Art is considered by many people to be little more than a decorative means of giving pleasure. This is not always the case, however; at times, art may be seen to have a purely functional side as well. Such could be said of the sandpaintings of the Navaho Indians of the American Southwest; these have a medicinal as well as an artistic purpose.
According to Navaho traditions, one who suffers from either a mental or a physical illness has in come way disturbed or come in contact with the supernatural—perhaps a certain animal, a ghost, or the dead. To counteract this evil contact, the ill person or one of his relatives will employ a medicine man called a “singer” to perform a healing ceremony which will attract a powerful supernatural being.
During the ceremony, which may last from 2 to 9 days, the “singer” will produce a sandpainting on the floor of the Navaho hogan. On the last day of the ceremony, the patient will sit on this sandpainting and the “singer” will rub the ailing parts of the patient’s body with sand from a specific figure in the sandpainting. In this way the patient absorbs the power of that particular supernatural being and becomes strong like it. After the ceremony, the sandpainting is then destroyed and disposed of so its power will not harm anyone.
The art of sandpainting is handed down from old “singer” to their students. The material used are easily found in the areas the Navaho inhabit; brown, red, yellow, and white sandstone, which is pulverized by being crushed between 2 stones much as corns is ground into flour. The “singer” holds a small amount of this sand in his hand and lets it flow between his thumb and fore-finger onto a clean, flat surface on the floor. With a steady hand and great patience, he is thus able to create designs of stylized people, snakes and other creatures that have power in the Navaho belief system. The traditional Navaho does not allow reproduction of sandpaintings, since he believes the supernatural powers that taught him the craft have forbidden this; however, such reproductions can in fact be purchased today in tourist shops in Arizona and New Mexico. These are done by either Navaho Indians or by other people who wish to preserve this craft.