the landscape of Navajo lands there are three mountains shaded by orange colour cloudy sky as the sun sets in the West

Anthropology: An Overview of the Navajo Culture and Their Healing Rituals

Spanning over 17.5 million acres across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the Navajo population, encompasses 150.000 Navajos, who call themselves “Dine,” meaning people, and speak Dine language, the most-spoken Native American language in the United States. Today’s Navajo, the largest tribe in population, also owns the largest reservation in the United States and operates their own utility authority and police department (George 15).

Best known for their sand paintings, healing rituals, and weaving rugs, the Navajos remained remarkably committed to their own cultures, even if they were inspired by other cultures and Americanized in certain ways. Centering their lives on the three foundational principles, Hozho (“walk in beauty”), K’e, and SNBH, “placing human life in harmony and balance with the natural world and the universe,” they aim to maintain a life coexisting with Earth and the universe. With privileged family bonds and distinct Navajo chants, prayers, sayings, and stories, the Navajo culture features great native elements. To see how the Navajo specify the relations, the article is concerned with introducing you to the Navajo culture, the Navajo’s healing rituals, and their myth of creation.

Who are the Navajo people?

an old lady helped by another younger but still old lady in front of the door of a hogan, a home made of clay and wood

Distributed in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, the Navajo people, are the most populous of all Native American peoples in the United States. They speak an Apachean language that belongs to the Athabaskan language family. Since their alphabet also included symbols and was hard to decipher,  it was used as a secret code in World War II.

The Navajos’ geography is a mixture of alpine forests, arid deserts, mountains, mesas, and high plateaus. The rivers of the San Juan, the Gobernador, and the Largo in Northern New Mexico run through Dine-tah, surrounded by 4 sacred mountains that populate the Navajo’s artistic works and the myth of creation.

It is estimated that between 1100 and 1500 CE, the Navajo migrated to the Southwest from Canada. However, encountering Pueblo Indians as early as the 15th century, the Navajo exchanged cultural elements and learned farming and weaving. Hunting and raiding were their primary tasks. Then, they learned to raise livestock, particularly sheep, on a small-scale subsistence farming, supplemented by some wild-food collecting from the Pueblos. These were the major activities they centered on their traditional economy. Some of these activities (hunting, raiding, and fishing) were abandoned. Corn, beans, and squash were the three main crops they grew.

What symbols did the Navajo use?

it is a table that shows the symbols of the Indian nation, mostly comprised of natural objects, and their man-made objects, daily objects

The Navajos have many symbols whose shapes they borrowed mostly from nature. Yet, the most popular one, “Whirling log,” “falling log,” or “swirling log,” which is often confused with swastikas, was a widely used Native American symbol, representing a sacred image used in healing rituals: abundance, prosperity, healing, and luck. These sacred Navajo emblems predate World War II and look like “a cross with shorter 90-degree-notches at the end of each line, creating a swirling shape.” This is the most popular symbol that the Navajo people use in their rugs and sand paintings.

Besides that, certain figures borrowed from nature symbolize the Navajo values and their understanding of different states of mind. For instance, birds symbolize tranquility and a state of a peaceful mind. Lightning refers to speed and agility. Horses are one of the oldest symbols, which come from their long-living practice on horseback, symbolizing family. The sun symbolizes harmony and the essence of life, whereas owls are bearers of bad news.

In addition, corn cakes are for the ceremony to symbolize Mother Earth. Also, corn pollen is still used today during kinaaldás to honor a woman’s fertility and her reproductive qualities, like the Earth’s (Todachenee 35).

What color represents the Navajo tribe?

a circle divided into four sections based on a color scheme that includes grey, white, yellow, and blue. The big circle has interior layers which indicate what the colors suggest semantically

Color is an essential element in the Navajo artworks and sand painting rituals. Certain colors, for instance, are associated with a specific gender, direction, and natural elements. However, depending on the context, colors might suggest different meanings. For instance, the same design and color have different meanings on different body parts.

For the Navajos, there are 4  sacred colors: blue, white, yellow, and black. The colors represent the four sacred mountains, the Navajo homeland. While the eastern mountains are associated with white (sunlight), the southern mountains are represented by blue (dawn). The western mountains are represented by yellow (twilight), and the northern mountains are by black (night). In addition, the general values the colors represent are below:

Red symbolizes wounds, war, energy, sunshine, and spiritual life.
Black is a symbol of strength and victory.
White symbolizes mourning and intellect.

Blue means confidence, beauty, and wisdom.
Yellow suggests bravery, death, and intellect.

The Navajo people and their perspective on life

Kinship, maintaining a harmonious and holistic life with the Earth and universe are defining cultural markers of the Navajo people. In Navajo society, a family consists of small nuclear units, extended family units, clans, and relationships with the Earth and the universe. The Navajo’s K’e refers to this relationship system, allowing Navajo people to stay connected to the Earth and one another (Lee 94).

Since Diné society was traditionally matricentered, women controlled property use, kinship, spirituality, and the economy. To put it differently, one would receive “one’s clan name, land use rights, sheep, and other resources through the maternal line, and residence is preferably taken up matrilocally. In the Navajo frame of reference, a mother is one who gives and sustains life (Witherspoon 1975:15-22).

In addition, after a couple was married, they built a hogan near the wife’s family, where the wife would remain close to her mother, aunts, and sisters (Todacheene 54-56). It was because a woman needed her mother and aunts to help raise a child in protection and trust (57).

As for the Navajo homes themselves, where the Navajo often come together for particular reasons, including ceremonies, they are called “hogan” and made of wood and clay. Hogan’s doorway is “oriented toward the dawn for religious reasons. The interior of a hogan is never physically subdivided. Still, the enclosed space is conceptually divided into the men’s side (south), the women’s side (north), the place of honor (west), and the central hearth area. When someone dies within the dwelling, the structure is abandoned because of a great dread of spirits of the dead” (Jett 354).

3 main principles: Hozho, K’é, and SNBH 

As stated in Lee’s article,  thanks to their kinship terminologies, Hozho and SNBH,  the Navajo developed a distinct way of viewing life and humanity. That viewpoint was love for land and family and to live a balanced and harmonious life. Race and blood quantum were not part of that perspective (Lee 91). To look at those terms and what they mean individually:

SNBH or są’áh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóó is the principle that links humans’ well-being to the four areas of balance: body, emotions, thought, and home.

Honzo, whose loose translation is beauty, refers to a harmonious life maintained. A balanced life with the earth and universe and with each other. It encourages us to stay positive and enjoy life.

K’é is a core element of SNBH that lends structure to the behaviors and relationships of Diné people and all life forms. It is ‘the substance that binds together the present and future, concern and compassion, and is the foundation for hózhó’(28). In the shortest version, as mentioned before, it is “a system of kinship.”

The Navajo people define others based on their behaviors rather than blood and race.

What is the religion of the Navajo tribe? 

The key aspect of the Navajo religion is to maintain healthy relationships with others and the universe. It is majorly built upon a holistic web of relations between landscapes and people. Therefore, SNBH, K’e, and Hozho are very much integrated with the Navajo’s understanding of religion.

Aside from that, the Navajos believe in supernatural powers, witchcraft, and also in nature, including animals and plants that they consider sacred. There are two types of people in the Navajo belief system: the Holy People and the Earth Surface People. The first ones are the creators of the Earth people, but not always the helpful gods. They might also harm people. To understand their religion better, we need to look at their myth of creation. And this creation myth, or Diné Bahaneʼ, is a rich narrative that teaches the Navajo people their history and how to stay connected to their original roots with loyalty to each other,  the Earth, and the universe.

Diné Bahaneʼ: The creation myth of the Navajo people

it is the creation myth of the Navajo people, a rectangular form divided into four. Sections feature two holy men, a sun and a coyote, then a brd and sun, and another figure sitting

“The First World, Ni’hodilqil, was black as black wool. It had four corners, and over these appeared four clouds which were black, white, blue, and yellow. These four clouds contained within themselves the elements of the First World.”

According to the Navajo religion, the world they live in is the last and fourth phase preceded by three other stages, namely, Niʼ Hodiłhił ( the first dark world),  Niʼ Hodootłʼizh (Second or Blue World), and Niʼ Hałtsooí (Third or Yellow World).

The first phase starts in a world of mists with the creation of the Holy wind and the animation of the Holy People. And the first beings were merely spirits without any physical substance. In this dark world full of strife, there was a First Man and First Woman, a Coyote, and insects with no shape.

In the Second World, there were light and blue-colored animals. The third world had two rivers ( male and female with crossed paths) and 6 mountains. The ongoing conflicts among people continued in this world; the monotony of life bored them. Then, the flood came: “The flood was coming, and the Earth was sinking. And all this happened because Coyote had stolen the two children of the Water Buffalo, and only First Woman and Coyote knew the truth.” They hid inside a big reed to protect themselves.

The fourth world seemed barren. First man met the badger which touched the Earth. First man met another form in the fifth world, a locust that came from the Earth. The locust passed tests to enter the Earth. First Man and  Woman formed four mountains.

And lastly, the fifth world is the one we live in. Yet, there are different versions of this same myth, and this is only one of them.

Christianity and the Navajo people

However, with the fragmentation of the Navajo values, the Navajos started practicing other forms of religion. And they began partaking in meetings with people who were not necessarily from their own clan and family. These practices include attending a Native American Church and practicing Pentecostal Christianity.

Native American Church

The Native American Church is a “pan-tribal religion involving ceremonies wherein participants ingest the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii),” which got popular in the 1930s. Most peyote meetings are held to cure individuals of illness through the power of peyote and prayer. Like traditional ceremonies, peyote meetings may be held to address a particular illness or problem or in order to restore or maintain health” (Lewton and Bydone 484)

The peyote meetings aren’t welcomed by the Navajo Tribe Council. Yet, it preserves its popularity due to its therapeutic effects because it allows people to communicate their problems and affection for others. Even better, the discussions in the meetings resonate with Navajo values, which are also combined with Christianity. NAC shows that the Navajo finds a spiritual shelter in a more broad cultural umbrella concerning the Native Americans.

Pentecostal Christianity

In addition to their endemic religious rites, the Navajos also practice Christianity. Navajo Christians have more mobility because they don’t have to be with their kins in a hogan for ceremonies and healing rituals. Instead of their clans, they have a Church family and are required to adopt a new identity. As  Lewton and Bydone state, “While some Navajo Christians adopt entirely new identities, many do not reject traditional Navajo culture and are less exclusionary in their approaches to the other two religions” (491). Adopting a new identity causes some problems, while some feel very happy with their Church family.

Navajo ceremonies and healing rituals

two medicine men, navajo people, drawing figures on the sand with colourful charchoals on the sand, and a girl in her native clothes standing at the back and watching the men

In Navajo culture, illness is seen as an “ugly condition” (hocho) and the result of an encounter between something “dangerous”  and the patient-to-be. The ceremony is based on the chants sung by the singers ( hataali) or the medicine men in healing rituals who move in the clockwise motion of the sun.

The medicine men sing different chants that suit the type of the dangerous encounter. For instance, they sing the Holy Way version of the Male Shooting Way when the patient is made ill by snakes, arrows, and lightning, the dangerous phenomena associated with supernaturals. Secondly, the Ugly Way version of Male Shooting Way targets the incidents of witchcraft ( ghosts and witches, the “ugly things”). Both versions stem from the distinct versions of the Navajo myths (Lamphere 281 ).

The singer aims to bring the patient back to their “pleasant situation” (hozho) with the chants. The ceremony can take up to 9 days with sub-ceremonies. The chants are sung in the ceremony’s first half (4 days). During the rest, the sandpaintings are made, depicting what the supernaturals are made of.

In Navajo ceremonies and healing rituals, objects associated with supernatural powers, objects of the natural world such as the 4 sacred mountains, 4 precious stones, 4 birds, and 4 types of corn come up a lot. The ceremonies take place in the Hogan. And the main focus of the ritual is on the individual rather than a group of people. However, healing requires a common endeavor, and family members support the individual in the ceremony.

Healing comes with the coordination of the patient’s body with SNBH principles

Healing requires re-constructing a healthy relationship with SNBH principles. The rituals include “praying and singing, ingestion of herbal medicine, including emetics; bathing with yucca soap; sandpainting; consecration of the hogan; and the offering of corn pollen” (Tocheedene 481). Also, the creation myth is important to learn the Navajo’s understanding of the universe and the processes that they follow to live a good life and maintain their well-being.

The ceremony is performed in the presence of the patients’ kins. During the ceremony, the patients are expected to communicate with the Holy people or their deceased kins, such as grandfather. In the end, “Patients report feeling renewed and restored as their footsteps follow in the footsteps of the Holy People. They feel their relationship with the spiritual world is renewed and reordered” (483). In other words, the ones who forgot who their relatives were before the ceremony now feel connected to them.

Navajo sand paintings

it is a sand painting with stick figures like humans, angular lines, zinzeg lines in a circular drawing

Also called dry-paintings, the Navajo sand paintings are not made to create artwork but more for ritual and healing purposes, to create cosmographic relationships among the Diyin Dine’é (the Holy People or Supernaturals), Dinétah (the Navajo land), and the Dine’é (the Navajo or “Earth Surface People”). The sand paintings are  “where the gods come and go,” depicting scenes from the Navajo myths, such as 4 sacred mountains, birds, sticks representing human figures,  dances, and chants. Other prevalent figures comprise sacred animals like bears, coyotes, deer, and eagles, and sacred domestic plants such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco in a geometric design. In other words, sand paintings provide momentary glimpses into this complex epistemological landscape.

According to the Navajo belief system, sand paintings have the power to heal because they embody the presence of the Holy People. And the medicine men use the depictions to reconnect with them. As a sacred entity, the sand paintings help patients restore their physical and mental health by reestablishing their bonds with the Holy People, who, through the paintings, interact with the patients to heal them. In their belief, through the chants, the painting absorbs the sickness. At the end of the ritual, the healer discards the painting.

The woven rugs and blankets imitate the patterns of sand paintings. However, they never fully copy the same design, a sign of reverence to the original form that serves as a healing ritual.

Cultural significance of the Navajo people’s culture in anthropology

a small Navajo child in yellow colour native costume dancing in the front as other Navajos dresed in native costunes are at his back

In Navajo’s belief system, time, place, color, four sacred mountains, natural objects, and people are all intertwined. And they share a common identity. In other words, self gains meaning through a collective share and relations with the clan, Earth, and universe. Even more importantly, the Navajo culture brings a holistic approach that best serves nature and human well-being. And they provide us with new perspectives showing us how to relate to our surroundings. There is a lot to discover and learn from the Navajos for the same reasons.  Thus, the Navajo culture makes a great resource for cultural and medical anthropology.


Elizabeth L. Lewton and Victoria Bydone: “Identity and Healing in Three Navajo Religious Traditions: Sa’̧ ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózho̧ ́

Louise Lamphere: “Symbolic Elements in Navajo Ritual”

Barbara D. George: “The Navajos in a Complex Society”

Heidi J. Todacheene: “She Saves Us from Monsters:  The Navajo Creation Story and Modern Tribal Justice”

Lloyd Lee: “Navajo Cultural Identity: What Can the Navajo Nation Bring to the American Indian Identity Discussion Table?”

Stephen C. Jett: “The Origins of Navajo Settlement Patterns”

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