IT IS commonly agreed by Indians and traders alike that, among the Navajos, one man out of eight is a medicine-man. That is about the same as saying that, among the white people, one man out of every eight belongs to some lodge or secret society or is a communicant of some church. And, with them as with us, these men who belong are the leaders.
Much has been said by uninformed people about the charlatanism of Indian medicine-men. But among the Dineh all the important men belong to different lodges. They also know many lucky songs and prayers to protect them and theirs from bad luck, and as a sign to the gods they wear on their hair-braid a turquoise bead and shell for every lodge. With a Shooting Arrow bead in his hair a Navajo will laugh when the lightning strikes close. But without it he will shrink in fear — he has no medicine to ward off the bolt.
A good Navajo medicine-man is a superior being, at once a doctor, a religious leader, and a historian. In the chants which he sings and the myths which he relates there is preserved the story of his people. A Five-Rattle Hatali — one who has the five different kinds of rattles which are used in the fourteen big ceremonies — is a Ph.D., LL.D. He is an intellectual leader, respected for his learning and the power which that learning gives him.
The Navajos are ruled by medicine-men.
The fear of devils, or chindis as the Navajo call them, is the basis of the medicine-man’s power. Whether these devils are virulent germs and microbes, as many of them are, or merely bad dreams or bad luck, it is his business to drive them out.
His treatment is eclectic and inclusive. He gives the patient emetics and purges, he sweats him over aromatic herbs. He kneads his relaxed muscles like a well-trained osteopath until every bone is in place. Then he sings over him and prays, paints his body from the feet up to drive the devils out at his mouth; loads cigarettes and lights them as an offering to the gods and makes a series of sand-paintings. Then they dance and sing holy songs all night and the patient generally gets well.
No matter what was the matter with him, or if he only thought he was sick, the medicine-man has effected a cure. But there is one little formality which must be observed in advance or the medicine will not work. The doctor must be paid. And the more you pay him, the better results you will get. It is a grand system, but the charges are not high. For an ordinary all-night sing or devil-chasing ceremony, six dollars is the usual fee.
This devil-chasing is the real old Stone Age religion and is undoubtedly of Asiatic origin. From Asia, too, comes that unreasoning fear of the dead which haunts the Navajos at every turn. Even to dream of the dead calls for a purification ceremony, and the Reservation is dotted with chindi hohrahns, deserted houses in which some one has died. Whether the body is buried in the hut or not, no Navajo will ever enter its door again or use any of the property left inside. A log is torn out from the north or west wall, for the removal of the body, and it is abandoned to the ghosts of the dead.
This superstition, however, is not without its good points, for when an epidemic of smallpox or influenza sweeps the land, the Navajos flee and escape. They are afraid of death, and the devils which bring death, and that is why they survive. But the Hopis in their old, infected pueblos are decimated by every epidemic.
The smallpox killed thousands of them before the soldiers came in and cremated the dead and cleaned up. Yet a well-intentioned official in charge of a Navajo school takes pride in the effort he is making to overcome their heathen fears. On every Memorial Day he marches the children through the cemetery to salute the graves of the dead.
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