As one of the premier traders of Native American Indian art, Palms Trading Company has a selection of authentic sandpaintings (almost exclusively done by Navajo artists). These pieces are beautiful—the intricate designs and details made of colored sand are astounding, and the subject of the pictures hints at the importance of and connection to Nature and spiritual traditions.
Because these sandpaintings are so breathtaking, it’s hard to imagine that they are only reminiscent of the “real” sandpaintings created during healing ceremonies.
The Healing Power of Sandpainting
In the Navajo spiritual tradition, the the Yeibicheii, or Holy People, could be invoked by a sandpainting to heal the sick or for help during the harvest. To create a sandpainting, a Medicine Man would carefully let colored sand flow through his fingers onto the floor of the hogan (traditional Navajo dwelling). As the sandpainting is being created, the Medicine Man would chant to invite the Holy People. A common invitation song-formula was:
With your moccasins of dark cloud come to us
With your leggings of dark cloud come to us
With your shirt of dark cloud come to us
With your headdress of dark cloud come to us
With your mind enveloped in dark cloud come to us
The power of the sandpainting to bring healing was believed to be related to its perfection. So, once the painting was completed, the Medicine Man would check for symmetry.
To impart the healing powers of the sandpainting to the sick, the person for whom the healing ceremony was dedicated would sit in the sandpainting, and the Medicine Man would rub different colors of sand on different parts of the body. Healing was believed to happen as the Holy People would take the illness and exchange it for health. Because the sandpainting held the illness, it was considered toxic after the ceremony and was destroyed.
Because sandpaintings had a specific ceremonial purpose, it is considered a taboo to take pictures of them. To preserve the sacredness of sandpaintings, Medicine Men likely altered the creation before allowing it to be photographed by outsiders.
Like Native American Indian wedding vases, no objects used in ceremonies are ever sold as art. In the case of sandpaintings, it would be nearly impossible because there is nothing holding the sand in place. However, since the 1930s, Native American Indian artists, mostly Navajos, have created sandpaintings by arranging colored sand on a glue-covered backing (a practice that, incidentally was developed by two white sign painters from Gallup).
Modern sandpaintings do not violate ceremonial taboos. If they depict subjects that would be used in a sandpainting healing ceremony, their depiction is altered, and the “errors” are significant—they prevent the Holy People from being invoked. In many sandpaintings, the subject is not intended to replicate a ceremonial painting, as is the case with Keith Silversmith’s elk scene.