The beauty and harmony of Navaho rugs

John Rich, Jacob's LakeOne of the side benefits of recently staying at Jacob Lake Inn near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was meeting the grandson of the founders, John Rich, who used his personal experiences and 40-year career of dealing in hand-woven Navaho rugs to help us understand the concept of hozho.

Rich, pictured at left, holds up a blanket he bought several years ago from a near-80-year-old Navaho woman who asked him not to sell it until her second granddaughter graduates from high school in a year or two while wearing it.

The Navaho word hozho is often translated as “beauty…but probably a better translation is harmony,” Rich said, noting that Native American Navaho prize harmony with their Southwestern surroundings and cosmology. For example, he said, “traditional Navaho are very custom-bound. They never use wood from a lightning-struck tree, and it’s really critical to show proper respect to water, coyotes and snakes. Not everybody believes, but it’s surprising how it affects every aspect of Navaho life today.”

Traditional Navahos, he continued, use over 100 healing ceremonies, also called “ways” or “sings,” to restore harmony, because “they believe spiritual disharmony will have physical manifestations. Some of these sings involve “dry paintings,” also sometimes called “sand paintings,” even though Navaho shamans “use much more than sand to open the door to harmony.” Then, after the ceremonies, the “painting” materials are scattered.

Using samples from his own collection and the gift shop at Jacob Lake Inn, Rich told how starting with the Spanish sheep, the Navahos began developing a distinctive weaving style that uses a vertical loom with a single, continuous warp thread — compared with most other styles which use a horizontal loom. Rich explained this means a Navaho weaver must have the finished design completely in mind before starting to weaver, otherwise the whole thing must be undone to make revisions.

With the establishments of the Navaho Reservation and trading posts, some of the licensed traders began insisting that Navaho weavers use distinctive colors. For example, Rich said that in 1878 Don Lorenzo Hubbell — probably the most famous of the traders — “started the idea that Navaho rugs needed red with black, white and gray patterns. Hubbell shipped wagonloads of these to the Fred Harvey Trading Company in Gallup, New Mexico,” where they sold briskly and were even listed in catalogs. “Other trading posts started developing their own styles,” Rich added.

“When the railroad reached Gallup in 1889, products began arriving from around the world, including ready-made threads and $3 woolen blankets from Pendleton, Oregon. Navaho weaving took another: Hand-spun weaving has practically disappeared since then,” said Rich, adding that the traditional designs and color schemes have also changed dramatically.

“In 1967 Philomena Yazee came up with a pastel vegetable dye and a diamond pattern…that quickly sold, because it was beautiful,” he continued. “That’s when things started to change. Weavers started adding some innovations.” Those included:

  • Mixing design elements from various parts of the reservation, whereas Navaho rug designs were previously associated with a particular location.
  • Churro wool started coming back about 1970; it turns out not all of the Spanish-descended sheep were destroyed during the 1860 wars.
  • Artistry began ascending over craft.
  • Weavers also started a pictorial style — painting directly onto the rugs.

However, Rich said these innovations have also coincided with a decreasing number of artists. He estimates about 10 percent of the remaining artists drop out or die off each year.

“Everyone involved with Navaho weaving is very concerned with its future,” said Rich. He added that the best thing he can do is encourage the remaining weavers by providing a market for their creations. “I buy practically everything I see,” he said, telling us about a woman and a son — about five percent of the weavers are male — who came into Jacob Lake, each with a Navaho rug to sell.

Frankly, Rich said, the boy’s rug wasn’t very good, and he was initially inclined to pay only $30 for it, but he knew this would discourage the boy. He asked the mother how much he would need to keep weaving, and they agreed on a price of $100.

Today in the Jacob Lake Inn gift shop some of the most impressive Navaho rugs carry price tags that end in three zeros; and some of the real Navaho rug treasures can cost many times more. For example, Rich said the Navaho blanked given to Kit Carson in the 1860s is worth more than $3 million today.

Rich and his daughter demonstrate some of the differences
in modern Navaho rugs

Asked how you tell a good Navaho rug, Rich replied, “When you open it up and everybody goes ‘wow.’ More and more in the future we’re going to have to think of Navaho weaving as an art form.”

“In the end, it comes down to creating something beautiful, which means hozho — something harmonious.”

Story and photos by Mike Foley

Comments

  1. Thank you very much for that excellent article

  2. Dear Mike, I am grateful for your respect for natives and native crafts. Thank you for your beautifully detailed article entitled THE BEAUTY AND HARMONY OF NAVAHO RUGS. Thank you for reporting so harmoniously on hozho – something harmonious. :o)
    Blessings, Doc Meek, Sunday, June 20, 2010 (Father’s Day), at Sherwood Park, Alberta, CANADA. http://www.docmeek.com

  3. We’ve just returned from Jacob Lake and one of the highlights was John Rich and his love and passion for the Navajo’s and their weavings. Thanks for giving folks a taste of exactly what John Rich is doing, living and so joyfully shares.
    all the best,
    Clara Brosnaham Reeves

Speak Your Mind

*