Object: Navajo Wedding Basket

E/2009/7/3
Culture: Navajo
Location: Navajo Nation/Monument Valley; Bluff, UT
Date: 2009
Materials: Sumac twiggs

This object is a traditional style ceremonial basket made by Navajo artist Peggy Rock Black. The basket is shaped like a shallow bowl and has a very interesting black, red, and white design. The design woven into the basket is formed by a central star in white, outlined by black, surrounded by a “C” shaped band of red, which then has a band of black triangles bordering its outside edge. There is a small vertical band of white cutting through the entire design along one edge, extending from one point of the central star all the way to the rim.

This basket is an excellent example of a coil basket. There are three main types of basket weaving techniques used by native cultures of North America, including the Navajo. These include coiling, plaiting, and twining:

  1. Coiling: Coiling is a method of basket weaving where grasses or rushes are tied together to form a “bundle.” This bundle coils outward from the center of the basket and is used to make a spiral-shaped basket. Each coil of the spiral is lashed or sewn together using a “splint.”

  2. Plaiting: Plaiting is a method of basket weaving where thin rectangular pieces of bark or other plant material is woven together to form a checker-board pattern. This is the simplest type of weaving. The “warp” (the base) and “weft” (the pieces woven into the base) are interwoven at right angles in an over/under pattern.

  3. Twining: Twining is a method of basket weaving similar to plaiting. It also uses a “warp” and a “weft”. The only difference is that the weft is made up of two different pieces that are intertwined around each warp piece.

Navajo Wedding baskets are aptly named. They are usually given as gifts during weddings or other ceremonies. There are many different interpretations of these baskets, but they may be viewed as a way to map a person’s life. You start at the very center of the basket and progress along the coils, which always wrap around the center from left to right. The first several coils, forming the central star design, represent birth and childhood. The black triangles illustrate darkness, struggle, and pain that a person may face throughout their life. These experiences are always things that can be overcome. Individuals learn from these experiences and use them to become stronger. The red band represents marriage and creation, the start of a family. Because everyone still faces sadness and struggles throughout their life, there is another band of black triangles. The white represents enlightenment and wisdom, which can only be discovered over time and be learning from life experiences. The white line from the center of the basket to the rim is there to remind people that no matter how sad life can get, or how many obstacles they must overcome, there is always a path to happiness. As you reach the end of the coils that form the basket, you reach the end of the person’s life.

This is a fascinating object that not only represents the beliefs and worldview of the Navajo people in the designs woven into the basket but also in the very way in which the basket was created, an unbroken coil that represents a person’s entire life, from birth until death.

If you would like to learn more about Navajo basket weaving, take a look at this interview with modern Navajo basket weaver, Betty Rock Johnson:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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