The Navajos, or Diné (the People), created a cosmology of gods, which are represented by the four sacred plants (corn, squash, beans, tobacco), clouds, animals, stars, lightening, thunder, and many other aspects of their culture. According to a Navajo myth, as a reward to a hero, the Holy People bestowed upon the Diné the right to create pictures in sand of their own sacred designs, which the gods had drawn on spiders’ webs, sheets of sky, clouds, fog, buckskin, and fabric. Curing ceremonies in which sand paintings are drawn help restore beauty, balance, harmony, or holiness. Navajos try to live in harmony with Mother Earth and Father Sky, and all of nature. Because of witchcraft, evil spirits, violated taboos, in order to placate the gods who are easily offended, a person plagued supernatural forces will visit a singer (i.e. male or female shaman) to restore balance and harmony with the gods. The shaman’s ceremony may last as long as nine days, during which four or more sand paintings are created. Sand paintings are made with fine sand, colored charcoal, pollen, corn meal, white gypsum, red sandstone, yellow ocher, and crushed flower petals. Originally, sand paintings were never meant to be permanent and were destroyed after the ceremony, and yet, as an art form intended for tourists, it utilizes the same colors and materials, relying on Navajo, religion, legends, and traditions. There are hundreds of sand painting designs. Traditionally, the painting used for a particular ritual is chosen by a shaman or singer, who has served an apprenticeship and earned permission to prescribe sand paintings to bring balance and harmony to a patient. Each painting is matched with a set of songs and ritual chants that work on behalf of the patient. The songs and chants can last from two to nine nights, with as many as nine different paintings drawn. Some paintings are created exactly the same for each ritual, while others are allowed to have variations, but in each one, every detail must be accurate, and all are created and then destroyed between sunrise and sunset of one day.
The Whirling Logs sand painting, shown below, is the most famous of the Navajo sand paintings. James C. Joe, the artist who created this masterpiece, based his theme on an ancient chant, “The whirling log,” derived from a Navajo legend. The Whirling Log symbol is associated with a narrative involving a man (sometimes called the Culture Hero) who takes a journey down the San Juan River in a hollowed out log canoe. During his adventure, he encounters whirlpools and a special event where the San Juan River meets the Colorado River. There he comes upon a whirling cross with Yei figures (supernatural beings) seated on the cross. From the yeis he is given knowledge, which he takes back to his people. As in other themes, Whirling Logs are traditionally used in Navajo sand paintings by shamans during healing ceremonies.