Archive for the 'Navajo' Category

Object: Navajo Wedding Basket

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]

Object: Peyote Box

Navajo: Peyote Box
Utah, United States
Materials: Steel, paint, felt

Peyote boxes are the containers that members of the Native American Church use to store and transport the ritual and personal objects used by participants in the night-long religious services of the Church. Peyote boxes can be classified into two basic forms; boxes specifically produced for use by Peyotists and a wide range of containers adapted for such use. In addition to their functional value Peyote boxes also provide an additional arena for the expressive culture of Peyotism through the various media and methods employed to decorate and embellish the exterior surfaces of Peyote boxes. Through a lifetime of use peyote boxes become highly intimate, portable records of personal experience, both spiritual and secular. Peyote boxes provide a rich context for an examination of the criteria used by museums to collect objects and the potential for biased representations of the material world.

Almost every participant in the Peyote religion uses some type of container to store and carry the various objects, items, and materials that worshippers need during the all-night ceremony, or “meeting,” as called by members. The first containers associated with Peyotism to gain mention in the anthropological literature are satchels or bags used to house and transport the ritual instruments of Roadmen, or leaders, of religious services. Referred to as kits, these containers of cloth, carpet, and leather were later replaced by valises and commercially made wooden boxes. Others found these “paraphernalia satchels” to be universal among the tribal communities included in his comparative study of the religion, its ceremonies and material attributes.

Among their most important contents are gourd rattles, prayer feathers, fans, drumsticks, botanicals, and other ceremonial items.  Boxes are also used to store an array of non-ceremonial items that are useful throughout the nightlong services of the religion. These include jewelry, neckties, combs, mirrors, handkerchiefs, and other personal items. It is also usual for a box to contain a pen or pencil and some notepaper, important for the exchange of names and addresses with newly made friends and to record the dates and locations of future meetings, with invitations commonly extended at the close of services. Peyote boxes also serve as repositories for personal mementos, photographs of friends and family members and other objects of individual significance and meaning. Among such objects are baby moccasins, Christian medals and crosses, military ribbons and insignia, personal letters and important documents.

This commercial toolkit box was made by Delbert Blackhorse. Delbert Blackhorse is a Dine (Navajo) artist from Crow Springs, Utah.  He was raised in the traditions of the Native American Church and is well known for his painted water buckets, breakfast bowls and other objects used in the services of the Church.  Blackhorse is also a renowned musical artist, composing and recording numerous works in the Peyote and other genres of Native American Music.  This is a commercial steel toolbox that has been painted using airbrush and traditional painting techniques.  The designs employed include ribbon work patterns derived from the use of overlaying strips of ribbon or cloth that have been cut ands folded to create intricate geometric patterns and designs.  Ribbon work has a very recent history among the Navajo, introduced through their exposure to its use in Oklahoma and other regions to decorate Peyote blankets, ties and shawls.  The hummingbird is an important figure in Navajo cosmology and a common design element in Navajo painting, sculpture, jewelry and other art forms. For a sample of Delbert Blackhorse’s music, watch the video below! To read an article by Daniel Swan on Peyote Boxes click here.

References: Slotkin 1952:589; Bittle 1969:74; Spindler and Spindler 1971:102; La Barre 1989:66; Stewart 1989:344-45, 358); Swan 2008:51.

[Daniel C. Swan]



Object: Navajo Blanket

Navajo: Saddleblanket
ca. 1875 – (transition period)
United States: Southwest
Materials: Wool, artificial and natural plant dyes

Navajo saddleblankets such as the woven one pictured above were commonly used among the Navajo people for every day use as well as for trading and selling. Navajo saddleblankets became popular in the late 1870s and early 1880s.  Each saddleblanket depicts a woven pattern of different colors, shapes, and figures.  This particular saddleblanket depicts a pattern of horizontal bands with alternating white bands.  Each colored band is composed of small diamonds woven of cream, dark brown, light brown, and some gray.  The saddleblanket is woven from wool.

The patterns found in the Navajo saddleblankets are unique to each family of weavers. The patterns on saddleblankets have specific meanings, and more often than not, they are selected by the weaver for a particular purpose.  The practice of weaving saddleblankets has grown throughout the Navajo nation during the past century. Traditionally, the saddleblankets are hand woven from Churro Sheep wool.  The Churro sheep were brought over to the United States by Spaniards roughly 400 years ago and the Navajo bred them for their wool.  The weaving proccess begins with the shearing of the sheep by hand and the collection of the wool.  Once the wool is sheared, it is hand carded and homespun.  The spun wool is collected on spools and then dyed using dyes from natural plants and artificial dyes.   It is then loaded onto the loom and woven into the chosen pattern.  Clara Sherman, a Navajo woman, explains in this video how each step in the weaving process is done.

Orignially considered a woman’s craft, the weaving of saddleblankets has since become a tradition of the family.  Today, men, women, and children weave and dye saddleblankets.  Weaving is not considered a chore but an honor.  The production of woven blankets are unique to families and the techniques are passed down through generations.  When a female is unable to continue or teach the family weaving, a male will step in to take her place.  Though the saddleblankets were originally woven for home use, the Navajo began selling and trading their blankets.  Now, these woven saddleblankets are sold all over the United States in Native American trading posts.  Despite the large demand for Navajo saddleblankets, saddleblankets continue to be produced in the traditional manner– handsheared, homespun, handcarded, handdyed and finally handwoven.

[Courtney Burggren]

Object: Cooking Pot


Navajo Tribe: Cooking Pot
Southwest US
19th Century
Materials: Ceramic

This cooking pot is an example of Navajo pottery from the early 1800s. Navajo pottery has been in production for hundreds of years and is unique from the pottery of many other American Indian tribes in that it does not exhibit the artistic designs traditionally associated with Indian pottery (compare to the example of Hopi pottery below). Painted designs were prohibited due to a belief that they would bring misfortune to the tribe. Navajo pottery was produced primarily by women, though in recent years this has changed with the work of male artists such as Jimmy Wilson. The process of making Navajo pottery is unique. Unlike other tribes, the Navajo do not grind old shards of pottery for reuse in new pieces. This comes from the belief that old pottery shards belong to Anasazi ancestors. Also unique to the Navajo tradition is the practice of covering pottery pieces with melted piñon pitch after firing. The coating gives Navajo pottery a dark appearance and distinct smell.


Navajo pottery was not recognized for its artistic value until the 1950s when artists such as Rose Williams attracted the attention of museum markets and pottery fairs. Today, however, there are many collectors of Navajo pottery and interest in its production has been revived. Museums now display Navajo pottery and schools offer lessons on Navajo pottery techniques. Many Navajo artists fire their pieces one at a time, outside in a traditional fire pit. The process involves the whole family, as individual members are responsible for digging the clay, coiling/pinching the vessel, gathering the pitch, and tending the fire.

The following is a video excerpt of Michelle Williams, granddaughter of Rose Williams, explaining how she makes contemporary Navajo pottery. Check it out and enjoy learning the Story Behind the Object! [Lauren  Simons]

[Lauren Simons]

Object: Rug on loom

United States, Arizona
Materials: wool, wood

This partially complete weaving was made on an unknown Arizona reservation as a demonstration piece and was later donated to the museum. It is very likely that the Navajo learned to weave from neighboring Pueblo groups no later than the seventeenth century, though Navajo legends tell of how weaving was first taught to them by Spider Woman. Since then, they have become well known as masters of the craft and their pieces are still highly valued. Nearly all Navajo weavers are women, while men traditionally make the loom and tools.

Because this particular rug is only half-complete, it is easy to see many of the characteristics that distinguish Navajo weavings. All the yarn is handspun wool, as opposed to commercially made or cotton yarn. Germantown style rugs were woven with commercial yarn and occasionally cotton warp (the lengthwise threads), but this in an exception. This piece also has two shades of carded gray, made by blending white and black wool together. While some Navajo rugs, especially those in the “eye dazzler” style, incorporate several bright colors, most have a natural palette with one accent color, usually red. The Navajo maintain strong, straight edges by weaving in a selvage cord as they go, which is often of a contrasting color. Here, a two-ply black yarn is used for that purpose. The top and bottom edges of Navajo weavings are also flat and smooth, rather than fringed. This is due to the warp thread being set up on the loom in a continuous figure eight, eliminating loose ends and allowing the entire warp area to be filled.

A traditional element of Navajo weaving not present in this piece is a spirit line, though it is typically made just before the piece is finished. According to legend, when Spider Woman walked away from the tree where the gift of weaving came to her, she left a line behind her, a line that lead to new things. When Spider Woman shared her gift with the Navajo, she taught them to leave a line that ran out of the pattern and to the edge of the blanket. This was the line that she had left behind her, and it allowed the weaver’s mind to be released from the finished piece and move on to new things [Holly Thompson].

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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