ééjí Hatáál (Night Chant)

"Like all primitive people, the Navahos are intensely religious" wrote Edward S. Curtis, whose twenty-volume study of The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. Colorful expressions of their religious life were found in the many ceremonies performed by their medicine men. Medicine men were believed to be powerful not only in curing disease of body and mind, but also in preventing disease by their ceremonies. These were referred to as "medicine ceremonies," but they were really "ritualistic prayers," of their tradition. There were many of these ceremonies, each of them having many ritual prayers. Some of the ceremonies lasted only a day. Some lasted four days, each with its own sand paintings, as they are usually called today. The principal ceremonies lasted nine consecutive days and nights. Each of these was based on a mythical story or legend. The Navajos considered the ééjí Hatáál (Night Chant) one of the most important chants. It was based on this legend.

Long ago, three brothers lived among their people who were known as the Diné, meaning "people." The oldest brother was rich. The second was a wayward roving gambler. The youngest was a growing boy. Their only sister was married and lived with her husband a little distance from her brothers.

The second brother often took property belonging to his brothers and then went to distant corners of the earth to gamble. Upon his return, he never failed to relate a story about the wonders he had seen and the Holy People who had revealed many interesting things to him. His brothers never believed him. They called him Bith Ahatini, "The Dreamer".

One day they wished to go hunting, but did not want The Dreamer to go with them without telling him, so they asked their brother-in-law to accompany them. Near the end of their fourth day away from home, The Dreamer suddenly realized that he had been tricked. Immediately he started in search of the hunters. He hoped to meet them and to help them carry their game and also to be rewarded by a pelt or two.

He traveled far but he had not seen them when the sun passed behind the hills in the distance. Near him was a deep rock walled canyon from the depths of which came the sound of many voices. The Dreamer walked to its edge and peered over. Back and forth, from one side to the other, flew countless crows. They passed in and out of holes in opposite walls.

When darkness had covered everything. The Dreamer heard a human voice call from below in loud tones, "They say! They say! They say!" From the far side came the answer: "Yes, yes! What's the matter now?". "Two people were killed today," the voice replied. "Who were they? Who were they?" The first voice answered, "Ana-hail-ihi, killed at sunrise; and Igak-izhi, killed at dusk, by the People of the Earth. They went in search of meat, and hunters shot arrows into them. We are sorry, but they were told to be careful and did not heed. It is too late to help them now; let us go on with the chant."

In the darkness. The Dreamer had become very frightened, but he stayed to listen and to watch. Muffled strains of song came from deep recesses in each canyon wall. The Gods were singing! And just within the openings, visible in the glow of a fire, many dancers were performing in unison as they kept time with rattles.

Throughout the night, firelight flickered from wall to wall, and singing and dancing continued. At daylight, the dancers departed and The Dreamer began again his search for the hunters.

After a short time, he reached his brothers. They were resting from their journey with heavy packs of game. "Here comes The Dreamer," said his older brother. "I will wager that he has something marvelous to tell us!"

The Dreamer was greeted first by his brother-in-law. "You must have slept near here last night, for you are too far from home to have traveled this distance since daylight."

"I slept near a canyon that is surely holy," replied The Dreamer. "Many people had gathered to dance, the Gods sang, and - " "There! I told you that he'd have some lie to tell," interrupted the oldest brother. He picked up his pack and started on. "Go ahead," urged the brother-in-law. "Tell me the rest." The younger brother, also not believing, took up his pack and walked on.

As the brother-in-law looked interested. The Dreamer related all that he had seen and heard. "You or my brothers must have killed the people they spoke about" said The Dreamer, as he ended the story.

"Oh, no! It was none of us," his brother-in-law protested. "We have killed no people. Yesterday morning one of us shot a crow and last night we killed a magpie. But there was no harm done."

"I fear there was" said The Dreamer. "They were hunters like you, in search of meat for the Holy People. At the time, they were disguised as birds" The Dreamer explained.

When the two men overtook the others, the youngest brother asked his brother-in-law, "Did you hear a fine story?" "It was not a lie," he retorted. "We killed a crow and a magpie yesterday, and the Holy People talked about it in the canyon last night. Look! Here come four mountain sheep. Hurry!" he said to The Dreamer. "Hurry and head them off!"

They had reached the canyon where strange voices had been heard. Four sheep, along large boulders, were carefully threading their way out of the canyon. As the three hunters dropped back, The Dreamer ran ahead and hid himself near the top of the trail.

As the sheep approached, he drew his bow and aimed for the leader's heart. But his fingers would not release their grip upon the arrow, and the sheep passed unharmed. He scrambled up over the rim of the canyon and ran to get ahead of them again. But when the sheep were passing him, the bowstring would not leave his fingers. A third effort to kill them failed, and a fourth effort failed.

He cursed himself and the sheep, but suddenly became quiet. Whom did he see but four Gods, the four who had transformed themselves into sheep!

The man in the lead ran up to him and dropped his balil, a rectangular four-piece folding wand, over The Dreamer as he sat. Then the man in the lead uttered a peculiar cry. Immediately three other Gods appeared behind him. All wore masks.

"Whence came you?" The Dreamer asked them. "From Kinni-nikai," the Leader replied. "Whither are you going?" replied The Dreamer. "To Taegyil, to hold another chant four days from now. Won't you come along?" replied the Leader. "No, I couldn't travel so far in four days." replier The Dreamer.

But after a little persuasion. The Dreamer agreed to go. He was told to disrobe. While he was obeying the order, the Leader breathed upon him, and his raiment became the same as that of the four Gods. Then all took four steps eastward, changed into sheep, and bounded away along the canyon's rim.

The hunters in hiding became restless because The Dreamer did not return. So they ventured out to where they could see the trail on which they had last seen him. No one was in sight. One of them went to the rock where The Dreamer first hid near the sheep. He followed the tracks from hiding place to hiding place until he reached the fourth and last one.

There he found his brother's clothes, with his bow and arrows upon them. He traced the four human footsteps to the east and found that they merged into the trail of five mountain sheep. The oldest brother cried in his remorse. He had always treated The Dreamer with scorn, but he now realized that he had been wrong.

The Gods and The Dreamer, transformed into mountain sheep, traveled very far during their four day journey. On the fourth day they came to a large hogan, which is an earth-covered lodge of the Navajos. Inside were numerous Holy People, both Gods and men.

When The Dreamer entered the hogan with his four holy companions, a complaint at once arose from those inside, a complaint about an earthly odor. The Leader of the five who had just arrived took The Dreamer outside and had him washed with yucca-root suds.

Inside the hogan stood four large jewel posts, upon which the Gods hung their masks. The eastern post was of white shell, the southern of turquoise, the western of abalone, and the northern of jet. Two jewel pipes lay beside a God sitting on the western side of the hogan. He filled both pipes with tobacco and lighted them, passing one to his right and one to his left.

All in the hogan smoked, the last to receive the pipes being two large Owls sitting on each side of the entrance at the east. Each smoker drew in deep draughts of smoke and puffed them out violently. While the smoking continued, people came in from all directions.

At midnight, lightning clashed followed by heavy thunder and rain. All were sent by Water Sprinkler, who was angered because he had not been told about the dance before it began. But a smoke with the Holy People quickly appeased him. In a short time, the chant began and lasted until morning.

Some of the Gods had beautiful paintings on white deerskins, resembling those the Navajos now make with colored sands. These paintings they unfolded on the floor of the hogan during the successive days of the chant.

The last day of the dance was well attended, with people coming from all directions. Throughout the performance, The Dreamer paid careful attention to all the songs, prayers, paintings and dance movements. He studied closely every sacred apparatus used in the dance - its form, its color, its size. When the chant was over, he had learned all the details of the ceremony - of ééjí Hatáál, the "Night Chant."

The Gods permitted him to return to his people long enough to perform the chant with his younger brother and to conduct it for people afflicted with illness or with wickedness. They spent nine days in its performance.

Then he returned to the Gods at Taegyil where he now lives. His younger brother taught the ceremony to his younger brother who taught the ceremony to his earthly brothers, the Navajos. They conduct it under the name ééjí Hatáál, "Night Chant," or Yei Bichei Hatáál, "The Chant of Paternal Gods.

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Creator(s): Harrison Lapahie Jr.
Dated Created: 08/26/2008
Version: 2.0
Updated: 05/17/2014
Curator(s): Harrison Lapahie Jr.
Resource(s): Legend of the Night Chant: From Curtis, Edward S. The North American Indian. 20 vols, pages 77-80, 111-116. Orig. pub. 1907-1930. Reprint. New York:Johnson Reprint Corp.
Questions/Comments: Harrison Lapahie Jr.

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