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Navajo Weaving: History & Patterns

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Weaving is one of the most important art forms in Navajo society. In this lesson, we'll explore some of their major artistic motifs and see what they have meant to the Navajo over time.

Navajo Weaving

Many cultures have an art form that defines them above all others. For Russia, we can look to ballet. For Japan, ceramics. For France, mimes. This trend is true in the American Southwest as well. Amongst the Amerindian nations who call this region home are the Navajo, or as they traditionally called themselves, the Diné.

As the second largest federally recognized tribal nation in the United States, the Navajo have held a large amount of cultural influence over what is now the four-corners area for centuries. Their greatest art influence is their weaving. Navajo textiles are more than an expression of art; they are an expression of spirituality, community, and cultural continuity.

History

So, where did Navajo weaving originate? Let's ask the Navajo themselves. According to Navajo tradition, weaving is the most ancient and sacred practice of their people. Two spirits, the Spider People, brought hemp seeds to the Navajo. Spider Man taught them to make the loom, while Spider Woman taught them how to weave so that they could always provide for themselves. From this, the entire Navajo conception of society, balance, harmony, and prosperity was founded. In this history, we see that weaving actually rivals farming or hunting in terms of importance to the Navajo.

For centuries, the Navajo traded their blankets amongst other Amerindian nations, making them an indispensable part of the ancient Southwestern economy. As a result, Spider Woman is essentially seen as the progenitor of Navajo culture. In fact, according to tradition, newborn girls should have spider webs rubbed on their hands and arms so that they will grow to become good weavers and maintain Navajo culture. This has given Navajo women a substantial degree of social power in Navajo history.

Basic Aesthetic

Navajo weaving does not follow an exact pattern but instead reflects something of a personal spiritual journey between the weaver and the blanket. Still, there is a basic aesthetic that can be found across Navajo textiles. Colors tend to reflect earth tones of red, brown, grey, and black, which is unsurprising given the mostly mineral-based pigments of this dry region. While Navajo blankets have been made of wool since sheep were introduced by the Spanish in the 17th century, tradition suggests that plant fibers like indigenous hemp may have been used for textiles before this.

A Navajo blanket
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Designs on Navajo textiles are usually geometric in character with the triangle and diamond forming the most basic elements. Many more complex designs are added which may represent mountains and plains in the Navajo homeland, Dinétah (again, today roughly the four-corners region).

Major Patterns

While every Navajo textile is unique, there are some common patterns that have special and often spiritual significance to the Navajo. As the Navajo did not have a written language until it was transcribed into Latin, the symbols' meaning was passed down through oral culture and has changed over time. Most of our current interpretations come from the late 19th century when outside cultural pressures forced the Navajo to standardize and codify certain practices.

Crosses

One ubiquitous symbol in Navajo weaving is the cross. However, it does not represent Christianity. It's actually the symbol of Spider Woman, and it represents her spiritual energy, her teachings, and all of Navajo culture. It's a powerful motif, but according to tradition, there was danger in representing Spider Woman through an earthly symbol since she's not of this world. To compensate, many Navajo weavers will insert a small circle in the design or create a physical hole so her spirit can escape.

Navajo blanket with crosses
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Lightning

In Navajo daily life, lightning was one of the most powerful spiritual forces, so it's no surprise to find it represented in their textiles. Zigzag designs in the four corners of a rug or blanket gave spiritual power and potency to the textile. In rarer cases, lightning motifs dominate the entire piece, creating an impression of extreme power.

Navajo blanket with lightning motifs
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