Celebrating 17 years

The Gift of Spider Woman

In their documents describing the Southwest in the early 1700’s, the Spanish mention the skills of the Navajo weavers. However, as we shall see, the Spanish had both a positive and negative influence on Navajo weaving during the 18th century.

The purpose of this essay is to help the reader gain a better appreciation for, and understanding of, the art of Navajo weaving. Therefore, as with any other type of art, the art must be placed within social, historical and spiritual contexts. As a consequence, one must begin, well, at the beginning. As is typical of cultures that primarily have an oral tradition, such as the Navajo, their stories vary from location to location, from family to family. What is presented here is one of those versions.

In the creation stories of the Navajo, there are four worlds. Today, the Navajo live in the forth world, known as the "Glittering World." The first world was black, where only land, air, water, and language existed. First the spirit holy ones were created and, other than the holy people, this creation was the most important event which took place in the first world.

The second world is known as the “Blue World” of water, air, and where land mammals were created. The holy ones gave life to Spider Woman and Spider Man. Only their inner spirits or souls were made. Their physical bodies were made later to contain their spirits, as all animate beings did when they evolved into future worlds.

In the third world the holy ones advised Spider Woman that she had the capabilities of weaving a map of the universe and the geometrical patterns of the spirit beings in the night sky. At first she did not know what they meant, and was not instructed how it should be done, but curiosity became her energy and driving force to weave her creations.

On a beautiful day when she was out on the land, exploring and gathering food, she came upon a small young tree which was just beginning to grow. She touched it with her right hand and wrapped her fingers around one of the branches. When she released her right hand a string was attached to the branch and it was streaming out from the middle of her palm. She was not quite sure what it was, at first. She shook her hand to release the string, but it stayed attached to her hand. She thought the strings might detach if she kept wrapping it on the branch of the tree. She kept wrapping the string around the small extended branch and she became worried when she realized that she would run out of space on the first small extended tree branch.

There were so many strings on the small branch that it seamed it would break off, so Spider Woman ran the string to another branch on the same tree. After doing this for awhile, she realized she was creating a pattern. She started maneuvering and manipulating the strings into various shapes. At this particular moment, she knew this was the weaving the holy people instructed her to do. Immediately she broke the string with her left hand without hesitation. She sat and thought carefully about how to use her new gift. For the rest of the day she sat close to the tree and wrapped the strings into various patterns on other branches of the small tree.

When she felt comfortable with her gift, she returned home with her gathered food and showed her newly acquired skill to her husband, Spider Man. After a period of time, Spider Woman began weaving within her home.

Spider Woman is a creatrix, who lives atop Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. She eventually taught Changing Woman how to weave, with the stipulation that she would, in turn, pass on the skill to the Navajo. Spider Man taught the Navajo how to make the loom out of the four sacred stones: turquoise, black jet, white shell and abalone, as well as the earth, sun, rain, and sky.

Spider Woman is always available to help her descendants. She can be heard in the wind — if one is prepared to listen.

To the Navajo, weaving is not just personal practice. Weaving is prayer in motion. Weaving is an acknowledgment of the Navajos’ belief in their connection to all things in nature and, indeed, the universe. Weaving represents balance, hózhó. The Navajo notion of hózhó can, perhaps, be best expressed by an excerpt of a prayer from one their ceremonies.

In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud and rain
In beauty I walk.

With beauty before and behind me,
With beauty below and above,
With beauty all around me, I walk
Spider Woman

Indeed, one can often observe the prayer woven into Navajo rugs. For instance, a design that is often used is called The Spider Woman’s Cross, as exemplified at right.

In this design we can visually observe not only hózhó (balance/beauty), but the Navajos’ reverence for the Four Sacred Directions, the Four Sacred Mountains (which, moving in a clock-wise direction are Mount Blanca of the East, Mount Taylor of the South, the San Francisco Peaks, of the West, and Mount Hesperus of the North. The Sacred Mountains are also associated with the four sacred stones, mentioned earlier (White Shell, Turquoise, Abalone, and Black Jet.)

As McManis and Jeffries (1997) point out, “Weaving is at the heart of being for many . . . Navajo, and an essential part of their lives that is both vital to them individually, and vital to their lives within their community.” Initially, weaving was solely for women. As a consequence, over the years, women came to play a crucial role in the community. Weaving became a source of pride for the Navajo and, as a consequence, women gained greater respect. Thus, it is important for members of the dominant culture to understand that while Navajo weaving is perceived as and, arguably, is an economic commodity, the act of weaving is an ancient, sacred ceremony and that which is woven is a result of the ceremony.

We have, thus far, continually used the term “Navajo.” However, the Navajo call themselves the Diné (dih-NEH), which, roughly translated, means The People. However, there are no articles, such as “the” in the Navajo language; therefore we might assume that the Navajo were merely calling themselves “people” as opposed to tree, stone, or other objects in their environment. The land on which the Diné live is referred to as the Dinétah. Members of the dominant culture call this land the Navajo Reservation.

There is some disagreement as to the origin of the word “Navajo.” Some sources, such as The Catholic Encyclopedia, suggest that it is derived from the Spanish word nava meaning plain or field. On the other hand, McManis and Jeffries (1997) indicate that Navajo is a Spanish version of the Tewa word navaju (nava meaning field and hu meaning large arroyo).

Whatever the derivation, the people whom we now call Navajo, apparently once farmed in their ancestral lands in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. No one knows, with any degree of certainty, whether or not the Navajo were weavers at this time. Although most scholars suggest that the Navajo came to weaving much later, via the Pueblo groups.

On the other hand, Reichard (1939) claimed that she found distinct similarities between the weaving of the Navajo and the Salish people of Puget Sound, thus suggesting the possibility that the Navajo brought weaving with them during their migration south from Canada to the Southwest.

Although we have no exact date, archaeology indicates that the Navajo were in the Southwest before the Spanish arrived in the 1530s. The first known European reference to the Navajo is a document dated 1626 authored by a Franciscan missionary, but it does not make any reference to weaving. As noted earlier, is not until the early 18th century that Spanish make reference to Navajo weaving. However, what is problematic about relying on this, and other Spanish sources, for information about the Navajo is that the Spanish seldom differentiated between the Apache and the Navajo. Nevertheless, there are some historical data on which we can rely that indicates that the Spanish had both a positive and negative influence on weaving.

Spanish rule brought with it the domination of the Navajo and the Puebloan peoples for a considerable amount of time. Thus, their art forms, such as weaving, were severely curtailed.

There are extant artifacts that indicate that the Navajo used cotton in their weaving, as did the Pueblo groups, at least during the time of Spanish domination. However, what not clear is if, or even which specific Pueblo groups aided or taught weaving to the Navajo. Since both groups (Puebolans and Navajo) lived in close proximity to each other, it is quite likely that they intermarried, thus suggesting one possible avenue for weaving techniques to be passed from one culture to another.

Two of the few unexpected benefits of Spanish rule which impacted Navajo weaving was the introduction of horses and sheep. The horse allowed the Navajo (among others) to become more mobile, thus creating greater opportunities for trade. The sheep gave them not only a new source of food, but new material for weaving (McMannis & Jeffries, 1997). By the beginning of the 19th century wool had replaced cotton in Navajo weaving.

At first the Navajos wove clothing and outer wraps that were valued by other American Indian cultures (Kluckhohn & Leighton, 1946). Over time, the Navajo departed from the Pueblo’s simple banded designs, to complex, colorful and intricate patterns.

In the late 1700s another valuable item, bayeta, was being used by the Navajo. Introduced by the Spanish, bayeta was a wool trade cloth which made its way from England to the Navajo via various trade routes (McMannis & Jeffries, 1997). Bayeta was commercially woven and dyed red. The Navajo unraveled these cloths, respun the wool, and used it in their own weavings.

During this time the Navajo weavers were also experimenting with many other designs. “The Navajo had been making beautifully designed baskets for some time so it was only natural they would try these designs in their weaving. The designs used in Spanish serapes were another influence on Navajo weaving” (http://www.historyofquilts.com/navajo_rugs.html).

Events of the 19th sparked distinct changes in Navajo weaving, and the creation of new trade channels for their weavings. If one were to further explore the evolution of Navajo weaving, one would come to see how the events of the 19th century strongly impacted Navajo weaving, creating the art form with which we are currently familiar.

Today, most, if not all weavers, hope that this art form, this cultural tradition, this prayer, this sacred cultural element will continue to be passed from generation to generation. It will, no doubt, endure, and evolve as have the Navajo, themselves. But, no matter what changes may occur, weaving will remain the Gift of Spider Woman.


Sources Cited

Kluckhohn, C., & Leighton, D. (1946). The Navajo. Doubleday Anchor. Garden City, NY.

McManis, K. & Jeffries, R. (1997). A Guide to Navajo Weavings. Treasure Chest Books. Tucson, AZ.

Navajo Weaving from Spider Women to Chief’s Blankets retrieved from http://www.historyofquilts.com/navajo_rugs.html

Reichard, G. A. (1939). Navajo Medicine Man: Sandpaitings and Legends of Miguelito. J. J. Augustin, New York.