Yei Navajo weaving
This Navajo rug, known as a 'Yei', and dating from after 1920, is one of a collection of nine rugs assembled in California between 1956 and 1967. 'Yei' rugs are so named because they depict the elongated sacred figures or spriits which were originally drawn by tribal medicine men in coloured sand paintings before being erased.
The Navajo people are the descendants of hunter-gatherers who travelled southwards from Alaska and Northern Canada until they reached the area of the United States inhabited by the sedentary Pueblo Indians. According to legend, "Spider Man, one of the Navajo Holy People, taught the Navajos how to make a loom from sunshine, lightning and rain. Spider Woman taught them how to weave." Thus, the loom and its trappings were constructed from the natural elements and the four compass points. Spirits are said to inhabit the sword and comb used in beating down the weft and there are taboos about what the weaver can and cannot do whilst handling these. As they weave, women chant particular 'mantras' from religious ceremonies to accompany them as they work.
In practice however, the Navajo probably began to weave sometime in the seventeenth century. They were taught and influenced by the Pueblo, who had a long tradition of weaving cotton clothing. The Navajo switched from weaving cotton to wool in about 1700 when sheep were introduced by the Spanish. Their high quality striped blankets were prized items and were worn by chiefs from other tribes. From 1863-68 the Navajo peoples were imprisoned by the Spanish at Bosque Redondo; separated from their sheep and sources of natural dyes, they were forced to rely on machine-spun yarns and commercial dyes. Upon their release, reservation trading posts were set up under government supervision, mostly by men who had become interested in the commercial possibilities of Navajo work they had seen at Bosque Redondo and who were often responsible for introducing new and imported patterns.