Navajo art first became known to Europeans in 1581, around the time Spanish explorers arrived in the southwest region of North America. Crafts like spinning and weaving were initially used as consumer goods for trade, but over the years have become collected as vibrant works of art. There are over 100,000 people living in northern Arizona’s Navajo County, and as the largest American Indian group living in the United States today, Navajo art continues to thrive – from the in-demand earthtones of Navajo pottery to the vibrant turquoise and stunning silverwork of Navajo jewelry.
American Indian art encompasses everything from carving to weaving, each design telling a story through motifs and symbols that honor their heritage. Most surviving antique examples are anywhere from one to two hundred years old. Many of these pieces were made from organic, ephemeral materials which has contributed to their wear and loss over the years.
Today, contemporary Navajo art blends traditional crafts with modern trends. It pays homage to indigenous art forms while pointing to the experimentation of American Indian artists across all media. Works of art that are centuries old, as well as art made by living artists, offer a unique glimpse of Navajo heritage. Here, we explore their cultural significance, popular media, and what Navajo art typically sells for in the market today.
A Brief History of Navajo Art
The Navajo originally belonged to a group called the Athapaskans who resided in western Canada. Historical evidence suggests Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajos entered the Southwest around 1300. Eventually the group (who referred to themselves as “Dine,” which translated to “people” in the Navajo language), began to migrate southward. As a nomadic tribe, they would settle and move on, following herds of animals. They eventually landed in the American southwest around the year 1400, settling in Arizona and New Mexico. The first Navajo land was called Dine’tah.
By the end of the 1400s the Navajos had connected with the Pueblo Indians, from whom they acquired new skills like farming and started raising their own food. By the time Spanish explorers had colonized New Mexico, Navajos were living in parts of Colorado and Utah as well. They learned many things from the Spaniards including how to ride horses, tend to cattle, more efficiently weave blankets, and other important practices. For centuries, unrest between colonists and Navajo communities existed, though leaders from both eventually signed a treaty in 1868 that granted the Navajo land.
While American Indian art varies from tribe to tribe, much is characterized by a deep connection with spirituality and nature. American Indian artwork can be traced back to early cave painting and stonework, but their medium has since evolved from rocks to cloth, clay, glass, fabric, and silver.
One of the most popular forms of Navajo art is jewelry, which can be credited back to silversmith Atsidi Chon in 1872. Chon was one of the first Navajo silversmiths who came to the Pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico to sell silver jewelry. He taught many how to make the craft in return for hospitality, and eventually the skill began to spread to different villages. Other popular media like sand painting, textile weaving, and turquoise are popular among the Navajo tribe.
Types of Navajo Arts and Crafts
Navajo arts and crafts are characterized by decorative objects, extraordinary craftsmanship, and intricate design. Over the past 1,000 years there has been a variety of artwork produced by the Navajo people. Each craft has its own distinct history and spiritual meaning, many of which were adopted from Pueblo Indian neighbors and Spanish settlers.
Perhaps one of the most sacred forms of art is the Navajo sand painting. Primarily used in ceremonial practice, sand paintings were never intended as a means for self-expression. In fact, they are traditionally destroyed after a ceremony takes place, and while they can be purchased today, it is rare to find authentic examples once used in ceremony.
Sand paintings, also called dry paintings, are referred to as “places where the gods come and go” in the Navajo language. The figures are symbolic representations of stories in Navajo mythology and each design element has its own sacred meaning. Sand paintings often depict abstract mountains, dances, visions, or other spiritual motifs. When used in healing ceremonies, the chanter selects specific paintings that will best heal the patient. After the sanctification, the patient will then sit on the painting and a ritual will be performed to enhance its healing power, guided by the theory that sand paintings heal when the ritual image attracts and exalts the Holy People.
The Navajo were the first southwestern American Indian group to work with silver. This metalworking skill was passed from the Spaniards to the Mexicans and finally to the Navajo. Before this, Navajo metalwork was limited to iron for utilitarian purposes. However, when the Spaniards came through the southwestern United States seeking gold and silver, the American Indians took a liking to these precious metals.
Atsidi Sani is recognized as the first Navajo to perfect the craft, passing his knowledge on to others where it quickly spread throughout various villages. Navajo silversmiths melted down silver coins they acquired from U.S. Cavalry and Indian traders. In 1865, Sani began producing silver buttons called conchos much to the admiration of other tribes. They adopted this practice and began embellishing clothing and jewelry. Soon after, silver was everywhere and the unique designs and styles we see today began to develop.
Since jewelry-making became a staple of Navajo culture, turquoise was a standard material and often combined with silver. The color is said to represent happiness, health, and luck. Like most Navajo art, turquoise was traditionally used for ceremonies and religious practices, but soon evolved to meet demands of trade.
The colors within the turquoise stone—black, white, blue, and green—are said to represent the colors of the natural world. Often, turquoise pieces featured a horseshoe-shaped symbol called “Naja,” which translates to “curved” or “crescent shaped.” Though the meaning is ubiquitous, it is held with the highest esteem and often associated with healing, protection, and guidance. The two main styles of turquoise Navajo jewelry include squash-bottom necklaces made from silver and turquoise with a Naja symbol pendant, and Navajo turquoise inlay rings.
The tradition of Navajo basket weaving was inherited from their Anasazi ancestors. These woven ceremonial baskets, also known as “ts’aa’,” relayed a sacred form, color, and design. Often referred to as a wedding basket, each is symbolic and sacred, though utility was just as important. Each basket was made using a coil method of weaving and features a white, black, and red design that tells a story of harmony and balance among living creatures.
Mary Holiday Black, a Navajo artist from the Douglas Mesa region, is one of the very first to bring modern influences into her weaving. She added new designs, colors, and shapes, and even experimented with a variety of new pictorial elements. The innovation from Black prompted a contemporary movement of Navajo basket weaving and has garnered interest among collectors.
Blankets and Rugs
Navajo rugs and blankets were originally used for utilitarian purposes, but toward the end of the 19th century weavers made them for tourism and export. In fact, the commercialization of rugs and blankets is still a driving economic force in the Navajo community. These textiles often featured geometric patterns. Until the arrival of the Spanish, they used cotton, but by the 1800s, artisans switched exclusively to wool. This allowed artisans to create high-quality, warm, and water-resistant items that were popular for trade.
Traditionally, Navajo blankets were wider than they were long. These were known as mantas and were created until the Spanish introduced a format in which blankets were longer rather than wide. These proved easier to produce on European-style looms. One of the more popular styles was the Chief’s Blanket, which evolved into four distinct phases:
- First Phase Blankets (1800–1850): Brown or blue and white stripes with top, bottom, and center stripes wider than the rest
- Second Phase Blankets (1840–1870): These added small red rectangles into the mix
- Third Phase Blankets (1860–1880): Stepped or serrated diamonds
- Fourth Phase Blankets (1870–early 1900s): Diamond motifs became larger and more elaborate
The Navajo began switching from blankets to rugs to accommodate trade and demand. These rugs were predominantly desired by Anglos, so the look and feel was designed with their specifications in mind. Many were even valued by weight and sold by the pound, believed to be more durable to withstand heavy foot traffic. Famous traders like Juan Lorenzo Hubbell and J.B. Moore were instrumental in promoting Navajo rugs. Today, we see traditional and non-traditional styles all over the world as a result.
The earliest forms of Navajo pottery can be traced back to the 1500s. While the Navajo tribe is recognized for their weaving, silversmithing, basketry, and jewelry-making, this particular craft was less of a speciality. Navajo pottery is quite different from that of other American Indian people. The pots were fired, but before cooled, a hot, melted pitch from pinyon trees would be applied to coat the pot, which resulted in a glossy finish. This practice not only made Navajo pottery waterproof, but gave it a distinguished look and aroma set apart from other tribes’ pottery. This feature also aids in verifying the authenticity of Navajo pottery.
In the 1860s, manufactured pottery was made readily available and slowed the demand for Navajo pottery. From then on, it was produced primarily for ceremonial use by women. Traditionally, Navajo pottery was left undecorated. Artisans borrowed some of their later designs like maze borders from cliff-dwelling potters. Today, many experiment with new and creative adaptations featuring etching and decorative embellishments.
Navajo Symbols and Meanings
Symbols vary between tribes and regions, but most are derived from religion or experience, and are used as decorative elements throughout all Navajo art. While many traders attempt to interpret their meanings, they often rely on Anglo-European adaptations which bare little truth to the original intent. Symbols that represent the environment, like a bird or flower, are easier to distinguish. Though it’s hard to truly pinpoint traditional Navajo symbols and meanings, there are some that often appear:
- Bear: The bear is a symbol of spiritual power and courage. Similarly, bear claws are often associated with those in power positions
- Buffalo: Buffalos were a large source of food for Navajos and often epitomize abundance and manifestation
- Butterfly: Often used in Navajo jewelry with a turquoise stone, butterflies represent transformation
- Eagle: The eagle represents victory, power, and personal conquest
- Rain: This symbol often represents renewal, fertility, and oncoming change
- Snake: Snakes are seen in a positive light, representing healing and rebirth
- Thunderbird: Often used in silversmithing, thunderbirds’ wings are said to cause thunder and wind, and serve as a warning
Valuing Navajo Art
For collectors, it is always best to familiarize yourself with Navajo history and culture so you can place each artwork within the correct timeframe and context. Because Navajo arts are so expansive, the value of objects from each style and medium varies. Some of the most common factors that determine the value of Navajo art include age, condition, and design styles.
The earliest examples of Navajo art are increasingly rare and hold significant value. Uneven carding, faded dyes, and idiosyncratic designs are more common in older items like rugs that, despite their condition, might cost more due to their rarity.
Condition and Design
The condition of each piece will greatly affect its price and value. It is a common Navajo belief that textiles have a life of their own and should be left to decay naturally. To assess the condition of a Navajo rug, check that is lies flat, has a well-balanced design, and that if folded in half, the center of the design falls in the center of the rug. It’s also important to assess the weaving to see if the lines are crisp and even; this will help gauge the accuracy of the weaver. It’s also important to verify whether the rug was handspun or not, as handspun rugs are very rare and thus are generally more valuable.
What makes Navajo art so special is its ability to transcend time, where traditional items blend seamlessly in contemporary culture. Navajo art practices have become mainstream, and many may own a piece of jewelry inspired by their designs without even realizing it. With so many different mediums and crafts, collectors are able to diversify their Navajo art collections significantly and create a truly memorable, valued array of unique works of art.