Arts of Native America
About Yeibichai

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The Navajo are a deeply spiritual people.  Thus, many
acts of their lives contain a sacred dimension and
these acts must be performed in a specific way to
maintain the balance and the harmony between the self
and the other elements of a complex universe. The
universe includes animals, plants, weather, natural
earth formations,  and celestial objects besides
people.  The universe includes other beings and
divinities, generally known as the Holy People.

The Holy People came to the surface of the earth from
its various depths and they reshaped the surface to
make it suitable for living beings.  Later, the Navajo
were created in the image of the Holy People, and were
taught a code of behavior and survival skills to allow
them to live in harmony with the rest of the universe.
The Navajo learned that harmony brings about health,
beauty and other blessings.  The disruption of harmony
causes a large range of illness: mental, physical,
emotional and spiritual.  In order to reverse
disruption and reestablish harmony, there is an
elaborate system of ceremonies closely supervised by
trained medicine men.

The Nightway ceremony is a major curative ceremony
which restores harmony.  It invokes the Yeis, a
special category of Holy People who are inclined to
help the Navajo.   A nine day ceremony, it is
performed during the cold months when there is no
chance of being hit by lightning and when the snakes
are hibernating.

During ceremony, a team will be composed of fourteen
dancers: the leader Yeibichai - the Talking God, six
male dancers, six women dancers, and finally, the
Water Sprinkler - the God of Precipitated Waters.  On
the final night, teams of dancers appear in public in
what is referred to as the Yeibichai Dance until just
before dawn.  The ceremony ends with the chanting of
the "Bluebird Song"  which celebrates the happiness
and the peace that the bluebird symbolizes.

The Yeibichai weavings are highly individual,
therefore, elements of the following may be found in
the individual textiles.

The leader of the dance, Yeibichai or the Talking
God, wears a white mask with a fan of twelve eagle
feathers attached at the top of the mask.  Around the
neck of the dancer will be a ruff of spruce.  A white
deerskin sash will be draped across his body and
knotted on the left shoulder.  An Abert squirrel pelt
would be held in his right hand.

The Male Yeis wear masks which are blue in the front
and white in the back with two eagle feathers attached
at the top.  A gourd is fitted into the front of the
mask so that the dancer can breathe.  Each dancer
wears a ruff of spruce around his neck, and a
colorful, short kilt with a concha belt and a kit-fox
pelt hanging down his back.   Each dancer has
moccasins decorated with large silver buttons and red
wool garters which hold up blue leggings.  The rest of
the body, arms and legs are covered in white clay.
Gourd rattles are held in the right hands of the
dancers while branches of spruce or feathers are held
in the left hands.

The Female Yeis wear square blue masks that cover
only the front of their faces.  The masks allow their
hair to flow free, therefore, the women dancers do not
wear a spruce ruff like the men.   They do carry
spruce or feathers but no gourd rattles.   If a Female
Yei is impersonated by a woman, the clothing  is a
traditional dress with a red sash and white deerskin
leggings.  If a Female Yei is impersonated by a man,
the clothing is the same as that of the Male Yei.

The Navajo 'God of Precipitated Waters,' is the Water
Sprinkler, the clown, the comic relief as he performs
the movements of the dance.   Like the Male Yeis, the
Water Sprinkler wears the same blue and white mask
with two eagle feathers.  In addition to the spruce
ruff, The Water Sprinkler wears juniper bracelets on
his arms and wrists, and juniper garlands across his
torso.  He carries a kit-fox pelt in his right hand
and twirls it around as he mimics the Talking God.
Sometimes, he wears a long-sleeved shirt and long
pants rather than the kilt and body paint.

As individual and artistic as their creators,
weavings may have elements of clouds, arrows, eagle
feathers, and stars as well as other divinities and
ceremonies.  Because of the sacredness of the
ceremony, some elements must always be deleted, thus
preserving the power of the ceremony.

 Adapted from Rebecca M. Valette and Jean-Paul Valette, "Weaving the Dance: Navajo Yeibichai Textiles (1910-1950)

Painting by Frank Fowler Jr.