Introduction to The Navajo People
Their Beliefs, Lifestyle and Traditions
By Rebekah Powers | September 2022
For more than 500 years, the Navajo people, their lifestyle, their talents and their beliefs have both fascinated and intimidated others. Today we still see the influence of their textile designs, inspiring entire industries and fashion houses around the world. But the high standards and superior quality of Navajo weaving has never been truly replicated…except by the Navajo themselves.
The history of Navajo textiles is a deep dive into the history of this country, and represents a fully developed indigenous culture and its encounter with a rapidly changing world. Weaving for the Navajo is more than a utilitarian pastime and is an integral aspect of their creation myth. Spider Woman, a Spiritual Being taught the women how to weave. And Spider Man, who created the first loom, taught the men how to build them from sky, earth, sheet lightning and rock crystals. Together, they wove the world into existence.
The early tribes were inhabitants of a natural world. The colors and patterns they saw in nature were the ground of their very being, with little formal design or expanded color palettes.
When the first Spanish explorers arrived around 1540 with their colorful shoulder blankets, the Navajo were mesmerized by the patterns and colors and began to emulate and then to reinterpret them into their textiles. The Spanish settlers also brought Churro sheep, which they used for food, but the Navajo began to trade and raid to build their own flocks, not only for meat but they recognized the high quality of the wool as the best possible for their newly colorful chief style wearing blankets.
Expert Navajo weavers began to emerge who would see a pattern on an old Anasazi pot, or an unusual design they noticed in passing and be able to creatively interpret the motif into their new and exciting weavings. This is the Early Classic Period of Navajo textiles, a high point for quality, innovation and simple banded patterns that used color and form so artfully, they are still in use today.
The original weavings from this time are so rare that they may be seen only museums and very special collections. This was the time of discovery, when three elements combined to create the perfect conditions for the ingenious Navajo to weave a new world for them to inhabit. They borrowed the vertical loom from the Pueblo weavers, they cultivated the Churro wool brought by the Spanish and they were inspired by the patterns and colors of the serapes of the explorers.
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