Thursday, August 20, 2020

Utah Wonderland: Navajo Blessing (c. 1945-1949)

Whipple tried several times to write an article titled “Utah Wonderlands” or “Through the Utah Wonderlands” in the 1945–1949 period. It centered around the people and places in some of the great natural wonders of Utah’s far south, including the Monument Valley, that she encountered through Stewart Campbell’s Utah Wonderland Tours company. This is a short piece from one of her drafts of the article, describing a Navajo blessing ritual.

In this sketch, Whipple, who often let her witty commentary dominate her travel nar- ratives, writes with a reserved voice, reporting the ceremony with little commentary but with telling details: the singer’s long nails, the fright of the young patient, the sounds of the chant. The healer that she refers to as “Old Fat” was probably Hosteen Tso, a well- known medicine man in Monument Valley.She was introduced to the medicine man by Harry Goulding, who with his wife Leone (usually called “Mike”), owned and oper- ated Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley. The couple was known for their work convincing Hollywood directors to come to Monument Valley to film their Westerns. Whipple had described the Gouldings and Old Fat in This Is the Place: Utah, p. 95–113. The two photos attached here are from that book. 

In the blessing way chant, Whipple translates one line as: “In my front is holy. To my back is holy.” We have changed it to the more commonly accepted form of “Before me it is holy, behind me it is holy,” or “Before me is beauty, behind me is beauty.” Finally, Whipple writes the Navajo word for “corn pollen” as taw-de-teen, while under current orthographic practices the terms is written tádídíín.


            Harry Goulding has a mystic relationship with one Old Fat, a medicine man, who collaborates with Harry to make weather on call for the movies.

            During our last day in Monument Valley, the personnel of the Utah Wonderland Tours were permitted to see and photograph a Navajo healing ritual.  This is the most sacred of all Navajo rites and visitors are almost never allowed. Healing is done by chanting and the chanting is done by a medicine man. There are perhaps 25 chants but each medicine man usually knows only one. An essential part of all chants is the sand-painting, 4 to 12 feet across; though elaborately and beautifully drawn with a variety of colored sands poured painstakingly through the medicine-man's fingers according to his preconceived design, each painting must be destroyed before sunset.

            Though it was hot outside (so hot that water left the skin almost faster than a man with a hose could pour it into the mouth), the ceremony was held inside a winter hogan with a blanket lashed to the door to keep out the blowing sand. The atmosphere inside the little room was fetid, yet somehow hair-prickling. Smoke from blackened coals still drifted toward the hole in the roof and stung the nostrils. A meal had obviously just been eaten. A frying pan lay by the fire and in the corner were stacked some dirty dishes, some canned stuff, a bucket half-filled with a thin white batter. Pants, bright shirts, and strings of turquoise hung about the walls.

            The patient was a little boy.  The two Navajos in the hogan when we entered were the child's father and Old Fat with his scarred face and long nails. Each man wore around his neck a little bag of corn pollen--a Navajo's taw-de-teen is his most sacred possession, and he is never without it.

            The ritual started quietly. The sand (red, white, black, blue, orange) had already been blessed and was being slowly dribbled through Old Fat's fingers on a clean, pale pink square of sand-background. First, the sun and moon in different phases are imaged there, ornamented to make them appear complimentary. Old Fat is going to need the controlling powers of the sun and moon to assist him in healing the child. Having finished the picture and thus invoked the proper gods, Old Fat pollinizes or blesses the painting by shaking his taw-de-teen over it. Then the naked, quivering, terrified child is brought into the hogan and at first placed to one side of the painting to get him into the general key and not to rush the gods. Next the boy is pollinized or blessed from the same buckskin sack around Old Fat's neck, and then he is anointed thoroughly out of a bowl of yo-bedeth-nine - "the herb that is very strong."  The child shivers and cries when the water with its green specks is dribbled over his wasted body, but the father nevertheless forces him to drink out of another bowl of mint-sage tea. Then he forks two live coals out of the fire, blesses the coals, wafts their smoke toward the baby, puts out the coals.

            All this time Old Fat sits cross-legged in his corner, chanting. Sometimes the chanting is a thin minor-keyed wailing; sometimes the chanting is as dark and rough as the bark of the cedar tree; and sometimes the chanting is as soft and sibilant as the sand, itself; but always the chanting goes on, except for spaced intervals when Old Fat breathes, spits, covers sand over the spit, and then continues like an agonized metronome. Old Fat is actually praying -

May he fare well

May he be strong

but it sounds to our unperceptive ears like “Ho! Yoyoyo! Ho! Yoyoyo! YOOOO . . .,” fading down to nothingness.

            All the time he chants, Old Fat shakes an ornamented little gourd, every move smooth and rhythmic except for sudden cut swoopings to drive away any lurking evil spirits that might have crept into this holy place.

            Now the climax of the ritual is at hand. The boy is lifted by his father and placed squarely upon the painting, itself, and boy and painting are jointly pollinized and thus cemented together.  Old Fat rattles his gourd more fiercely and both men chant in unison, now, their voices rising frenziedly. The Powers must notice and aid.

            The chanting is at last supposed to be the prayer of the patient, himself:

            I live on War God Mountain.

            I am the son of the turquoise woman.

            The blessed rain comes from the War God Mountain.

            It is holy. It is pure.

            On my pony I ride in peace.

            From my horse's hoof I make a sea shell.

            From my horse's eyes I make a star.

            From my horse's tail I make falling rain.

            Before me it is holy.  Behind me it is holy.

            On both sides it is holy.

            All is beautiful!

            I ride a beautiful trail.

All is holy.

All is perfect!


            The scene is heartbreaking, impressive and dignified as all supplications to a whimsical and capricious deity must be, yet heartbreaking because only the white man's hospital, indifferent, now, and its door closed, could succor this child. Yet there is a comforting faith in this Navajo hogan; the old sheep skins are dedicated, the fry pans, the clothes on the walls, the smoke-filled air, the endless wailing wind, the seeping sand gritting beneath finger nails and along eyeballs. Thor and Jehovah and Buddha are in this hogan, even the sub-human deities grin from the corners. Gone is the bitter crushing poverty, which nonetheless is never vicious like the white man's poverty. Love is in this hogan, and fear, bodiless, unescapable fear such as the ancients knew--fear, like a misbegotten goblin, strongest where love is strongest, too.

            Old Fat achieves a final crescendo, his face contorted with the pain and pity of being human and the long travail of man.

            It is over, and we are out under the sky again, watching the sand boil upward like apricot-colored smoke under the wind, watching the warm brown shadows creep over the great dunes which lie in every direction like vast plushy beasts.

            Harry bids us goodbye: "May the Old Man keep his arms around you!"

            Our photographer glances back for the last time at the spires of Monument Valley.  "It's the Land of Prayer," he says for all of us. 

1. Thomas J. Harvey. Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley: Making the Modern Old West. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2011.

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Meet the Mormons (Look Magazine, March 10, 1942)

 Maurine Whipple, "Meet the Mormons". Look Magazine, March 10, 1942. Photographs by Earl Thiesen