The Role of Dance in a Navajo Healing Ceremonial
Sandra T. Francis
University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
Although Navajo healing ceremonials have received attention from scholars for more than 100 years, their associated dances have gone, until now, unanalyzed. In the triple role of cultural anthropologist, registered nurse, and dancer, I documented the dances of the powerful Nightway ceremony and posed basic questions about dance content and function. Using labanotation scores supplemented by information obtained from field interviews, films, sacred texts, and the anthropological literature, I addressed the following questions: What is dance (alzhish)? What is the ceremonial purpose of alzhish? How is that purpose accomplished? The focal question of my research is: How can a dance make a person well?
The Navajo Nation is located in the American Southwest. Reservation lands, covering 25,351 square miles, extend from northeastern Arizona into northwestern New Mexico and a portion of southeastern Utah. Navajos are the largest and most extensively studied tribe in the United States with a population of more than 250,000 and a history of ethnographic research spanning more than 100 years. According to tribal government estimates for 1995, approximately 159,481 members live on the reservation; 68,529 in neighboring states; and 31,546 elsewhere in the United States (Rogers, 1995). The origins of the term "Navajo" are not known, but it is possibly the Spanish rendition of a Tewa Pueblo word (Harrington, 1940, p. 518; Hewett, 1906). Navajos refer to themselves as Diné (plural Dine'é) which means roughly "the People." In this paper I will use the term "Navajo," as it predominates in the more recent literature.
Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggest a relatively late arrival in the Southwest for the Athabascan-speaking Navajos, relatives of the Apaches. Their gathering and hunting forbearers migrated from Alaska, northwestern Canada, and the Pacific Northwest and found Pueblo farmers already settled in the area. Although there is no scholarly consensus regarding the time of migration, it may have occurred between 1000 and 1525 A.D. (see Brugge, 1983, p. 489).
Navajo culture is a blend of elements, some distinctively Navajo and some adapted from other groups. Through time, Navajo contact with Pueblo, Spanish, Mexican, and Euro-American cultures resulted in considerable cultural exchange. Farming, certain ceremonial practices, and possibly weaving were learned from the Pueblos. Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, new crops, and metal tools were obtained from the Spanish. Silversmithing was learned through Mexican contact, and modern conveniences, along with educational, political, medical, and economic institutions were derived from the dominant Anglo society (Stewart, 1977, pp. 292, 296-297).