The Navajo people, also known as the Diné, are the largest Native American tribe that is officially recognized by the United States government. They are situated in the Southwestern United States, and by 2011 they have had around 300,000 members. The states most populated by Navajos are New Mexico and Arizona. The ancestors of the Navajo people settled in the southwest at the beginning of the 15th century and intermixed with the Pueblo tribe.
As the largest tribe in America, the Navajos have contributed a rich heritage to the nation. They have contributed plenty to the field of the visual arts, in the fields of silver jewelry, weaving, and sand painting.
Sand paintings are significant to the Navajo people as they were a way of getting closer to the gods and healing the people from their infirmities. When a person needed to be healed, the medicine man, or the Hatalii, would step in and perform a ritual where for several days, he would chant and make different sand paintings. On these sand paintings, the medicine man would make depictions of the Yeibicheii or the Holy People.
In his chants, he would ask these holy spirits to enter the patient and heal the patient of his or her infirmities. After each chant, the medicine man will then destroy the painting, and the process starts over the next day. Only a few know what these paintings really look like, as it is blasphemous to have these paintings depicted as mere art forms for replication and study.
However, some Navajo have taken it on themselves to show the world versions of these paintings. They are not accurate as they have colors reversed and some lines out of order, but they give a glimpse into what these paintings really are.
To understand the roots of Navajo sand paintings, we can look at other tribes around the world of Asian origin that have these traditions as well. The most famous Tibetan artwork, the mandala, is somewhat similar to this. A group of monks has to create a three-dimensional art form, and they make it from memory.
Like Navajo sand paintings, these works of art are to serve the purpose of being closer to higher powers, to transcend the physical and the spiritual worlds. Both use sand that was scraped from natural rocks, such as gypsum and ochre. The difference is today, the Tibetan art form now uses artificial dyes, while the Navajos have kept closer to their roots.
It is unsure who derived their art from the Indians first, the Navajos or the Tibetans, but the Tibetans derived this tradition during the Middle Ages. Some experts say that it was the Pueblos that introduced sand painting to the Navajos, but if that was so, how were the Pueblos introduced?
Sand painting has been around for tens of thousands of years, as seen with the Australian Aborigines. Hence looking at the migratory patterns of Indians across the Pacific, it may have all started in southeast Asia tens of thousands of years ago.