The Navajo Indian man in this photograph is wearing the costume of Tonenili, the God of Water, for a ceremony called the night chant or Yebichai. His costume is made of spruce tree branches and a mark. This photograph was taken about 1904.
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Edward S. Curtis, photographer
Tonenili, Navajo God of Water
Tonenili, who is also known as the Water Sprinkler, is the Navaho God of Water. He is responsible for rain, sleet, and snow. He also causes thunder and lightning.
Tonenili is a very mischievous guy. He means no harm, but he likes to play tricks. He has been known to cause downpours at times when people were hoping for blue sky, like during a picnic. He often acts like a clown.
Unlike other Native American tribes like the Zuni who have regular rain dances to better the chances of precipitation, the Navaho do not have a regular rain ritual. However, during the 1930’s in the Western United States, a time called the Dust Bowl when drought conditions had dried up crops and helped create dust storms, the Navaho performed a rain ritual to ask Tonenili for help.
Tonenili is often present at other Navaho ceremonies. A person dresses up as Tonenili in the braches of a spruce tree and a mask and then plays the part of the clown like god of water during the ceremony. This comical element is often welcome in rituals that are very serious such as the Navajo night chant. The night chant is done to either heal someone who is ill or heal the world when it is out of balance. A chant repeated over and over combined with dances repeated over and over makes for a mesmerizing experience. As the clown, Tonenili is able to lighten the mood during the night chant. He sprinkles water around and has fun while the chanters chant and the dancers dance.
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