester claims that

most of the Enemy Ways performed in the last few years for young men have been directed against the ghosts of enemies slain in World War Two,

he goes on:

But numerous situations in everyday life may expose one to the attentions of an “enemy” ghost: being too near the scene of a fatal automobile accident was cited by one informant. Intimate contact with a non-Navajo who may have died subsequently is another possibility. Women as well as men may be pursued by these ghosts and require the performance of the Enemy Way.

Another instance is when girls coming into contact with white men’s clothes at school. And an Enemy Way may also be performed for someone returning home after a stay in hospital, where they will inevitably have been exposed to the spirits of non-Navajo who have died there. So the ceremony subsumes all kinds of healing.

The ways in which one can tell when the ceremony is needed range from the general, such as a vague feeling that it would be a good thing, to the highly specific, such as a dream that recalled an encounter with the body of a dead outsider. It is frequently used as a last resort when other ceremonies have failed.[…]

One sure symptom is a feeling of faintness or dizziness when one attends an Enemy Way which is being held for someone else.

This was a common occurrence, requiring a further Enemy Way ceremony.

McAllester also notes more mundane underlying motives, such as “the urge to keep up with the neighbours […] and the feeling among poorer families that wealthy families should provide more than the average number of these entertainments” (a rare suggestion of social stratification among the Navajo, generally downplayed); as in Chinese ritual, public reputation matters. Another important function is the “bringing out” of young girls who have reached marriageable age.

The ritual sequence
McAllester goes on to outline the ritual sequence over three days and nights (pp.8–14):

  • the decision: preparatory stages—including the construction of a hogan and cooking arbour, and seeking materials such as herbs, yarn for the rattle [stick], an enemy trophy (scalp or bone) and so on
  • duties of the stick receiver, possessed with some esoteric knowledge
  • ritual preparation of the drum, with singing
  • the journey to stick receiver’s camp, and facial decoration of the patient
  • first night of public singing and dancing, at the patient’s camp
  • gift singing before the stick receiver’s camp (early morning of the second day)
  • return of the patient’s party
  • the moving of the stick receiver’s camp
  • second night of public singing and dancing, at the new camp
  • the move to the patient’s camp soon after dawn, with a sham battle on arrival
  • the return gift singing, after breakfast
  • the Enemy Way rites, to treat the patient, whose face and body are decorated, led by the medicine man. The enemy ghost is slain by strewing ashes on the trophy.
  • third night of public singing, with circle dancing, and walking songs from the stick receiver’s camp to that of the patient, followed by sway songs
  • conclusion, at dawn, with more ceremonial songs and prayers.

Here McAllester notes (cf. the flawed Chinese funeral that I describe here):

When the ceremony had been concluded on the second and third nights of the Pine Valley Enemy Way, September 27 and 28, there were long announcements made by very drunk Navajos. The burden was similar to those of the other announcements mentioned but also included reproaches for the diminished energy of the singing group as the night wore on and for the drinking that had taken place. […] A group of Salcedanos […] said that they used to enjoy coming to the Squaw Dances for the social occasion, the refreshments, and the girls, and they used to feel that it helped to bring rain. Now, they said, they did not enjoy it and they did not feel that the occasion had been holy. They added that their governors (one of whom was present) did not get drunk, and they were sorry to see the Navajo leaders set such a bad example for their young men. The announcer translated this, and the Navajos seemed to take the reproach seriously.

The adverse effects of alcohol features in several of McAllester’s vignettes. In a section on the dangers of misuse, he observes exceptions to the generally muted quality of Navajo public gatherings (p.66),

when formally organized singing takes place, as at Yeibichai Dances, Squaw Dances, or when there has been a great deal of drinking. When fights begin to break out there may be some shouting, but even this is very different from drunken brawling in white-American culture. Much of the kicking and punching is done with silent intensity. The shouting is not prolonged or repetitive, but consists of a few short cries that seem to be forced out. Even in this extreme situation, there is very little sustained noise, nor do the onlooker shout censure or encouragement.

And on p.77 he comments:

Open expressions of hostility are a commonplace at Navajo gatherings if any considerable drinking has gone on.

McAllester suggests in particular that inhibitions may be released in the public singing of the Enemy Way, which provides an outlet for “self-expression, teasing, competition, and even aggression”.

As he explains at the outset,

Of all the arts, perhaps music has seemed the hardest to study as social behaviour. Aside from the accompanying poetry in the song texts, the actual substance of the music appears forbiddingly abstract. Melodic line and phrasing, metre, pitch, and scale have been reserved for highly trained musicologists, few of whom have been interested in cultural applications. The unfortunate result of this specialisation and the feeling that one must have “talent” to study music has been a general abdication from this field by social scientists, even to the extent that the most elementary questions about attitudes towards music have remained unasked.

While musicologists soon learned to incorporate culture into their sphere, the social scientists rarely reciprocated; we still find the same “abdication” among scholars of Daoist ritual, for instance. As McAllester wrote, even very modest attention to performance and performers will bear fruit. This applies both to social matters (How are you fed during the ritual? How do you get paid? Where do you find reed to make your oboe mouthpieces?) and to registering basic features of sound (Is this text sung slow or fast? Loud? In unison? What percussion instruments accompany?); even a little more detail is easily learned (Is the text sung with melisma? Is the melody pentatonic? Do you always sing it the same? Did your granddad sing it like that?).

For the musical aspect of his fieldwork, McAllester appends a questionnaire (pp.91–2)—which, as he explains, should be used sensitively (cf. Jackson, Schimmelpenninck):Qs 1Qs 2Transcriptions may look forbidding to the outsider, but audio samples of such songs might be a good test for scholars who disclaim musical expertise: they too should be able to make such simple and useful observations.

Having outlined the overall ceremony, he goes on to focus on the “secular” songs; but he opens this section by discussing songs more generally, listing them in more or less chronological sequence—and again it transpires that most of them (apart from the “secular” items marked with asterisks) are “sacred” (p.15):

  • Bear and snake songs (for protection against danger)
  • Songs used in preparation of the drum
  • Songs used in preparation of the rattle stick
  • The Coyote songs (sung by the medicine man to inaugurate each night of public singing)
  • The Sway songs*
  • The Dance songs* (trotting, skipping, signal for end of dancing)
  • The Gift songs* [the following four items are for the patient:]
  • Emetic songs
  • Unraveling songs
  • Medicine songs (for medicine in gourd, for application of pollen)
  • Blackening songs (referring to the enemy’s country, and to the Navajo country)
  • Circle dance songs* (as the evening of the third day approaches)
  • Walking songs (secret songs sung on the ceremonial walk to the patient’s hogan)
  • Songs to the patient
  • Concluding songs of the ceremonial (Blessing Way songs sung to the patient at dawn, Coyote songs)
  • Songs for depositing the rattle stick (including Twelve-word Blessing Way song),

as well as additional sequences for the longer version of the ceremony (songs of the Tail Dancers and the Black Dancers, songs at the meal of the no-cedar mush).

Ritual events around the world commonly display a sacred–secular continuum. While such an “etic” distinction appears questionable among the Navajo, we should pay just as much attention to the “highly formalized chant-like music of the sacred healing ceremonies”, containing “magical phrases and long, full repetitive lists of Holy People, sacred places, and parts of the body or of plants”—mostly performed solo by the medicine man, I gather, sometimes supported by a group of men. McAllester naturally recognised the importance of studying this art, but postponed it—though his work on the Navajo, later enhanced by his student Charlotte Frisbie, continued (see n.3 below). Anyway, here his focus on melody tends to detract somewhat from the more esoteric, even central, aspect of Navajo ritual (see also under “Changing values” below).

Again, this reminds me of issues in studying Chinese ritual. McAllester’s choice of the secular songs rather resembles that of most Chinese musicologists, who have focused too narrowly on the melodic instrumental component of Daoist and Buddhist ritual. By contrast, scholars of “classical” religion are drawn to the esoteric parts of the ritual (secret formulas, mudras, talismans, and so on), neglecting a more normative ethnography of everything that is going on during the event.

The secular songs
Anyway, it is these secular, public songs (collectively known as Squaw Dance) that McAllester analyses: the sway songs, dance songs, gift songs, and circle dance songs. They are more readily subjected to musical analysis, and “less freighted with the overtones of magic”.

For sonic material he practises the fieldworker’s typical combination of observing ritual performance and recording on request, noting the differences (“Once when I asked an informant why he was not singing ‘naturally’ (loud and high), he replied that he was afraid that my recording machine could not stand it”). He gives brief sketches of his main informants (pp.25–6).

The recording situation was almost always a stimulus to discussions of various aspects of music in Navajo life, and those in turn led to talk in many other fields, particularly that of religion.

So their comments on the songs that he discusses are interesting, such as:

Enemyway 27

I found this approach useful in working on Daoist hymns with Li Manshan too.

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).


Circle dance songs sung to vocables—showing exceptional triple metre, with some irregular beats.

Along with his transcriptions of the songs, McAllester analyses each genre—adopting etic concepts while bearing in mind the Navajos’ own ethos, under the headings of

  • texts: meaningful, and vocables (the gift and circle dance songs are usually sung to vocables only)
  • vocal style: “nasal, high, with a wide vibrato and an ornamental use of the falsetto”
  • metre (and rhythm): mostly duple and in even rhythms, with occasional extra beats (largely attributable to the requirements of textual phrasing)—with some exceptions such as frequent triple metre in circle dance songs—e.g. §2 and 16 on the playlist below
  • tempo (quite fast!)
  • pitch
  • melodic line
  • phrasing
  • scales and tonality (mostly pentatonic, to which we should now add “anhemitonic”—as in China and much of the world…).

He concludes this section with a useful summary of musical features of all the public song genres (pp.55–9).

One basic feature of the group songs (not mentioned by McAllester) is that they are monophonic, and sung in unison. Of course, where (as often) his transcriptions are of recordings made with a solo singer on demand, rather than during a live ceremony, naturally the songs look monophonic; one needs to listen attentively to recordings of group singing to try and characterise what McAllester describes as its free, loose nature. Yet the recordings I’ve heard do indeed sound quite close to unison.

For a well-annotated audio survey of global singing styles, see Voices of the world. It might make a good exercise to listen to the dance songs among Paul Bowles’s recordings in Morocco, comparing all these musical parameters.

As fieldworkers know well, by contrast with the individual songs that they have to present on disc, rituals often string them together in lengthy song cycles (cf. Allan Marett’s analyses of Australian Aboriginal dream songs; see also Analysing world music).

Changing values
Part Two, “Values in the study of music as social behaviour”, opens with a discussion of the nature of taboo. Here McAllester has more to say on the sacred songs:

On my first day of recording Navajo songs, I learned that some may be sung by anybody and discussed freely, but that others may be sung only with circumspection, with the right preparation, at the right time, and by the right people. Indeed, some of the latter songs may not be heard except by those who have been properly protected by initiation.

For the dangers of doing fieldwork on Navajo magic, note the disturbing articles of Barre Toelken. [5] McAllester discovers a kind of “scale of danger”. Still, he reminds us:

It is hard to discuss with a Navajo what music is “holy” and what music is not. The first reaction of nearly all of my informants was that all of their songs were sacred. Nor did they respond with categories to such questions as “Are some songs more holy than others?” [cf. Nigel Barley!].

No such hierarchies seem to exist ready-made in the Navajo scheme of values. But when asked directly, nearly every Navajo feels that songs from the great ceremonial chants are more sacred than gambling songs such as those sung with the Gambling Game. The parts of the Night Chant and the Enemy Way Chant which are chanted by the ceremonial practitioner are recognised by everyone as being more sacred than the Yeibichai songs of the masked dancers in the former and the Squaw Dance songs performed in the latter.

He continues by compiling his own list of songs along the “scale of danger”:

  • Prayer ceremonials
  • Songs used in witchcraft, and deer hunting songs
  • Songs from non-Navajo ceremonials. I know that Peyote songs are considered highly dangerous and believe that this may be true for some of the other ceremonials performed by other Indian groups
  • The longer chants: Night Way, Shooting Way, etc. The Evil Way chants are considered more dangerous than the Holy Way chants
  • Chanted parts of the Enemy Way: the four starting songs, the walking songs, the blackening songs, etc., are all very secret
  • Moccasin Game, and perhaps Stick Dance songs, which must be used only in the right season of the year
  • Work songs such as weaving, spinning, and corn grinding songs. Much more needs to be known about these songs. They do not seem to be particularly taboo but they have, nevertheless, become extremely rare
  • Circle dance songs from the Enemy Way
  • Yeibichai songs from Night Way, should only be sung in the winter
  • Dawn songs and other songs from the latter part of the Blessing Way may be used in some social contexts, but still with religious overtones of bringing good luck
  • Sway songs, gift songs, and dance songs from the Enemy Way can be sung at any time.

McAllester continues with a section on the dangers of misuse and forms of protection: through initiation, through timing, and training for a particular singing event, by running hard, fasting, and purification by vomiting—one informant explained the declining quality of the songs of young men by their reluctance to make such preparations. Young men also found the old ceremonial chants “too hard” to learn; yet (again echoing China) while the diminution of expertise that McAllester noted has continued (e.g. this interview with a medicine man—with a comment on treating soldiers returning from Vietnam with PTSD), scholars commonly note that ceremonies are still thriving.

So while McAllester and others were interested in uncovering archaic layers, he was far from merely seeking “living fossils”; and while the Navajo were quite insistent on performing “correctly”, they frequently offered instructive comments on change.

The following section, “Religions from outside”, outlines the Peyote cult and the Galilean mission. The Navajos seem to have learned the Peyote cult, a new religion, from the Utes. They even remained faithful to the less nasal singing style of the latter. But like other outside influences, the cult was considered dangerous. McAllester notes a marked preponderance of women in the Galilean congregation—including the singers—by contrast with their more passive role in Navajo ceremonies.

Under Esthetic values, he reminds us that the Navajos consider music inseparable from function—though again he finds a shift in the values of some younger men. Two contrasting illustrations that he managed to elicit:

I like it better when it goes along level, then I know it’s a holy song. (Helen Chamiso)

Yes, they sing more fancy now. If you use only one tone it sounds kind of plain. (Nat Nez)

This generation gap applies both to choice of songs and to vocal technique.

McAllester ends this section with a brief extrapolation of musical esthetics: tonality, voice production, group singing, rhythm, tempo, and melodic line. He notes the tendency of some singers to cup a hand over their ear—just like Sardinian tenores.

Under “Other cultural values” he outlines features such as competition, self-expression, “Navajo quiet” (a promising theme), the prestige of musical knowledge (which, again, will be in flux); and he notes humour in the songs (punning, an unusual grammatical usage, ribaldry, and so on). In a brief section on the role of women in religion he notes their general exclusion—though here, as other scholars have gone on to observe, they surely play a greater part than the general taboo would suggest (cf. China).

He illustrates individualism, provincialism (the Navajos were “very curious to hear ‘foreign’ music”—of other Indian tribes, Mexican music, “white” music brought home by returning soldiers, and so on—though they were soon forgotten), and formalism; and he ends (with what I consider a *** passage à la Stella Gibbons) by discussing music as an aid to rapport in fieldwork:

There seems to be something more acceptable about a stranger who wants to learn songs than about one who wants to know how long babies are nursed. Among the Navajos, I was accused, jokingly, of wanting to become a ceremonial practitioner, the usual goal of learning songs. [cf. Wei Guoliang at Houshan (here, under “The local ritual network)!]

It seemed to work in my favour that I was there to learn, that I respected an aspect of Navajo life usually ignored or laughed at, and was willing to teach songs in return. […]

From a discussion of music one can move by easy stages into almost any area of cultural investigation. Almost any area of human behaviour is crossed at some point by music. With the Navajos, such seemingly remote subjects as attitudes towards property, propagation of livestock, and the nature of taboo came to the fore in connection with music; sometimes I found informants who were so reserved that it seemed as though no interview at all were going to take place, but who became interested and accessible when the topic was music.

Music has been made unnecessarily a specialist’s field in ethnology. A few songs from almost any culture can be learned by the ethnologist even if he is not a musician [sic]; even very imperfect renderings of native music can do much in establishing rapport.

The monograph ends with a succinct summary of existential and normative values.

* * *

Audio recordings
It’s a shame we can’t follow the songs that McAllester transcribed with specific sound examples, but the stylistic features he analyses can be perceived in many other early recordings.

Following on from the incomprehension of the Navajo themselves that there is something called “music” that can be extracted from ritual (or indeed life), audio compilations of short songs, valuable as they may be to us, may seem incongruous. As scholar-recordists would be the first to recognise, such songs aren’t mere reified sound objects: they can hardly suggest, let alone capture, the living experience of ritual. Yet at the same time it is useful to be able to focus on their sound with McAllester’s guides in mind. Film is not living ritual either, but is a major advance over audio recordings—let alone silent, dry texts (my constant refrain: see e.g. here, §6).

My examples below may seem to suggest nostalgia, but the transformation effected by modern life has long been an important theme: as with Chinese ritual, we should seek to document both early tradition and more visible contemporary manifestations.

A wealth of recordings has been released on disc, such as:

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

  • Navajo Songs, recorded in 1933 and 1940, annotated by Charlotte J. Frisbie and David McAllester (1992)
  • Indian music of the southwest (1957)

And Willard Rhodes issued ten LPs of the recordings that he had made from 1940 to 1952, such as

  • Music of the Sioux and the Navajo (1949)  (liner notes here)
  • Music of the American Indians of the southwest (1951)
  • Music of the American Indian: Sioux (1954) (liner notes here)

Here’s a good introductory playlist, with tracks from the 1992 Navajo Songs album with Laura Boulton’s early recordings, as well as excerpts from 1975 recordings by Charlotte Heth (more here, including liner notes) and from a Canyon Records album recorded 1952–1963 (for whose own notes, see here, on the useful drumhop site):

Here’s Music of the American Indians of the southwest (for notes, see drumhop again).:

Among the Navajo tracks is a highly distinctive falsetto night chant/Yeibichai dance:

On film
Again I’ll start with early footage. Valuable as it is, many scenes are clearly posed; voiceovers are often patronising and mendacious (“visitors are always welcome”; the paeans to residential schools; copious Injun cultural clichés); and dodgy musical soundtracks evoke Hollywood Westerns. For all these fatal flaws, and more, see e.g. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and film (1999)—note also the BTL comments that appear when you click on “YouTube” for the pages below. Bearing all that in mind…

This quaintly-choreographed short film from 1939 includes a public dance and “wedding ceremony” (from 5.39):

In this 1945 film (from 32.24) a medicine man presides over a healing ritual, including the creation of a sand painting in the hogan, with ritual paraphernalia such as the rattle stick and trophy bundle (and for all the limitations of these films, they do feature the sacred chanting style that McAllester outlines, not heard on the audio recordings above):

Navajo night dances (1957), from the nine-day Mountain Chant Way:

Also from the 1950s (with a kinaalda ceremony from 11.31, including more sand painting—and yet another classic use of the incongruous Hollywoodesque soundtrack!):

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

And an excerpt from Kinaalda: a Navajo rite of passage (Lena Carr, 2000):

Starting again, here’s Between two worlds (1958)—shamelessly whitewashing the impact of government intrusion:

But breaking the mold of happy smiling natives grateful to be admitted to the benefits of civilisation is the documentary Broken rainbow (Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd, 1985)—though not without its critics, it soberingly relates the plight of both Navajo and Hopi, subjected to forced relocation and environmental pollution (cf. Grassy Narrows):

Lastly, following successive historical epidemics visited on Native American peoples by white contact, the Navajo are suffering severely from Coronavirus (yet another danger from outside—see e.g. herehere, here, and here)—here’s a song from quarantine:

* * *

While taking modern change into account, the complex ritual sequences and symbolism of the Navajo remain deeply impressive. And I now see why ethnomusicologists recognise McAllester’s monograph as an important pioneer of the concern to integrate music and culture. As he observes, the public dance songs that are his subject here are only a small part of the overall ceremonial performance, but he makes a compelling case for including their soundscape in ethnographies of ritual.

Of course, change has continued to escalate since the 1950s, inviting both continuing fieldwork and further study of earlier periods. At last I understand why scholars find such rich inspiration in Native American cultures.

My third post in this series is on the Ghost Dance. See also the Leaphorn and Chee novels of Tony Hillerman.

[1] The anthropology of the Navajo began early, and continues to be a vast field. On Navajo history, see e.g. Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel, Diné: a history of the Navajos (2002); or for a simpler overview, wiki.
In an engaging recent introduction to all kinds of Native American musicking, the Navajo feature prominently in Chapter 2 of Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (see here, n.1); again, the wiki entry for Navajo music makes a succinct hors d’ouevre.

[2] Cf. Tibetan and Han-Chinese mandalas (e.g. Shanghai, Hunyuan); and for various ways of consecrating the sacred space, click here.

[3] On the Blessing Way, see e.g. Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (1970); and note Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester (eds), Navajo Blessingway singer: the autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881–1967 (1st edition 1978, updated paperback 2003), complemented by the story of his wife: Rose Mitchell, Tall woman: the life story of Rose Mitchell, a Navajo woman, c1874–1977 (2001)—both works voluminous, with many useful further references. Indeed, life stories make an illuminating approach—see Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.13, and for China, e.g. Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009) and my work on the Li family Daoists.

For kinaalda, see e.g. Charlotte Frisbie, Kinaalda: a study of the Navaho girl’s puberty ceremony (1967/1993), and Joanne McCloskey, Living through the generations: continuity and change in Navajo women’s lives (2007). Female puberty ceremonies are widely performed by Native American groups: see e.g. Carol A. Markstrom, Empowerment of North American Indian girls: ritual expressions at puberty (2008). Here’s an Apache version:

[4] McAllester uses the spelling “Navaho”; in direct quotes within this post I convert it to the form Navajo, which has since come to predominate—rather as I convert American to English spellings throughout my site.

[5] Notably “Life and death in the Navajo Coyote tales”, in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds), Recovering the word: essays on Native American literature (1987), and “From entertainment to realization in Navajo fieldwork”, in Bruce Jackson and Edward D. Ives (eds), The world observed: reflections on the fieldwork process (1996).

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