The Navajo pictorial rugs of today are fantastic pieces of art that portray in their design a variety of themes including religious ceremonial art, scenes of daily Navajo life, bird pictorials depicting colourful birds around a cornstalk growing from a ceremonial basket, and a variety of still images and writing pictorials. Pictorial images began to show up early in Navajo weaving – as early as the 1860s – and have persevered, becoming their own unique design and expression of Navajo artistic weaving. The portrayal of Navajo ceremonial art in rugs is generally attributed to Hosteen Klah, a Navajo medicine man and weaver born in 1867 and died in 1937.
History of the Pictorial Rug
Traditionally drawn in sand as part of Navajo healing ceremonies and destroyed by sunrise, these permanent images were controversial when woven by Hosteen Klah in rugs. But the concept certainly did not disappear! Hosteen Klah felt his knowledge of the Navajo religion was sufficient to protect him from the power of the images and later “Navajo Sandpainting Rugs” often omitted or changed important parts of the image to avoid offense. Navajo Bird pictorial rugs or Tree of Life rugs are a popular design today. These pictorials, because of the rounded heads and bodies of the birds, are difficult to weave on a traditional Navajo loom and require an expert manipulation of the weft to produce a quality rug. The Navajo tree of life rug was undoubtedly influenced by the Oriental rug design of the same name.
The history of the cross-cultural progression of this design is fascinating, tracing the tree’s roots to early Armenian culture and belief of the bird harboring the spirits of the deceased, the tree and birds then progressing during the Christian era to a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and finally the adaptation by the Navajo who saw the limbs of the tree as obvious representation of the sacred corn stalk. Today the Navajo Tree of Life rug is rendered as a sacred corn plant growing from a Navajo ceremonial basket and surrounded by birds in an explosion of colour and movement.
Navajo pictorial rugs displaying occurrences in every day Navajo life have become extremely popular, not only because of their cultural insight, but also because of their incredibly complicated and technical designs. These Navajo rugs, sometimes known as Navajo Lifeways rugs, can depict a homestead with the traditional Navajo Hogan, livestock, and pickup trucks, or they can show special events such as Squaw Dances and weddings, or even modern scenes of cities and towns. The weaver is limited only by her imagination.