by Kathleen Jenks, M.A.
The Mountain Chant is a Navajo ceremony collected and translated in 1883-1884 by Washington Matthews, an army doctor stationed at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. The origin of the myth itself is unclear, but the resulting ceremony, based upon the requirement for specific items of ceremonial paraphernalia, can be dated at least as far back as the 1700’s. The ceremony can be celebrated only in the winter when rattlesnakes and bears are hibernating; it is sung to treat mental disturbances or uneasiness, which are considered “bear sickness,” and also fainting spells, as well as kidney and stomach problems attributed to a variety of mountain animals such as bears, snakes, weasels, and porcupines.
The myth begins in the densely forested mountains of what is now northeastern Arizona and focuses on a young hero. The hero’s elderly father teaches him and his brother a sacred hunting ritual. The power aroused by this ritual attracts deer to the boys so that they, their parents, and two sisters have enough to eat. The father tells his sons that they may hunt to the east, west, and north, but he forbids them to hunt to the south, the realm of the feminine. All goes well until one morning when the young hero decides to disobey his father, disrupt the harmonious pattern of success, and hunt to the forbidden south.
He is captured by a roaming band of Ute Indians and treated with casual brutality as they head northeast through the San Juan River area. When the Ute reach their own lands, their new slave is coerced into teaching them his hunting “magic;” when the techniques meet with spectacular success, the tribe has no further use for him. They decide to execute him by whipping him to death.