The Stories of Navajo Weaving

Today, Navajo textiles are celebrated as a refined and niche decorative art, recognized for their vibrancy and meticulous construction as well as for their notably high prices. Behind this celebrated contemporary icon of sophistication and taste, however, are centuries of Navajo history – contained in the variations and evolutions of this craft are the variations and evolutions of the tribe itself, revealing not only tribal tastes and cosmologies but the impact of colonialism on a community across generations.
There is no word in the Navajo language equivalent to “art”; the rugs and blankets crafted with care by weavers, then, were not set apart from daily life with such a distinction. However, this does not mean that they were considered banal or utilitarian; rather, Navajo weavings married the quotidian and the sublime, connecting the intimacies of daily life – sleeping, homemaking, dressing – with the highest echelons of Navajo mythology.
Traditional Navajo weaving was not merely a way of representing sacred subjects, but was a sacred subject in itself, featuring prominently in the story of creation. In this tale, it was Spider Woman who not only wove metaphysical tapestries with the elements of sky, earth, rock and sun, but also taught the Navajo how to weave themselves.
Apart from the cultural value of these textiles, Navajo weavings are cherished for their exceptional physical quality, and have been for centuries. Spanish colonizers as far back as the early 1700s were already writing about the singularity of the Navajo blanket, which was distinguished by its dense waterproof texture. This was due to the use of wool harvested from the Spanish-imported Churro sheep, whose long fleece could be spun into an exceptionally strong and fine yarn.
The integrity of this craft, however, faced considerable threat in the mid-1800s, when Eastern American colonists rampaged though the West in search of gold. The inimitable Churro sheep were slaughtered en masse, and those who survived were cross-bred, producing shorter, greasier fleeces that reduced the quality of Navajo yarns. At the same time, however, this wave of colonization made Navajo textiles an internationally known good, and the very forces threatening the craft’s (and tribe’s) survival simultaneously increased export demand for the weavings.
The Navajo people, pushed into economic and social chaos by colonization, began to produce weavings designed to cater to the export markets of their oppressors, as it quickly became apparent that the textiles were coveted and could fetch large sums of money for the ailing community. Material changes in the work began to occur immediately; for instance, weaves became thicker as it was observed that Europeans tended to use the weavings as carpets rather than as clothing or blankets. European yarns also began to be imported by some tribal weavers in order to improve the quality of the weave, which had been degraded following the loss of the pure-bred Churro sheep. Motifs were similarly subject to the whims of the market, with foreign traders exerting more control over the choice of pattern and symbol application by native weavers.
Today, Navajo weavings continue to be produced, most commonly as rugs, and continue to respond to international demand for them as prized textiles. For struggling Navajo families in contemporary tribal life, the practice can be a primary or even sole source of reliable income. That the craft has endured throughout centuries of hardship, retained an elite status despite enormous obstacles and evolved into a means of sustaining contemporary Navajo people is a testament to the quality of this tradition.
However, we are today a long way from the loom of Spider Woman – the history of violence, pain and cultural erasure are not merely the backdrop of the history of Navajo textiles but make themselves present in the craft itself, down to the level of the fibers used and the motivation for weaving them. True to the quintessentially unifying and self-referential nature of Navajo weaving, the work not only represents the story but truly embodies it, manifesting in fabric the desecration as well as the pride of a nation.