The Night Chant “The Yeibitchai Dance”

Klay’jih Hatal’)THE Night Chant, commonly called the Yeibitchai Dance, is the most popular of all Navajo ceremonies. It is also the ceremony most written about by scientists. Washington Matthews’s great monograph, published by the American Museum of Natural History in 1902, still remains the last word on the subject, although Dr. Edward Sapir, of Chicago University, has recently made a complete record of all four rites in linguistic shorthand. Dr. Matthews, after eight years in the field, and after spending twenty-one years altogether in collecting and working over his material, modestly apologizes for his masterpiece as follows:
Nevertheless, I do not pretend to give a complete account of the ceremony, with all that pertains to it. Could I gather the whole of this lore, it would probably fill two more volumes as large as the present. Not every one of its priests, even, knows all that is to be known about it. One shaman told me that he studied six years before he was considered competent to conduct his first ceremony; but that he was not perfect then and had learned much afterwards.
In many cases I indicate where my knowledge is imperfect. In many other cases, I am not aware of my own ignorance or only suspect and do not know its extent. I merely claim to have done my best to search carefully for the truth.
To complicate matters further there are four major rites to the Night Chant:
1. In the Rocks. (Tseh’nn-jih Hatal’.)
2. From the Timber. (Tsin-tzahn’jih Hatal’.)
3. Danced Across the River. (Klay-chah’jih Hatal’.) (Dog Chant.)
4. Big God Chant. (Hash’jay tso’hih Hatal’.)

Of these the first is the one usually given. The second and third are closely related, being founded on the same myth. The Big Yeibitchai or Big God Chant, often referred to as the Cripple and Blind Boy Ceremony, is built upon another story and is now very seldom given. The word Klay’jih or Kle’dze Hatal’ is generic and refers to all the Night Chants.The myth of the Big Yeibitchai is concerned with the twin sons of Hastseyal’ti, the Talking God, who is called Yei’bitchai or Grandfather of the Gods. The father of the twins lived at the White House, the great cliff-dwelling in the Canyon de Chelly, and their mother was one of the nomad Dineh’ who entered that unknown country. It is the opinion of Washington Matthews that the myth goes back to a time when the Yei or gods were no more than highly cultured Cliff-Dwellers, who appeared to the Navajos as gods.When the children were about half grown, they were stricken with two diseases which the Night Chant is now used to cure. One was struck blind and the other had both legs drawn up, and, being useless to their mother’s people, they were driven out to die. The blind boy took the cripple on his shoulders, to show him where to go, and so throughout the long story they wandered from one cliff-dwelling to another, begging the hard-hearted Yei to cure them.When it became known that the outcast Dineh’ were the sons of Hastseyal’ti, the chief of all the gods, they were finally cured, but not until the demanded payment was made.

During the nine days of the Night Chant the patient is given sweat-baths, internal medicine, massage, incense to inhale and soapweed ceremonial baths. To invoke the gods the following are used: Songs, prayers, masked dances, kaytahns, sand-paintings, four kinds of pollen, corn meal, sacred or mixed water, basket drums, wands, strings, rattles, plumes, and spruce boughs. There are also ceremonies for the preparation of all the paraphernalia — the rites while making the kaytahns, or cigarettes for the gods, being especially elaborate and symbolical.
The great crowd of Navajos, as well as of white spectators, assembles for the last or ninth night. For those, however, who wish to see a sand-painting, it is necessary to come a day earlier, as there are none on the ninth day, except when the Black Yeibitchai comes. Although it is often stated that no white people are allowed to gaze upon the sand-paintings, the medicine-man, if approached with respect and given a proper present, will generally admit visitors. It is best to engage the interest of some trader or Navajo interpreter, to intercede with the hatali and arrange for a suitable payment or present.
On the afternoon of the last day the dancing-ground in front of the medicine-hohrahn is smoothed, and about a hundred yards east of it a brush shelter is built to serve as a dressing-room for the dancers, of which there are several teams. On the north and south sides of the dancing-place two long piles of cedar wood have been laid, and as evening comes on four fires are started on each side. Around these, families of Navajos camp down, with all their blankets and supplies; and all through the night as the ceremony drags on there is eating and much drinking of strong coffee.
Later comers park their wagons on both sides of the dancing-ground and build fires farther down the line. There is a confusion of snarled-up ponies, wagons, harness, and automobiles, and in every direction there are camps where women are cooking and tending their children. Every man, woman, and child is wrapped in a gay blanket, for the winter nights are cold, and there is a wealth of turquoise and silver jewelry displayed by every fire. A spirit of good will and hospitality pervades the scene, not unlike our own Christmas cheer, and old grudges and feuds are forgotten as they come to share the blessing of the gods.
THE STARTING DANCE (Ah-tsah’thlay) (Atsalei. W.M.)
The Talking God and four Male Dancing Gods begin the evening ceremony and their singing and dancing are watched with the keenest interest. For in this dance, if any word is spoken wrongly, or the chorus is sung more or less than twelve times, the whole ceremonial breaks up at once. Bad luck is supposed to befall all the participants in the ceremony, and the patient as well, unless the evil effects are warded off by another Yeibitchai Chant. A special team is, therefore, hired for this dance alone, and every step and word is rehearsed many times before the final night.
The four Dancing Gods paint their bodies white and don their costumes in the medicine-hohrahn. Then, with their masks hid under their blankets, they retire to the brush shelter while their chief, fully masked, clears the dancingground. He is Hastseyal’ti, the Talking God, and, besides a magnificent mask with twelve eagle plumes on top, he wears a large tanned buckskin over his shoulders. In their right hands the dancers carry a gourd rattle and in their left a bough of sacred spruce, brought from some place high up in the mountains where the gods are thought to dwell. Each wears a heavy belt of silver disks, from the back of which a foxskin is hung.
About seven o’clock in the evening the medicine-man comes out of the big hohrahn and goes to summon the dancers. Then from the darkness to the east they appear, walking softly and in silence. As they line up before the hohrahn, the patient comes out with a ceremonial basket of corn meal which he sprinkles over their bodies. Then a long prayer is recited, sentence by sentence, first by the hatali and then by the patient, while the dancers sway their bodies back and forth and lift their left feet rhythmically.
At the end the Talking God gives a whoop, waving his pouch as a signal to begin, and the dancers, facing the hohrahn, whoop in chorus and bow low. They turn, making a scooping motion with their rattles as they march in procession past their chief, meanwhile singing the Ah-tsah’thlay Song. It begins very slowly and consists essentially of four words, repeated with variations, and a chorus of meaningless syllables.
The corn comes up.
Comes up the corn.
Oh, ho, ho, ho.
Ee, yee, yee, yee.
The rain comes down.
Comes down the rain.
Oh, ho, ho, ho.
Ee, yee, yee, yee.
The four words, which to the Indians are sufficient, are:
Hah, yah — Comes up.
Nah, yah — Comes down.

This song then, like so many, is a prayer for the rain to fall and for the grass and corn and flowers to come up. This idea is followed out in every color of the dancers’ costumes, the black tips of their eagle plumes symbolizing Black Clouds, or heavy rain; the white feathers, White Clouds, or light rain. The blue masks of the four Dancing Gods represent all growing things; the yellow signifies corn pollen; while the white and black paint which is put on the later dancers is a further symbol of rain. Even the eyes, nose, and mouth on the Talking God’s mask carry out the mystic signs. For the eyes and mouth two sets of lines, forming three sides

The three upper lines represent falling rain. The three lower lines, enclosed within them, represent all growing things, coming up. From the mouth, to represent the nose, a stalk of corn grows up.
As the dancers begin their chorus they sing, repeating four times:
Oh, ho, ho [facing the east]
Ee, hee, hee [facing the south]
Oh, ho, ho [facing the west]
Ee, hee, hee [facing the north]
Then, facing the hohrahn in a row they sing, repeating four times:
The corn comes up
The rain comes down.


1 Dane Coolidge, and Mary Roberts Coolidge, The Navajo Indians (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930) 186,


  1. […] “The Night Chant” is a declaration of healing over bodily ailments and thankful praise to the earth for providing the resources that connect nature and man. The chant focuses on the individual person calling out to the gods for healing found in nature’s properties. […]