The medicine man plays a dominant role in the Navajo culture. Opposing the false image portrayed on television and movie screens, the medicine man holds great respect and honor among the Navajo people. He is important because he has knowledge of the heritage and culture of the Navajo.
In the headlong march for progress today, in the forward thrust into uncertainty, amid the continuous cry for self-determination, very few men are left who have a tie to the past—a tie to The People’s history, legends, and myths that are slowly fading away as the old die.
The medicine man is the holder of truth about the Navajo way of life. Through his mouth, principles of goodness and prosperity are taught to the people. Thus, he is a man of great significance, not just because he is a healer or has knowledge of herbal medicine, but because he preserves the traditions and beliefs of the Navajo.
When a medicine man is called to perform a ‘sing’, or healing ceremony, he comes not only prepared to heal but to tell the story of the people and their beginning from the first world to their emergence into the fourth world. This is the time when he will answer questions about life and anything that has to do with man’s existence on earth. He will tell the young and remind the old that the harmony of one’s life and the universe and the order of all things is very important to the well-being of the individual.
The medicine man does not claim to be a god and does not wish to be worshipped as such. He is a man who has spent many hours learning ceremonial procedures, yet he never learns more than three of these in his lifetime. He must learn songs and prayers, none of the wording of which can be missed; he must learn many different types of herbs for his healing; he must, through many trips into different areas of the country, obtain the necessary items for his sacred medicine bag; he must purify himself by many hours of contemplation in the sweat hut; he must then have faith in the Great Spirit and in himself that he will be able to heal. Through his faith the ill one has in him, he is able to render the service of healing.
The medicine man is well paid for his services. Some who are healed pay a large sum in cash plus as many as five sheep, and blankets. The ill one, along with help from relatives, must also provide food for the visitors and the family.
Before money was available, medicine men used to be paid with livestock, turquoise, and rugs.
Sometimes a medicine man requested permission to marry one of the daughters as payment for his services, at times taking a young girl at the age of twelve to be his wife. It was not uncommon for Navajo girls at that age to bear children and do all the work of a wife and mother. Young girls were taught responsibilities of the home at an early age because it was considered a great honor to marry a medicine man, who was well to do. He had many fine horses and sheep and the best turquoise and silver with which he adorned his wife.
In this series of short stories, Louis takes us from the Hogan—a traditional Navajo dwelling—to the importance of family and elders; the role of the woman, wife and mother; responsibilities; survival; the clan system; the land; the medicine man and more. Be sure to read all the stories and to “Discover Navajo”.