Indian Healing - The Navajo Blessing Way

Excerpted from

American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals, and Remedies for Every Season of Life

By ,

Among the Navajo, the Blessing Way (Hoshooji, or Long-life Empowerment Ceremony) restores vitality and well-being during several key life passages. Like other major Navajo healing ceremonies, this is a major event whose throbbing rhythmic chants and prayers envelop everyone attending. Most important, though, is what it does for the "one-sung-over," the person for whom it is done.

A traditional Navajo may experience all or part of this nine-day-long ceremony four times during his life, the first time while he is still in his mother's womb. The Blessing Way is performed again at puberty, and later in life it may be used to help restore a person's balance. When someone marries or is preparing to have a child, the Blessing Way is done to ensure health, fertility, long life, and good fortune.

The essence of this sacred ceremony is to promote spiritual, psychological, physical, and emotional harmony. It reminds people that the goodness that surrounds them is accessible when they live their lives in balance. The beautiful songs from the Blessing Way rites are mesmerizing as they call in the forces of benevolent power for the participants. Often as Navajo people go about their daily work they softly sing these holy songs to remind themselves of the precious balance of life and their closeness with supernatural forces. The Navajo invest their homelands natural geography with holy power and significance. Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, and Hesperus Peak mark the cardinal points of their spiritual vista. Within their sacred landscape stands Spruce Mountain (Gobernador Knob) in northwestern New Mexico, considered to be the birthplace of Changing Woman and the heart of the earth, according to some Blessing Way chanters. The Navajo revere Encircled Mountain as the lungs of the earth and the place where Changing Woman's children, the holy Warrior Twins, were born. Finally there is Mirage Mountain, believed to be the source of powerful protection and healing. The Navajo use stones from it, called mirage stones, in many sacred rites and healing sand paintings.

This geography is the outer manifestation of Navajo holy traditions. Through sand paintings, songs, chants, visualizations, and the medicine bundle, it is brought into the Blessing Way during an all-night-long ceremony known as a No Sleep, which is performed in the Navajo hogan. Throughout the night, the chanter intones the powerful Earth Woman Prayer while holding a sacred healing bundle known as the Mountain Earth Bundle. The No Sleep ends when the one-sung-over walks out of the hogans east-facing door and inhales the dawn's light. Taking in four deep breaths, she visualizes the perfect world first seen by the Holy People at the dawn of the Fifth World-the world of beauty, thought, and knowledge. The one-sung-over has become filled with and restored to beauty.

Although they favor specific herbs for the Blessing Way, the Navajo believe that every plant is useful. Contemporary herbalists continue to use many of them today. For example, Mary Begay, a Navajo traditional healer, herbalist, and weaver from Keams Canyon, in the Four Corners area of Arizona, gathered medicinal plants and learned about healing from her father, who was a noted healer, singer, and performer of intricate Navajo chantways. She knows and uses about eighty-eight plants, which is only a small part of the considerable Navajo herbal heritage. It is the Navajo Way that Mary cannot use the herbs for herself, but she earnestly teaches others, hoping to pass on her store of knowledge.

Over the years the Navajo have found both ceremonial and practical applications for many botanicals. For example, rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus nauseousus, is used in rituals as well as for relief of afterbirth cramping and menstrual pains. It can also be used as a hot tea for treating colds, coughs, fevers, and headaches.

Juniper, Juniperus scopulorum, is also used during the Blessing Way. One of the most important times to use juniper as a remedy-from the Pueblo to the Navajo-is during birthing, when it is customary to drink juniper sprig tea during labor and immediately after deliver)'. Infusions made with juniper are also favored for bathing both mother and baby immediately following birth. Juniper tea also soothes upset stomach and diarrhea and helps treat chronic bladder infections. Note: Do not eat juniper berries during pregnancy.

Pinyon pine, Pinus edulis, also produces a fine tea for treating diarrhea, and it is often added to smudging mixtures for its aromatic fragrance and healing benefit as people inhale the smoke. The pitch is used extensively in soothing skin salves and ointments.

Other native herbs used for pregnancy and postpartum are the attractive blue curls, Trichostema spp. These woolly mountain mints resemble rosemary and have a pleasant sweet-sour smell. Their flowering tops make a fine herbal tea, good for settling the stomach. The Chumash Indians of California give it to women to help them expel the afterbirth.

A low perennial milkweed of the juniper/pinyon regions is antelope horns, Asclepiodora decumbens and Asclepias capricornu, which produces a gigantic root much sought after for its healing powers. Besides being a valuable treatment for asthma, lung infections, and congestive heart disorders, antelope horns has extensive uses during childbirth. Native midwives give women in labor a mild tea made from the roots to shorten uterine contractions and ease birthing. The tea also helps increase the new mother's milk production. Note: Do not use antelope horns during pregnancy because it can be an abortifacient.

Tags: Alternative Medicine

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