Encounter the People

Navajo Basketry

Navajo Basketry Navajo Pottery Navajo Sandpainting Navajo Silverwork and Jewelry Navajo Weaving

Contemporary Navajo basketry conveys important philosophical and ethical beliefs regarding its makers’ culture. Navajo baskets provide an encoded framework for the ritual retelling of individual and collective stories. Both the history of the Navajo ancestors and Navajo  Basket
Photo (c) 2009 Michele Mountain
Museum of Northern Arizona
the present reality of the individual are codified in the basket's physical elements. The materials, designs and even the methods of construction of Navajo ceremonial and pictorial baskets convey important messages regarding cultural values and beliefs.

Navajo baskets designs function as mnemonic devices that facilitate the individual’s capacity to order and make sense of experience. When one traces a path along the basket’s coils from the center to the outer edge, this action signifies the historical progression of the Navajo people through time as well as the cyclical nature of the individual life course.

Cycles of light and color progressions observed in nature serve as bases of traditional Navajo belief and ceremonial practice. These light and color phenomena and associated beliefs structure the designs found on Navajo beaded baskets.

History of Navajo Basketry

Prior to the late nineteenth century, baskets played an important utilitarian role in everyday Navajo life. They served as containers for food and water and were important objects of trade with the tribe’s Spanish and Native neighbors. After the Navajo returned to their homeland following internment by the U.S. government at Bosque Redondo, Euro-American-introduced metal containers displaced utilitarian baskets. The production and everyday use of baskets diminished. However, their ceremonial use continued to flourish.

Navajo Ceremonial Baskets (Ts'aa')

While ceremonial baskets were traditionally woven by Navajo women, the strict taboos that applied to their manufacture made their production increasingly difficult. Additionally, because of the growing late nineteenth-century market in Navajo textiles, Navajo women were compelled to devote their time to the more economically profitable enterprise of textile production. Ute and Southern Paiute basket weavers, who were not subject to the same taboos, stepped in to fill the Navajos’ continuing need for ceremonial baskets. Only recently have Navajo basket makers resumed the art of basket weaving in significant numbers.

In traditional Navajo thought, the ceremonial basket (ts'aa') is a metaphoric representation of the individual life course. It also tells the collective history of the Navajo, and it symbolizes the Navajo homeland. In conjoining these three aspects of existence, it expresses the interconnection of individuals with their culture and natural environment.

Navajo Basketry
Photo (c) 2009 Michele Mountain
Museum of Northern Arizona
Navajo ceremonial baskets are used in weddings, girls’ puberty rites, and traditional healing ceremonies. Made of sumac and coiled from left to right, they are usually from 12 to 14 inches in diameter. The rim of the ceremonial basket is finished with a diagonally plaited herringbone pattern. The overall design is always broken at one point, allowing a pathway from center to periphery, and the last coil of the basket ends at the point where the break occurs. In ceremonial practice, the gap in the basket’s design is always oriented to the east.

Traditional ceremonial baskets always include an open pathway from the center to the periphery. Navajo basket-weavers refer to the opening in the basket’s design as “the way out.” It represents both the Navajo people’s exit from one world and reemergence to the next, as well as the ever-forward progression of individual human thought. Without this pathway, the basket weaver’s thought process and creative energy risk blockage.

Pictorial Baskets

In one area of the Navajo Reservation, an important new trend in basketry has developed. With the encouragement of Anglo traders at the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, basket makers from the northern region of the reservation have begun to incorporate imagery from their culture’s creation myths and sandpainting ceremonies into their designs.

Navajo creation stories help to establish a shared identity for the Navajo people. Legends narrating the experiences of the Holy People and their roles in constructing and negotiating the world provide models for individual Navajo lives. These narratives are compressed metaphors that encode Navajo philosophy and values.

Beaded Baskets

Woven and stitched beadwork is a relatively new art form among the Navajo. However, beads themselves have a long history in Navajo oral tradition and ceremonial practice. Over this history of use, they have acquired a rich symbolism. Contemporary beadwork conveys important beliefs regarding daily light cycles and demonstrates the associative properties that the Navajo ascribe to particular colors. The four sacred colors of the Navajo correspond to the cardinal directions, the times of day, the seasons, the stages of the individual life cycle, and the four sacred mountains that delineate the Navajo homeland:

Color/Direction/Time of Day/Season/Stage of Life/Sacred Mountain

White/East/Dawn/Spring/Birth/Sierra Blanca Peak

Blue/South/Midday/Youth/Mt. Taylor

Yellow/West/Dusk/Fall/Maturity/San Francisco Peak

Black/North/Night/Winter/Death/Mt. Hesperus

Text (c) 2009 Jennifer McLerran, Ph.D., Curator of the Museum/Museum of Northern Arizona

Additional Information

Websites:

Twin Rocks Trading Post - Navajo Baskets ( http://www.twinrocks.com )

Walk in Beauty: Hózhó and Navajo Basketry ( http://www.tfaoi.com )

Contemporary Navajo Baskets on the Utah Reservation ( http://history.utah.gov )

Readings:
  • Georgianna Kennedy Simpson. Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols Sacred Space.
    Native Voices, 2004.
  • Moore, Ellen K. Navajo Beadwork: Architectures of Light. University of Arizona Press, 2003.
  • Edison, Carol, “Contemporary Navajo Baskets on the Utah Reservation,” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 74, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 241-258.