[Dissertation] Myths, Markets, and Metaphors: Navajo Weaving as Commodity and Communicative Form

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Today the Navajo are the tribe with the largest continuous land base and also one of the most successful and tenacious in the assertion of its sovereignty rights. Their tribal government is looked at as example by other tribes and used as a model and their educational system is considered an effective tool for the maintenance and continued development of Navajo culture and language preservation. Health issues, low income, overgrazing, uranium mining and the scarce job opportunities on the reservation, however, are some of the major problems the Navajo have to face today Parezo As in the majority of Native American tribes, Navajo stories are oral and passed on from generation to generation through storytelling.

The creation and clan migration stories are at the center of Navajo storytelling and, in addition to reminding the People of where they come from, they contain information on important values in life, the proper ways of behavior and conduct, as well as their language and philosophy. Listeners are also reminded of the complementary bipolarities, male and female, good and evil, that exist in everything on the universe.

Stories and legends of the tribe are also perpetrated and transmitted through the ritual songs of the ceremonies.

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Chantway stories, in fact, tell the origin of the curing ceremonies that are associated with specific chants and how they were given to the Earth People by the supernatural beings, the Holy People. In addition, they are hero stories and so they always present the figure of a hero who, thanks to the help of the supernaturals is able to solve the situations in which he finds himself, most of the time misadventures. Through their intervention, the gods confer a ritual knowledge that enables the hero to return to his people and teach them the ceremony Reichard ; Kluckhohn ; Parezo Holy People According to the Navajo creation text, all living beings including plants and animals can be classified in two different groups: the Earth Surface People and the Holy People.

While the first group includes human beings, the second comprises the superhuman, whose great powers can be used to help the human beings. If called and propitiated, they can help the people restore the harmony and balance that have been somehow disrupted, but if they are erroneously disturbed or invoked incorrectly they can also harm humans.

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The Holy People were not originally from the present world, but arrived here on sunbeams, rainbow and lightning, after moving up from lower worlds. After some time, the Holy People decided to leave the place where they established themselves; before departing they delivered a speech to the Earth People. This happens in the Blessingway, a ritual for the Earth People which reminds them of the ceremonial meeting of the Holy People from which they were created and given knowledge Kluckhohn and Leighton Consequently, they are characterized by this failure to speak, an inability compensated for by their making distinctive vocal calls when present in masked forms.

During some ceremonies such as Nightway and Mountainway, as it will be explained in a later section of this chapter, these deities are portrayed by masked Earth Surface People, who have the roles of intermediaries between the Holy People and the Navajo.

They are not the Holy People, but their personification. In the course of song ceremonials of the Blessingway rite and the Holyway chants, after the sandpainting is completed and the person for whom the ceremony is performed has sat in its center, a masked Yei can momentarily replace the singer and apply the sand from the painting onto the body of the person. It is this conception of Yei as intermediary between humans and superhumans that David John uses in his paintings to relate to the special connection and relationship between the Navajo and the Hole People.

Dissertation Myths Markets And Metaphors Navajo Weaving As Commodity And Communicative Form 1996

Each element has an ascribed place in the universe and this orderly system has to be maintained through harmony with all beings, animate and inanimate, in order to avoid disruption. Jeopardy to the cosmic balance may cause malfunction of its constituent parts and will bring illness to those who have not respected the universal harmony. It can also come through unknowingly being near such chaotic activity.

Harmony can be restored through ritualistic procedures and ceremonies that expel the evil and attract the good and beautiful. Through the rituals a patient is identified with the supernatural beings that are prayed to and attracted by their likeness in a sandpainting, and is infused with their powers and strength. These are divided into two main sections: purification and dispelling of evil; and attraction of goodness, strength and power. Each section is accompanied by night chanting. According to Wyman and Kluckhohn ; , who surveyed Navajo ceremonials in the s, these complex ritual processes 1 These are Nightway and the Mountain Top Way, with their well know Yeibichai Dance and Corral or Fire Dance, but also the Enemyway.

After the Blessingway, the Holyway is the second most important ceremony in the Navajo ritual system. These ceremonies are performed, in fact, when the relationship between an individual and another living thing is broken or endangered; the evil that causes the suffering and this unbalanced relationship are removed and beauty is restored. Some of the occasions requiring a Holyway chant can include: illness generated by natural elements for which a Shootingway is performed , or by certain animals such as the snake Beautyway and the Holy People themselves; diseases derived by association with bears Mountainway , or following contact with Navajo ghosts Red Antway.

Two other types of ritual are the Lifeway and Enemyway ceremonies. Lifeways are curing ceremonies performed after an accident, an injury or sufferings that are a natural part of life such as childbirth. The Holyway Chants consist of seven subdivisions or chant groups and can be performed for numerous occasions and different illnesses.

In addition to this, it can be carried out in two, five or nine nights, starting at sunset on the first night. Gill reports that for the nine-night version, on the mornings of the first four days, the sweat and emetic and the prayerstick and offering ceremonies are performed…Beginning with the fifth night and repeated through the eight night is the short singing ceremony.

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Before Dawn on the fifth through the eight days the setting-out ceremony is performed. And on each of these last four days, usually in the afternoon, the sandpainting ceremony is done. The last, or ninth night, is occupied with the all-night singing, as in Blessingway, and the ceremonial concludes at dawn Gill These practices are a preparation for the re-establishment of harmony and of the proper relationship with the Holy People which will happen at the end of the ceremony, after the chanting. Since David John uses masked impersonators in his paintings, the God-Impersonator Group will be further discussed.

The Nightway: A God-Impersonator Chant Ceremonial dancing is one phase of complex rituals that revolve around the curing of a patient in a small number of ceremonies. It is of minor importance compared to the other rites.


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Another well-known dance is the Squaw dance, typical of the Enemyway, which however is social and not ceremonial. It is performed for three nights in three different locations.

The Yebichai and the Corral or Fire Dance both conclude their respective chants, Nightway and Mountainway, and are held on the ninth night. In the Corral Dance, the audience can enter into a large corral spruce opened toward the east and with a great fire lit in the center. The Yebichai dance is the only one that involves portrayal of the gods. Its chantway, the Nightway, is probably the most widely known ceremony since, as mentioned earlier, it can be open to the public. It is a nine-night winter curing ceremony in which numerous masked Yei impersonated by men of the tribe appear during the last two nights to initiate young boys and girls to their secrets.

Each aspect of the ceremonial needs to be done at the proper time and following the proper order Faris The ninth night is when the public ceremony i.

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People gathered around an octagonal hogan with the door facing to the east. The patient is brought outside and placed on a stool in front of the hogan, near the central fire. The dancers come from the east, led by Talking God recognizable by his white buckskin mask with a painted cornstalk in the middle. He is followed by a line of four dancers with Calling God at the end. When the dancers reach the singer and the patient, they are sprinkled with sacred meal and all turn to the east; then the singer begins to chant his invocation which the patient repeats word by word. At the end of the chant, the Yeibichai voices his loud whoop and all the dancers turn around, now facing west.

Water Sprinkler, who has come outside from a shelter, imitates Talking God with his shrieks and, as soon as they are over, the rattling of the dancers is heard. Then their dance starts and the lifting of their right feet is followed by a stomp, then lifting of the left feet and again a stomp. Because of the appearance of Talking God, the Yeibichai, and his peculiar call repeated by the dancers, the ceremony on the last night of the Nightway is normally referred to as the Yeibichai dance.

When the eight are done, the four come out again and the cycle is repeated, sometimes in a single line, other times in a double one Faris ; Kluckhohn The verses of the chant and the dancing are repeated over and over throughout the entire winter night, with alterations only in the positions of the dancers.

Talking God, Water Sprinkler and the singer are the only ones who never alternate or change their positions. As soon as the sky starts to brighten with daylight, the chant ceases and silence prevails: the singer faces east and takes off his blanket, while the patient offers him a new basket filled with meal. The silence is soon broken by the jingling bells of another group of dancers who will sing the last dawn morning song.

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As the sun rises on the horizon, people go back to their hogans to start a new day. Ceremonial Masks Masks are the most important part of the ceremonial paraphernalia wore by dancers because they are the element that directly connects them as human beings to the gods that are being impersonated. A fundamental characteristic of the Yei is that they tried to speak, but failed; accordingly, portrayers, as their earthly embodiments, are forbidden to talk while wearing a mask. The impersonators, therefore, must bear the outmost respect to the gods they are embodying and refrain from speech.

Masks used in ceremonial dances can be head or face masks and the ones used by Holy People portrayers can also be male and female. Yei are male with duality. In this case, all male masks are head, while female are face. The prohibition to speak while wearing a mask is valid for both male and female masks. Depending on the ceremony or branch that is performed they can represent different Holy People or Yei. In the Nightway, for example there are 12 different masks representing: talking god, calling god, 6 male hashch-e, 2 6 female hashch-e, black god, monster slayer, born-for-water, water carrier who is also mentioned as gray god and the hashch-e , hump back, fringed mouth, red hashch-e, destroyer, whistling hashch-e, and shooting hashch-e.

Since each mask represents a particular god and thus is different from the others, I will consider only the ones David John is using or referring to in his paintings, and I will simply provide a list of their main characteristic features. Talking God, as already mentioned is referred to as the Grandfather of the gods.

The face of the mask is made of buckskin or male deer hide, while the back of doeskin; the two parts are sewn together with sinews of both animals. The eyes and the mouth, marked with a rock crystal and perforated with a knife, are two open squares, one inside the other, marked in black on a white painted face. Additionally, a cylindrical butt end of a gourd is placed on the mouth piece and is adorned with kit fox hair, representinga beard or mustache. The white face displays a black corn plant that from the mouthpiece goes up to the forehead; this has three leaves to the left of the stalk, two to the right, and two ears of corn.

Sitting on the tips of the downs are two bluebirds facing each other, a female on the left and a male on the 3 For a more detailed analysis of all ceremonial masks see Father Berard Haile, Head and Face Masks in Navaho Ceremonials. Michaels, Arizona: St. Michaels Press, Talking God wears a spruce collar around his neck and carries a dark bag on his left hand and a gourd on his right.


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  6. He wears a buckskin robe and moccasins secured with silver buttons. The mask wore by Calling God is made of the same materials and realized with the same procedure, that is first sprinkled with pollen, then marked with rock crystal and perforated with a knife to create the eyes and mouth openings. Male God and Female God present some similarities, although they have their own peculiar and distinct traits. Male Gods wear two eagle feathers with white down extending to the right of the mask, which are placed on owl feathers. A mouthpiece adorned with kit hair fox is placed on the mouth and a spruce collar is around the neck.

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