by Cindy Gresser, Executive Director, The Smoki Museum of American Indian Art & Culture
For centuries, humans around the globe have used the symbol known as “whirling logs.” This shape represents different things to different people but is most often viewed in Navajo or Diné culture as good luck, well-being and balance.
As a sacred symbol, it was woven into many textiles, placed on pieces of jewelry and decorated pottery. To many other cultural groups, including the Lakota, Cherokee and other central Plains people, whirling logs represented the four cardinal directions in motion. To other indigenous people, it was a symbol of migration and travel. Then, in 1935, Adolph Hitler adopted the symbol as his own, turning it slightly, but destroying its positive meaning.
In 1939, the Diné People came together and stopped using whirling logs in their artistic work. Weavers developed patterns intrinsic to their homelands, and pictorial weavings became more popular. People who owned weavings with whirling logs rolled them up and put them into closets and cedar chests, not wanting to have anything to do with Hitler and his “swastika.”
In many other indigenous cultures, a similar pattern was followed. Whirling logs to them were migration symbols, wind imagery and it was part of who they were. Again, artisans stopped using the symbol and for some, its sacredness and meanings were lost.
Now, some 80 years later, those treasures that had been put away are again appearing out of the closet, out of the cedar chests and are being sold at auctions and in stores. As indigenous people reclaim their heritage, they are also reclaiming the use of whirling logs and the positive meanings associated with the symbol. Hopefully, more and more artists will again incorporate whirling logs into their art, and negative memories will be erased over time.
The Prescott community has long supported Diné weaving. How do we here at The Smoki Museum know that is fact? Because every year at rug auction time, we see an amazing variety of weavings from local collectors. Some were made recently, some have those vegetal dyes that produced mustard-colored rugs that were so popular in the 1970s, some pre-date 1900, and some have whirling logs.
Hastiin Klah was a renowned medicine person among the Diné. He learned ceremony from his uncle and weaving from his mother and sister. After he completed a nine-day Nightway Ceremony he started to create weavings with ceremonial figures in 1911. This was met with consternation from the other medicine people, believing there would be negative consequences. When there were none, Klah continued to weave rugs with ceremonial images, including sandpaintings – his first in 1919. It was a whirling-log design, similar to the one pictured here. Sandpainting weavings continue to be a highly sought-after design and are occasionally available at our auctions.
For the 23rd year, The Smoki Museum of American Indian Art and Culture is pleased to be offering authentic Navajo rugs, Native pottery, jewelry, baskets and much more Sept. 13 and 14. On Friday the 13th, the preview starts at 5 p.m., and a live auction of 100 pieces of art starts at 6 p.m. (and there are real bargains on Friday!). Saturday the 14th, previews start at 9 a.m., and the auction starts promptly at noon.
If you have treasures in your closet, we will be taking auction consignments at Ogg’s Hogan, 111 N. Cortez St., Aug. 28-30 from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. If you have a very large collection, please contact the museum for an appointment. Otherwise, we hope to see you at the auction so you can acquire your own piece of history.