by Cindy Gresser, Director of The Smoki Museum
Twice a year, The Smoki Museum of American Indian Art and Culture presents our Navajo Rug and Indian Art Auction. This wonderful sales event that supports our general operating fund was initiated about 22 years ago by Jeff Ogg and Bruce Burnham. Bruce remains our auctioneer. While providing income for the museum, these sales continue to introduce the traditions of Navajo weaving to the public.
It is said that the Navajo people learned their fine weaving skills from the Pueblo people hundreds of years ago. When the Spanish introduced sheep in the 1500s, wool became the principle source of fiber for Navajo weaving. Before the Navajo were sent on the Long Walk, their herds were decimated by the U.S. military. After the Treaty of 1868 with the Navajo, each family was “sent home” with two sheep to resupply their herds. By the 1930s, their flocks had been re-established, but again, the U.S. government this time stepped in and killed most of their herds due to “overgrazing.”
Prior to and during the 1800s, most weavings were utilitarian in nature: blankets for sleeping, blankets for wearing and floor mats. Designs, if any, were basic stripes, “whirling logs” and some regional patterns. By the 1920s, regional patterns were associated with where the rugs originated. Teec Nos Pos weavings had complicated borders and elaborate centers. Two Grey Hills weavings used only naturally dyed yarns, spun together to produce their subtle colors. Ganado rugs always have a red center background. Klagetohs are much like Ganado, but always have a gray background. And so on … each regional rug could be identified. During the 1930s, when the sheep were virtually gone, traders to the Navajos knew that to keep the weaving traditions going through to the next generation, they had to have wool. They contacted Germantown, Pa., where some of the finest wool was being spun, and commercially dyed. These yarns were distributed to the weavers, and a new style was born. Germantown rugs and weavings have the distinctive, brightly colored yarns that were only produced with actual Germantown yarn.
“Whirling Logs” seen in Navajo weavings are often shunned by the public, simply because of their design. Known to most of us born prior to or during World War II, we came to know them as swastikas. In fact, this is an ancient symbol, used by cultures all over the globe to represent many different things. However, for the Navajo, a swastika is a migration symbol, a symbol of good luck and good fortune. Whenever you see whirling logs on a Navajo rug, you can be pretty sure that it is old – it was made prior to 1940, when the Navajo and most Indian people, decided to not use that symbol because of the Nazi corruption.
Navajo rugs and weaving have a rich history, and an important story to tell us all. Younger Navajo weavers are stretching “traditional” boundaries every day. No longer can a rug be identified simply by its pattern. Weavers living in Klagetoh may choose to weave pictorials, or a Teec No Pos. Men are now weaving and creating designs of their own, representing their own journeys in life. Many different styles are now woven into a single rug as well. Always changing, always growing, the art form of traditional Navajo weaving will continue, as long as we continue to appreciate it.
Not sure which rug or weaving you might want as an addition to your home? No worries, our auctioneers, Bruce and Virginia Burnham, of RB Burnham Trading Post of Sanders, and Hank and Vicky Blair of Totsoh Trading Post in Lukachukai, are all part of our auction team, along with The Smoki Museum volunteers and staff who can answer all of your questions at our previews.