The Traditional Sandpainting Ceremony
Navajo people believe the universe to be delicately balanced. Only man can upset it, causing disaster and/or illness. Each illness or disaster has a particular part that is related to a portion of Navajo history. Balance is restored in the universe by healing the offender with changes, herbs, prayers, songs and sand paintings.
The Shaman (Medicine Man) goes to the offenders hogan. Restoration begins with the chanting accompanied by rattles and recounting adventures of Navajo heroes. The sandpainting is begun on a bed of clean white sand on the dirt floor, Mother Earth. Sandpaintings are created with an opening facing east – the same direction as the door to the hogan, to make it difficult for evil to enter. In the sandpainting design itself, the rainbow yei is used to provide protection for the design. Each design and figure must be produced carefully and in a knowledgeable way, using only the five sacred colors of sands. Every detail must be completed with exactness, or the harmony of the universe will not be restored, but worsened. Decorative variations can be left out, but never introduced to a ceremonial sandpainting. Some symbolic designs provide additional power or strength – i.e., buffalo horns added to increase the “dosage.” When the sandpainting is completed, the patient is seated in its center. The Medicine Man then touches a particular place on the painting and relays the “medicine” by touching the patient, restoring harmony and health.
The sandpainting is then erased and swept onto a blanket. Before sunset, it is carried outside and blown into the wind, returning it to Mother Earth so that trapped evil forces will not escape. Sandpaintings which are done at night ceremonies are similarly destroyed before sunrise.
There are more than a thousand ceremonial sandpaintings, less than half are produced today. Many are only in the memories of Medicine Men and unless they are recorded in some way, will be lost as these old men die off. In addition to healing, sandpaintings have been used to relate folklore stories. One o the most common is “The Coyote Stealing Fire” part of the Navajo creation story.
How are the Sandpaintings Available for Sale Made?
Preparing to Sandpaint
First comes the selection of the colored stones. Five scared colors are used:
1. White from gypsum,
2. Blue from criscola
3. Black from magnetite, a volcanic substance
4. Yellow from sandstone, sulphur or uranium oxide
5. Red, from sandstone or clay
The colors are often mixed to give a variety of shades.
Second, the stones must be broken into small pebbles which can be ground. Elimination of impurities and further sifting and grinding produces a fine uniform sand.
Third, particle board is widely used as a base, for sand paintings. It is pre-cut to the desired size, the sawed edges smoothed and sanded to a finished look. The entire surface is evenly spread with glue and background sand is applied. It is allowed to dry for several days.
Fourth, a pointed object (ice pick, dart, etc) is then used to etch guides for the design in the background sand.
Fifth, using a fine brush, a one-color section at a time is painted with glue and the proper color of sand applied. Each color is applied separately to prevent mixing. The sand is applied by letting it flow between the fingers. Uneven lines result if the flow is not controlled. Too little glue results in faint or indistinct line. The sand is pressed into place to assure firm adhesion. Excess sand is removed.
After completion, the sandpainting should dry and then be softly brushed to remove remaining loose sand and powder. It can then be sprayed with clear acrylic to make the surface secure.
Care of Sandpaintings
After the acrylic is applied to the surface, periodic brushing will remove dust and help retain the clarity of colors. Pencil marks and other spots can generally be removed with an art gum eraser. Sandpaintings, like other fine art, should be protected from moisture to prevent warping. Sunlight will generally not affect sandpaintings.
Navajo sandpaintings are one of the least expensive forms of handcrafted art, and one of the few with true cultural significance. Pieces are available to suit every budget, from souvenir to museum-quality collectables.
Article by Vince and Helen Ferrari – Reproduced with permission from the Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA)