Legends in Sand: The Evolution of the Modern Navajo Sandpainting

An article by Lee Anderson

This brief article examines the Navajo sandpainting as both a religious item and an art item. We’ll present a brief history and discuss the sandpaintings as art forms that are used and made today. Lastly, we’ll at how this art form has evolved. Note that this brief article only touches the surface; for more information, consult the references listed at the end.


There are two forms of Navajo sandpaintings. The first is used in the traditional healing or blessing ceremony conducted by a Singer or Medicine Man, a hataalii. This is referred to by the Navajo as an iikaah, “a place where the gods come and go.” The sandpainting is the crucial element in this 2- to-9-day ceremony, which is designed to restore balance (hozho), thus restoring lost health or insuring “good things.” The Singer uses crushed stone, crushed flowers, gypsum, pollen, etc. The sandpainting is completed in one day and destroyed later that night. This type of sandpainting is rarely viewed in an actual healing ceremony by non-Navajos. However, several noted Singers have demonstrated their skills at state fairs and powwows, although they leave the paintings incomplete, unlike the pure and sacred ones used in actual ceremonies. The demonstration is designed only to “show how it’s done.”

The second form is sandpainting as an art, created on a piece of particle board or plywood. In this form, elements of the sacred ceremonies, some very nearly complete, are presented as a unique and permanent art form. Finely crushed stone — some natural, some permanently dyed — is applied to the glue base. The overall design is intended to be an art presentation that uses the sacred Navajo symbols in the manner that would not be considered disrespectful. Artists hope that the beauty of this work, coupled with the traditional Navajo beliefs, will please the public and will provide a meaningful income. James C. Joe learned sandpainting from his father (Eugene Baatsoslanii) and later became a noted Medicine Man; he is the first to have practiced both professions. The Navajo accept this art form as quite legitimate.

The Origin of Navajo Sandpainting

Navajo legends tell us of the people before man. The Holy People are First Man, Changing Woman, Spider Woman, Monster Slayer, Born of/for Water, the Snake People, the Corn People, etc. These Holy People maintained permanent paintings of sacred designs on spider webs, sheets of sky, clouds, and some fabrics, including buckskin. When the First People, the Dineh, created by Changing Woman, were guided by First Man into the present world, they were given the right to reproduce these sacred paintings to summon the assistance of the Holy People. But ownership of them could lead to evil because, as the Holy People told them, “Men are not as good as we; they might quarrel over the picture and tear it and that would bring misfortune; rain would not fall; corn would not grow.” Therefore, it was decreed that they must accomplish the paintings with sand and upon the earth. Furthermore, it must be destroyed at night.

Most ethnologists and other researchers believed that the Navajo learned the art of sacred painting from the Pueblo Indians. These people’s ancestors were the prehistoric Anasazi, Mogollon, and Mimbres. Studies of prehistoric paintings on cave and kiva walls show that many were painted or plastered over and then reused with different art. It is well known that early sandpainting used a variety of materials — colored sands, crushed rock, charcoal, crushed flowers, gypsum, ochre, pollen, and cornmeal. These sands or “dry” paintings were used in the Pueblo’s rituals in prehistoric times. Also, both the early Pueblo Indians and the Navajo used depictions of men impersonating the gods. Several common motifs and early identifiable deities appear in both. They include the Humpback or “Camel” God with his back full of seeds, the two children of Changing Woman (Monster Slayer and Born of Water), Red Cloud, Talking God, and others.

The Great Pueblo Revolt occurred in 1680, when the Spanish and all of their religious entourage were expelled from all the Southwestern pueblos. Several years later, the Spanish regrouped in El Paso (El Paso del Norte) and returned to the pueblos to reestablish their political and religious hegemony. Many Pueblo Indians feared reprisals and left to live as nomads with the Navajo. There was much intermarriage and likely an incorporation of the Pueblo’s dry painting into the Navajo rituals. We know the weaving techniques — so wonderfully perfected by the Navajos — had Pueblo origins. So, too, might some of the religious practices.

Regardless of the sandpainting’s origin, one fact is clear: It is transitory, a specific rendering of a religious art form that is destroyed upon completion. Therefore, there is no pictorial evidence of what sandpaintings looked like one hundred years ago and earlier. Our only clues lie within the records of kiva walls, cave walls, and mural fragments from several hundred years ago. We also have the words of earlier scholars and researchers who wrote about what they learned from talking to medicine men of their time. Fortunately, a few drawings and reproductions do exist of the religious work in the late 1800s and very early 1900s. The legendary Medicine Man and weaver Hosteen Klah (1867–1937) was, among many other things, instrumental in capturing, for history, a significant period of this legendary art. He and his family wove the designs into Navajo rugs. These rugs and his drawings are centerpieces of the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are our best links to the early religious designs that later became such an inspired art form.

The Role of the Sandpainting

Navajo religion holds that everything consists of powerful forces, which are capable of good or evil. The balance between them is quite fine; if upset, even accidentally, some misfortune or even disaster will occur. Nature is balanced. It is in harmony, and only man can upset the balance. Of the many, many Navajo deities, only one, Changing Woman is constantly striving to enhance the good forces for the people. It was she who gave birth to the twins, Monster Slayer and Born of Water. These two heroes or war gods left evidence of their exploits that exist even today. The great lava flow near Grants, New Mexico, is the dried blood of a slain monster. Likewise, the formation southwest of Shiprock is the remains of a giant man-eating eagle. They and their mother succeeded in ridding Dinetah, the Navajo world, of all evil except old age, poverty, sickness, and death.

There is no supreme being in the Navajo religion. Among the most powerful are Changing Woman, the Twin War Gods (heroes), Sun (the husband of Changing Woman), Holy Man, Holy Woman, Holy Boy, Holy Girl. Also powerful, and appearing in sandpaintings, are the Earth, Moon, Thunder, Wind, and others. Yeis (generally lesser deities), both male and female respectively, along with animals, plants, and various forces in nature, are very important in the Navajo religion. They appear in many sandpaintings.

All of these deities are constantly in flux, causing good and evil. The goal is for these forces to be in balance, or hozho, a perfect state. This term can represent an amalgam or the concepts of blessed, holy, beautiful, balanced, without pain, etc.

Hozho is the desired balance but it is difficult to maintain because everything (person, plant, animal, stone, star, cloud, strike of lightning) has its Holy People. Anyone who angers any of these forces — an easy thing to do — creates disharmony and risks any one of several physical or mortal ills. In addition, many witches seek to harm individuals through their own ceremonies, which also use sandpaintings.

The everyday existence of the Navajo is filled with pitfalls that could easily anger a Holy Person and result in a loss of hozho. For example, killing a bear can cause arthritis, laughing at one can cause it to “get after you,” mountain sheep can cause ear and eye problems, killing a sand spider can cause baldness, watching a dog “go to the bathroom” can cause you to go crazy, killing snakes or lizards can cause your heart to dry up and your back to get crooked, yelling at a pregnant woman can cause the baby to be deaf, and so on; there are thousands of taboos and cures.

To cure the attendant illness caused by the imbaance, you first need a diagnosis by a hand trembler, a ndilniihii. Through prayer, concentration, and the use of sacred pollen, the practitioner’s hand will tremble and an analysis of these movements will pinpoint the cause of illness. This also identifies the “sing,” “chant,” or “way” needed to effect a cure. There are many ways to combat ills; Navajo religious beliefs provide for about 500 different sandpaintings derived from some 50 different Chants or Ways. There are, for example, nearly 100 sandpaintings within the Shooting Way or Shooting Chant alone.

Each chant or way is associated with one or more elements of the creation story. And each ill or imbalance is likewise associated with one of these chants. For example, the Bead Chant cures skin disease caused by thunder, lightning, or snakes, and the Night Chant cures nervous disorders among other ills.

These ceremonies are presided over and orchestrated by a full Medicine Man. A ceremony can last 2 days or be as long as 9 days. Involved are chants, songs, prayers, long lectures, dances, the use of sweat baths, herbs, emetics, prayer sticks, assorted fetishes, and, of course, sandpaintings. These ceremonies are expensive. The Medicine Man must be paid well, and the host must provide food and accommodations for friends and family who attend. Those who attend share in the blessing that accompanies the ceremony and assist in the chant, dances, and construction of the sandpainting. A 9-day Night Chant has been known to bankrupt a family.

When all the preliminary activities such as lectures, purifications, chants, etc., have been accomplished, the Medicine Man begins the sandpainting ritual, usually in the family hogan. All the pigments of color have been carefully gathered and prepared. The principal colors — white, blue, yellow, and black — are linked to the four sacred mountains as well as the directions. Red, often considered a sacred color, represents sunlight. As a note of interest, the four sacred mountains are Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks (west), Navajo Mountain in Utah (north), Mt. Blanco in Colorado (east) and Mt. Taylor in New Mexico (south).

The Navajo name for sandpainting, iikaah, translates to “place where gods come and go.” This name is appropriate because, if all activities are performed correctly and the patient believes in the cure, the sandpainting prepares the way for the forces or Holy People to intercede and restore hozho. The sandpainting is the final act to summon those forces. The patient sits in its center and faces the open door of the hogan, which always faces east. The Holy People being summoned will arrive and infuse the painting with their healing power, dispelling evil and restoring balance. The ceremony also shields against further threats of a similar nature that may be directed toward the patient, such as witchcraft.

The sandpainting can be quite small or as large as 20 feet, which means that several men and women would be needed to finish it in the allotted day. Most sandpaintings are between 6 and 8 feet. The Medicine Man or Singer is the director responsible for accuracy of color and design. For practical reasons, work begins in the center and works outward in a “sun-wise” pattern for religious reasons (east to south to west to north and back to east). Most sandpaintings have a protective garland around three sides to prevent evil from infusing the work from the north, west, or south. This is often a rainbow. The painting must face east for the Holy People’s entrance. In order to prevent evil from entering before the work is complete, spiritual guardians may be positioned to the east. There are many such guardians, including the beaver and otter, which gave their hides to Monster Slayer and Born of Water to prevent them from freezing on one of their journeys.

With the patient seated in the center of the sandpainting, the Singer takes items from his medicine bag and touches them to body parts of the Holy People in the sandpainting. He then touches corresponding parts of his body and then the patient’s body. Thus, the powers of the Holy People, properly orchestrated through the intermediary, are transmitted to the patient, restoring the hozho needed for the cure.

When the ritual is completed, the patient leaves the sandpainting and all the sands are swept away in a reverse order. The sand is then either buried outside or scattered to the four directions. Failure to destroy a sandpainting or attempting to reverse any part may bring blindness or death to the transgressor.

Not all sandpaintings are used to cure the ill. In fact, the heart of the Navajo Religion is the Blessing Way, which hozho to many things — a newborn child or a new home, planting, job, marriage, etc. Usually the sandpainting is small, and the ceremony covers a single day. These ceremonies do not always require the floor of a hogan; they be done on buckskin or cloth.

Sandpainting as Art

Hosteen Klah is credited with being the first Navajo to present a sandpainting picture in a permanent art form. He wove a “Whirling Logs” design from the Night Way Chant into a textile (rug). He and his two nieces wove approximately 70 pieces over an 18-year span. From this came many sketches, drawings, paintings, and later, books. Another Medicine Man, Miguelito (1865–1936), contributed greatly to books. Rest assured, these weavings and the drawings by famous and respected medicine men were altered to some degree to preclude any disrespect to the Holy People. (One blanket purchased in 1929 had 34 identifiable errors according to a noted anthropologist.)

The most often-seen sandpainting today is a reproduction on a piece of plywood or particle board. This evolved from the 1930s and was first seen in Gallup, New Mexico. Today the board is smoothed and covered with a thin but precise layer of glue. Colored sand or crushed rock is then placed on this layer. More glue is painted on and more sand is deposited. If the glue is too thick, the line or area will be lumpy; if too fine or thin, not enough sand will adhere and the painting will appear weak. To keep the glue from drying too fast, the artist works on only small areas at a time.

Although most artists use common household glue (thinned) as the base, many add one or more secret ingredients to satisfy their own requirements. Also, some artists use different rocks or pigments to achieve various colors. Some use commercially colored sands. Part of the skill involved in creating a high-quality sandpainting is the technique of dispensing the sand onto the glue base. Most artists take a small amount of sand in the palm of their hand, below the second finger. They trickle the sand off the index finger, guiding and regulating it using the thumb. The flow must be uniform or the line on the sandpainting will be uneven. Some sandpainters sketch first, and then work in pencil; others work only by eye.

As demand for an item increases beyond production capability, new production techniques are developed. Some sandpainters now use a series of copper templates to speed their work. Certain symbols, lines, and patters are cut out of copper. These templates are placed on the board and used to quickly apply glue in the proper location. Often, they are also to apply sand. Templates are used often in the more “commercial” grade of sandpaintings.

Another item, the air brush, has become popular with sand painters. It allows for the rapid creation of a multi-hued background. This technique does not lessen amount of work required for the background; it simply adds an artistic dimension. And, what is sandpainting, after all, but an art?

The Evolution and Influence of Sandpainting Art

Sandpainting as an art was first seen in tapestries and later in paintings and drawings. These forms still exist. As weavings, very few Navajos will attempt a sandpainting; they are extremely difficult to do well and require a long time to finish the final tapestry. Those who undertake this task can — and do — command a high premium.

The Navajo Yei rug, first woven with great controversy near the turn of the century, quickly became popular because of its resale success. It is still popular, a “must” for any weaving collector. It is not uncommon to see Yei weavings blended with other regional rug patterns.

Artists frequently employ one or more figures from a sandpainting in their contemporary work. Noted Navajo artist Harrison Begay frequently used one or more guardians in his paintings as early as the late 1930s. Justin Tso, Jack Lee, Benson Halwood, and many others do also.

Sandpainting figures also appear in many Pueblo pottery designs. Hopi Kachinas are used most often, but the use of Navajo Yei figures has also increased.

Sandpainting has undergone some great changes. At first, paintings incorporated the more common Yei figures and occasionally a corn plant. Then they evolved to render simplified Chants or Ways — the Whirling Logs, Big Thunder from the Shooting Chant, Coyote Stealing Fire, etc. Now we see renderings or realist and impressionist movements, as well as pictures of Shiprock, fetish bears, and pottery depictions, among others. Generally the work is not complex, but it is pleasing and represents a strong art movement.

Over a period of several years, various competitions began to recognize sandpainting as an art form. As more and more museum shows, fairs, ceremonials, etc. began to award prizes based on quality and innovation, these works increased in quality, quantity, and innovation. Today, we see in exquisite detail, pure traditional sandpainting designs. Also, several artists blend two or more sandpainting designs, or elements, together. Among the best of these groups are Rosabelle Ben and Fred Geary. Other master artists such as Eugene Baatsoslanii Joe, Bobbie Johnson (d.), J.M. Cambridge, Keith Silversmith, H.R. (War Eagle) Begay, and Gracie Dick use a blend of tradition, impression, and realism to achieve one-of-a-kind expressions that rival, in expression and in quality, any great art.

As a last note, sandpainting designs now appear in sterling and gold-cast jewelry, which is popular and selling well. It is easy to see that the core of Navajo life — the religion and its expression in the sandpaintings — has influenced all forms of Navajo art. Its influence is expected to continue.

References / Suggested Readings

Ronald McCoy, 1988, “Summoning the Gods,” Plateau Magazine of the Museum of Northern Arizona. (An excellent, detailed presentation—most of our spellings of Navajo terms and other details are from this work.)

Eugene Baatsoslanii Joe and Mark Bahti, 1978, Navajo Sandpainting Art, Treasure Chest Publications, Inc., Tucson, AZ. (A well-written and illustrated book with many personal observations by the most famous of all living sandpainting artists.)

Tom Bahti, Revised by Mark Bahti, 1982, Southwestern Ceremonials, K.C. Publications, Inc. (Brief overview, very well written.)

Frank Johnson Newcomb, 1964, Hosteen Klan, Navajo Medicine Man and Sandpainter, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. (For in-depth understandings of Navajo life and the role of the Medicine Man.

Ernest L. Bulow, 1982, Navajo Taboos, Southwesterner Books, Gallup, NM. (Very interesting and a brief review that gives insight into the many pressures on the traditional Navajo way of life.)

Franc Johnson Newcomb and Gladys A. Richard, 1937, Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant, J.J. Augustin, NY, Reprinted Dover, New York, 1975. (In-depth view of Navajo life and the intricacies of the most varied of the Navajo Ways or Chants.)

David Villasenoor, 1963, Indian Sandpaintings of the Greater Southwest, Naturegraph Publishers, Inc., Happy Camp, CA. (A pamphlet describing 14 Navajo Ways, with color photos.)

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