Excerpted from "American Indian Healing Arts" with permission of Random House .

Many native people choose to go through healing rites, either alone or in addition to conventional medical treatment. These rituals may be quite complex. Certainly among the most amazing and lengthy--lasting as many as nine days and nights--is the Navajo Night Way.

Transformation and restoring healing balance are central to the Night Way. These great ritual dramas draw together the Holy People and the earth-surface people along with the crowds of onlookers by the last night. The nine days and nights of the Night Way become an initiation into the chantway path through life for Navajo and other participants.

The long nights and short days of winter are the time when these complex rituals are performed for patients who suffer from paralysis, epilepsy, arthritis, or from loss of hearing or vision problems. Other sensory disorders and ailments of the nervous system may also be treated in a Night Way, after the patient or family seeks the help of a diviner who diagnoses the problem and determines the proper rite(s) for treatment.

Illnesses and disorders are considered far more than mere organic or physical manifestations. An individual's body, mind, and spirit must be realigned for true healing to occur.

The Night Way is a costly undertaking, and its complicated details require months of careful planning. Hundreds of people come to support these elaborate rites, and they all must be fed and cared for. It is often more than one patient, or the 'one-sung-over,' can afford, so several patients, along with their families and friends, pool resources and share the massive obligations.

The chanter who will conduct the Night Way directs the sand painters to work out the complex series of vital sand paintings of the yeis--the guiding deities, or Holy People--that will be used over the course of the Night Way. The rites are determined by the number of nights prescribed to work the healing transformations.

Besides the sand paintings, there are yei impersonators, dancers wearing ornate buckskin masks, whose bodies are painted with white clay and decorated with animal fur and sacred herbs. Other dancers, their bodies also adorned with white clay, wear simple buckskin masks topped with eagle feathers; they represent the four directional Thunderers. Their presence brings in the sky energies: dark cloud, lightning, rain, and wind. The Thunderers sing of the cosmos and the relationships between earth and sky.

The Night Way's prayer of transformation, sung on the first night of the rites, speaks of the glorious details of the one-sung-over's restoration and transformation into beauty. The ceremonies continue with night feasts, prayers, chants, and sand paintings, herbal infusions, sweat baths, and offerings. Events culminate on the last night with the great public Yeibichei Dance. Yeibichei is Grandfather of the Gods, Talking God. His appearance signifies the final night of the Night Way, where teams of spectacular masked dancers sing and dance all night until the dawn.

All who attend are encouraged to believe that the real and the ideal will mesh, and that one can achieve a holy state by living the Beauty Way. The Night Way is a major journey to fuller empowerment and restored health. It often brings considerable improvement or even full recovery to the one-sung-over.

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