Tuesday, 15 January 2019
Happy New Year, everyone. Here are a few thoughts about Navajo rugs and their mythological significance, indebted to an excellent book Navajo Weaving Way by Noël Bennett and Tiana Bighorse.
Diné (Navajo) life is founded on a simple philosophical principle: sa’ah naagháí bik’eh hózhóón; in English, “the beauty of life created by the application of teachings that work.” In action, this principle has enabled them to adapt to change over the centuries, incorporating what is compatible into the Diné way, and rejecting the rest.
The most famous art form of the Diné, the Navajo rug, emerged when the Diné settled down from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle they lived when they first arrived in the Southwest in the fourteenth century CE. During what is known as the Gobernador Phase (c. 1650-1775), the Diné learned to cultivate corn and squash, and adopted many ceremonies and rituals from the Pueblo peoples with whom they came into contact. This new agrarian existence gave the Diné their common name, for the word Navajo comes from the Tewa for “cultivated fields”; it was the Spaniards who termed them, Apaches de Navajó.
At the same period, the Diné began to herd horses and sheep, both brought to the New World by the Spanish, and it was from sheep’s wool that Diné women began to weave their blankets and rugs. Weaving was the gift of Spider Woman, who in Diné mythology spun the rope ladder by which the People climbed up into this world at the Emergence.
Spider Woman is revered throughout the Southwest; to the Keres, she is even the creator, Thinking Woman, who spun the world from her own thoughts; the Diné also believe that Spider Woman wove the universe on her loom.
The Diné never kill spiders, which help human beings by catching insects, flies, and mosquitos; a child who does kill a spider will grow up with crooked teeth, because Spider Woman’s teeth slant backward to prevent her prey escaping. Diné girls are encouraged to rub spiders’ webs on their arms to make them tireless weavers.
Weaving involves the whole of a woman’s being, and Diné weavers must weave a line into the pattern that makes a pathway for her spirit to come back out to her. As one weaver from Tuba City put it:
Some people just weave and weave and weave all the time. And sometimes they think they might just weave their life away. So they put that line in so they can escape, or they think they might weave themselves into the rug. And they put the line in so they can get out.
This Weaver’s Pathway, often found in the top right corner, is a feature of traditional Navajo rugs. In the 1930s, roughly seven out of eight rugs contained it. Nowadays it is much less common, both because some modern weavers reject it as old-fashioned superstition, and because traders saw the pathway as a flaw in the design, and would pay less for “imperfect rugs.”
The earliest surviving Navajo textiles are the blankets left undisturbed with the bodies of Diné slaughted by the Spanish in 1804, in Massacre Cave in the Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. These were recovered a century later by a local trader, Sam Day, who sold the blankets to museums across the United States.
The role of traders in commodifying Navajo rugs, and of collectors in driving up their financial value, is controversial. For the Diné, weaving maintains the balance and harmony of the world, by celebrating the relationships that tie all living beings together in the web of life. The value of the rugs is in the process of creation, a process which is never finished while the pattern itself is left unfinished, with a Weaver’s Pathway. The traders who wholesaled the rugs by weight, the collectors who avidly purchased them, even the museum curators who have preserved them and turned them into art objects, are all irrelevant to the essential meaning of these textiles. Some Diné weavers say they feel as if they are “selling their minds” when they sell their rugs.
Charles Loloma, a Hopi silversmith, quoted his weaver father as saying, “It’s not enough to weave beautiful rugs. You have to think beautiful thoughts while weaving them.” Throughout the Southwest, weaving has a spiritual aspect, because it is the gift of Spider Woman. The Diné weaving chant Halo of the Sun concludes:
With beauty before me, it is woven
With beauty behind me, it is woven
With beauty above me, it is woven
With beauty below me, it is woven
And in beauty, it is finished