medicine man

Encyclopedia Article


Medicine man is an Anglicized term that refers to traditional Native American healers. However, each tribe has unique understandings about the roles and responsibilities of their healers, who may also double as spiritual leaders. In the Navajo culture, there are four categories of healers: listeners, hand tremblers, and stargazers, who may be consulted about sickness, identifying witchcraft, dreams, lost items or any unusual happenings. But it is the haatali, or singer, who fills the position of medicine man in Navajo culture.

Traditionally called a haatali, or "singer," in Navajo, this healer performs ceremonial cures that are targeted at body, mind, and spirit. There are nearly 100 Navajo chants of varying range and intricacy. Originating from the Navajo Creation Story, they are so nuanced and complex that a medicine man learns only one or two sings over many years of apprenticeship. Ceremonies last anywhere from one to nine days and include chants, songs, prayers, lectures, dances, sweat baths, prayer sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective, everything must be done as prescribed in the legends.

Photo Credit: 

"White Pine, a Navajo Medicine Man, circa 1890." William A. Keleher Collection (000-742-0352.tif). Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

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