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Early Navajo art includes pottery, masks, and weaving. Their ceramics and baskets were mainly utilitarian, but Navajo basket weaving patterns probably gave birth to those that made their textiles world famous. Prior to European contact, they made personal adornment pieces from native materials. Jewelry in the form of animals, like frogs, bird, and snakes, made from shells, feathers, and turquoise, document pre-historic culture in New Mexico and Arizona. Today, the art world knows the Navajos largely as weavers, sand-painters, silver smiths, and jewelry makers.
The Weavers of the Navajo Nation
The Athabaskan-speaking peoples, from the north, apparently came to the Mesa Verde region with basic weaving skills. The Navajos honor, with their weaving, the Spider Woman and Man, who first brought them the knowledge of weaving. Designs on early Navajo baskets suggest that they inspired their early blanket motifs, which featured terraced, or stepped, triangles, during the Classic and Late Classic Periods (1800 – 1880).
The Navajos, always savvy to the new cultures they came across, quickly adapted techniques and tools of neighboring Pueblos and developed a reputation as superior weavers. Contact with the Spaniards and Mexicans in the 1600s brought about the use of sheep’s wool and indigo dye, and by the beginning of the 18th century, they traded blankets with other tribes and were renowned for their tight weaving and innovative, colorful patterns.
As they learned, adapted, and improved, they incorporated new designs, such as crosses into their blankets and other textiles. Soon, chief’s style blankets, saddle blankets, horse gear, and sarapes with patterns like the Moqui stripe and the geometric “eye dazzlers” became prized trading material. Distinct styles, like Two Gray Hills, Teec Nos Pos, Ganado, Crystal, Wide Ruins, Chinlee, Klagetoh, Red Mesa, and other patterns soon found their own niches in the global market.N5
Navajo Silver Smiths and Jewelers
Once Spaniards infiltrated Mexico and that culture moved north, some of the Navajos were quick to learn the art of the silver smith. In the late 1800s, John Lorenzo Hubbell, founder of the Hubbell Trading Post, in Ganado, Arizona, hired Mexican silversmiths to teach Navajos at his trading post. Navajo, Atsidi Sani, became a paid teacher in 1890, and he taught his sons and brother, among others, to smith silver. The Navajos quickly mastered sandstone and tufa castings, as well as hand-hammered silver.
Of course, Navajo turquoise soon became the natural choice precious stone to set in their fine silver, adding a new twist to the Navajo branding, and, in the Navajo style, they quickly adapted to satisfy the non-Indian market demands. In addition, during this period, the Navajo’s hallmark, “squash blossom,” necklace came to market.N6
Diné Sand Painters
Although Navajo painting has not dominated the sales bench like their silver and textiles, their sand paintings, or “iikaah,” certainly have played an important role in the Navajo image and art media. They use the sand paintings, also referred to as “dry paintings,” in curing ceremonies and petitions for harvests and healing. The figures seen in the paintings generally depict elements of Navajo beliefs and oral tradition, including sacred mountains, dances, legendary visions, and chants. The word, “iikaah,” means “places where the gods come and go.”
Navajo women, in prehistoric times, fabricated their pottery to carry food and water, and pieces generally had little or no adornment. However, the Navajos, always acclimating when new cultures appear, taught themselves modern ceramic techniques, and some Navajo potters, like Lorraine Williams, have become important among the ceramic artists. Ms. Williams “leaves a portion of the design unfinished so the Yei spirit can escape,” reflecting the deeply seeded Navajo respect for spiritual symbolism and the spirits they represent (Peterson, 1997).N7
Repeatedly, in the Navajo art lifestyle, the word “adaptability” describes how they have confronted the abrupt changes on the path their tribe treads. Today Navajos deal in diverse products like uranium, energy resources, along with their more traditional crafts. They have adapted to change after change and today outnumber any other North American Tribe.
Contributing Author – Jeffery Bacon