Last Updated on November 29, 2019 by Janet Frost
Navajo rugs are an iconic symbol of Southwest style. Navajo weaving is so much more than a regional design style. This sacred art form has survived and evolved through generations of Navajo weavers. It is one of the rare Native American products that maintains its original cultural significance. Navajo weavers and their weaving art preserve the complex and harmonious Navajo culture.
Let’s Go Learn Things about Navajo Weaving…
The foundation of the Navajo culture is living in harmony with their fellow Navajo and with the created world around them. Their origin stories tell of a First World of darkness known as Nihodilhil. This World of darkness had four cardinal directions and four corresponding colors. From this World, the Navajo or Dine as they call themselves, emerged.
It is no accident that the native homeland of The Dine is found in the modern day Four Corners (intersection of the states Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah) of the Southwest. For The Dine, the Four Corners are defined by the surrounding sacred mountain formations. Mount Hesperus and Blanca Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico and San Francisco Peak in Arizona. These sacred peaks represent the cardinal directions of North, South, East and West and the elemental colors of Black, White, Blue and Yellow.
Color plays a significant role in Dine traditions. the four cardinal colors are an important part of the way culture and spirituality is passed from one generation to the next. One venue for the transmission of culture is art, and the four colors appear frequently in Dine/Navajo spiritual objects and works of art.
Dine art forms include basketry, silversmithing, lapidary jewelry, pottery and weaving. Weaving is the most essential artistic tradition in Dine culture. The Navajo creation stories share the gift given to the people by Spider Woman:
Spider Woman instructed the women of the Navajo how to build the first loom from exotic materials including sky, earth, sunrays, rock crystal, and sheet lightning. Then Spider Woman taught the Navajo how to weave on it…
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario Canada
Navajo Nation Homeland
Unlike the majority of Native Americans, The Dine still live on or near their original homeland. The Navajo Nation is located in the Four Corners region, where the borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah intersect. This Native American territory covers over 17 thousand acres. The Navajo Nation is the largest land area retained by a Native American tribe, with a population of roughly 350,000.
Deep in the heart of this rugged and majestic landscape is the sacred Canyon de Chelly. While all of the region is sacred to The Dine, Canyon de Chelly plays heavily in their oral traditions. The amazing Spider Rock Monument towers over the Canyon. Navajo tradition teaches that Spider Rock is where Spider Woman first visited The Dine. This monument serves as an important cultural icon.
The Long Walk
Navajos may live on their homeland now, but they too were forced off of their land at one point. The Long Walk refers to the deportation of the Navajo Nation in 1864. They were forced to walk over 400 miles from their home in the Canyon de Chelly region to Fort Sumner in the Bosque de Redondo. This proved to be a dismal disaster as were all the Native American relocations. However, in an unprecedented treaty in 1868, the Navajo were allowed to return to their original lands.
The return of The Dine to their homelands was a slow and agonizing recovery process. Unfortunately, the “scorched earth” policy of the US Army had robbed the Navajo of all shelters, crops and livestock. They slowly rebuilt their communities, turning back to their shepherding lifestyle.
Churro sheep have been the traditional Navajo breed for centuries. Although the white men never respected the breed the Navajo valued it for its long, wavy and lustrous fibers. The sheep offer white, brown and black wools, which are most often used non-dyed. When they are dyed it is traditionally with vegetal dyes.
John Lorenzo Hubbell opened the Hubbell Trading Post in 1878 . J.L. Hubbell is a larger than life character in the history of the Navajo Nation and the Southwest. As a young whipper-snapper of a man he established the Hubbell Trading Post which still operates. In the nineteenth century there were many trading posts throughout the Southwest. Navajo weaving exhibits the historical and regional impact of these clients. Some posts demanded specific qualities and designs they knew their customers liked. Many of the modern weavers still create in these regional and popular designs.
The Hubbell Trading Post, just outside of Ganado, AZ, is now part of the National Park Service. It is one of the very few remaining posts. Besides the exchange of goods, trading posts and traders provided a point of exchange between cultures and gave Navajo people access to the outside world.
As mentioned before, colors play an important role in the artist’s communication through her art. The colors used today still highlight the white, black, yellow and blue. However, red also enters as a prominent player in the beautiful weavings. Red has its own interesting history in Navajo weaving. Bayeta is the Navajo term for a red that was traditionally an unraveled flannel probably from Mexico. The red color in bayeta usually came from carminic acid derived from the Mesoamerican cochineal beetle. However, by the end of the nineteenth century most of the red fibers were cheap American dry goods. Whether meticulously unraveled or later traded, the red colors have remained an important aspect of the bold designs.
The geometric designs and specific combinations of colors can help identify the region of the weaver. After the turn of the century, the trading posts really thrived. Each post started to develop a unique design style. Customers became collectors and sought out a Ganado, Two Grey Hills or Wide Ruins style design.
Where to find Navajo weaving
My first opportunity to enjoy and learn about Navajo weaving was at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ. This museum dedicated to “advancing American Indian art”. It has a beautiful collection of weaving, basketry, silverwork and more. All the exhibits are well annotated and informative. For more about the Heard, click here. The museum gift shop was a treasure trove of books on Navajo weaving.
Of course a visit to the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, AZ is an opportunity to admire and purchase Navajo weaving. Cameron Trading Post, 50 miles north of Flagstaff, AZ is another option.
The Western National Parks Store in Tucson, AZ frequently hosts Native American art trunk shows. It was here that I was able to watch the young woman actually doing the weaving.
Navajo weaving is a fascinating art form. Please take some time to do your own digging into this culture. Much of my information was from the book: