This Yei (the Navajo name for a deity or a holy one) rug features square headed female dancers facing outward holding feathers. These figures are stylized with elongated bodies and short straight legs and are a pictorial representation taken from ceremonial sandpaintings. As is recommended, this rug has always been hung on the wall. It was acquired by my family in the 1960’s during a trip to Shiprock, Arizona.
Yeibechai rugs are depicting dancers in ceremonies. Yebechais have somewhat more human proportions, usually face sideways, and often have legs bent in a dancing motion. Though female dancers have square heads, male dancers are identified with their round heads. From Dr. Mark Sublette, owner of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, yei rugs began appearing in the 1890’s as trading posts encouraged their weavers to include these religious figures in their weavings. During the 1920’s, two distinct styles of yei/yeibechai rugs developed. Rugs made in the area of Shiprock tend to have light colored backgrounds with no border, while rugs woven in Northeastern Arizona tend to have simple borders with dark backgrounds.
Weaving rugs from cotton fibers was practiced by local Southwestern tribes as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, and when the Navajo migrated into the Southwest area from Canada in the 1400’s, they rapidly learned the art of weaving from their neighbors. In roughly a century, the Navajo switched from cotton weaving to the use of wool.
The wool for their rugs came from the Churro sheep, a breed brought to North America in the 16th century by Spanish explorers, and rapidly adopted by the Navajo and neighboring tribes because the sheep were well suited to harsh climates and produced ample quantities of fine wool. The wool is sheared from the sheep, carefully carded and spun into wool fibers, and sometimes dyed with vegetal dyes. Churro sheep are distinctive in that they often have four horns instead of two, giving them a fierce visage.
The rugs are unique and handmade on individually constructed looms. This is different from most commercial rugs of this century, which are machine made and mass produced. The owners of Toadlena Trading Post, Mark and Linda Winter, often bring a local weaver and her loom to shows for demonstrations of exactly how difficult and precise the weaving must be to produce a spectacular rug.
A foundation of fiber is laid, then the colored wools are weaved into the foundation to create intricate patterns. Different areas of the Navajo Nation have different styles of patterns. One of my favorites is the Two Grey Hills patterns of tan, light brown, and cream colors. The Two Grey Hills rugs use extremely thin spun fibers, reflecting the high quality of the spinning and carding done by the weavers, yet they are quite durable. Often, the rugs take months to construct, and the designs are painstakingly transferred from the mind of the weaver onto the loom.
One simple way to identify authentic Navajo rugs from those made in Mexico or elsewhere – Navajo rugs have a continuous loom, which means the fibers that go up and down (the warps) are one continuous fiber, not individual ones. Again, per Dr. Mark Sublette, “Navajo style” rugs are often code for Mexican reproductions of Navajo patterns, but are not as finely woven or packed as tight – the wool feels bulky and loose in the reproductions.
There are roughly 110 chapters in the Navajo Nation, each chapter analogous to a county jurisdiction. And each chapter often has a unique style or weaving pattern to identify its origin. For example, rugs from the Ganado area are often called Ganado Red, as they tend to have a broad red border and black and grey interior designs. Chinle has produced rugs with striking gold tones, and Klagetoh rugs tend to have the same color scheme as Ganado, only reversed with the reds and blacks in the center and a grey border. Rugs often incorporate storm patterns or other symbolism from the Navajo culture, and are fascinating to interpret.
Early trading post owners, like Juan Hubbell, worked with local weavers to create distinctive patterns and colors for their rugs, as the rugs tended to be unsigned, similar to baskets. However, within the past century, this distinctive identification of rugs by pattern and color scheme has become less rigorous as weavers adopt the colors and designs of their neighbors.
The weavings were originally very functional. They served as floor and wall coverings, providing protection from the harsh weather. They also served as outerwear, with the long serape style weavings wrapped over a person and acting as a coat, parka, or bad-weather gear. Women often designed and wore the weavings as dresses, with the wrap held in place with a large decorated manta pin. And the more spectacular, highly intricate weavings served in ceremonial roles.
When I grew up, my mother would often have Native American rugs in the house. They were comforting to me, yet I always had a bit of fear of walking on them. As a young adult, I saw these rugs lying on floors at trade shows, with people actually standing on them. That created an insane desire in my heart to run up to them and scream “You are standing on incredible art!” Fortunately, I was able to harness that emotion, and I slowly began to realize that many of the rugs were meant for exactly that – everyday usage. Only the most prized ceremonial rugs were placed out of daily traffic.
If you are in the mood for adding some more Southwestern art to your home, consider an area rug for the floor. Maybe even a larger one for a larger floor, though they do increase in price commensurate with size. Or you could hang a highly intricate ceremonial rug on a wall. Whichever direction you pursue, a high-quality Navajo weaving is sure to bring happiness to your home, and spark many conversations among visitors.
There are different ways to acquire an authentic Navajo weaving. You could (as most people do) get a rug from a reputable Gallery or trading post like Teec Nos Pos or Toadlena. If you are feeling adventurous, you might even go to the rug auction at Crown Point, NM, held on the second Friday of every month. It is organized by the Navajo Weavers Association of Crown Point (www.crownpointrugauction.com) consisting of a very large gymnasium filled with rugs and providing a wonderful interface between weavers and purchasers. Or, you might consider the Adopt A Native Elders annual rug auction, held over a five-day period in November in Park City, Utah. During the event, there are weaving demonstrations, singing and dancing, and a closing pow-wow. They also have an online sale site. You can learn more about this auction at www.anelder.org. Of course, you can always read the Smart Buying Tips on Textiles in the About Us section of The Dancing Rabbit Gallery website.