Shifting Sands: The Paradox of Survival

When you look at this Navajo sandpainting, you see a paradox.

Traditionally used in Navajo healing ceremonies, sandpaintings served to connect the Diné—“the people”—and the divine, providing a space to resolve the spiritual conflict at the root of illness and reestablish harmony. Divine beings, such as the Holy People depicted here, would be irresistibly drawn to the illustration, wherein they would bless and heal the patient. However, concentration of divine power in a tangible object is dangerous: to prevent disaster, sandpaintings were always destroyed at the end of a ceremony.

So how does this sandpainting survive? The intense persecution of the Navajo by the United States government—culminating in the Long Walk of 1864—left their economy destroyed and their culture at risk of extinction. To ensure the survival of their traditions, various Navajo accepted the creation of permanent sandpaintings, despite the fundamental contradiction this entailed.

The artist, Luther Douglas, was himself adopted by a Navajo family at a young age, sparking his desire to help preserve their culture. Through his work and relationships with the Navajo, Douglas’s story illustrates the humanity inherent in this contradiction, allowing us to celebrate the paradox of this sandpainting’s survival.

By Aurora Cossairt

Photo Credits: The College of Idaho, Smylie Archives and Aurora Cossairt.


Luther Douglas Sandpainting Research Paper

Shifting Sands: The Paradox of Survival. 2016, by Aurora Cossairt:
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