Navajo Artists Weave Magic
by J. Fatima Martins
There’s a Navajo/Diné story in which Spider Woman, the ancient goddess who mapped out the universe and invented the weaving loom, rubbed spider webs on newly born baby girls to ensure they’d mature into great weavers.
Although weaving is the core feature in the Navajo/Diné creation story, sacred spiritual imagery and symbolism weren’t traditionally included as design elements in Navajo/Diné rugs and blankets. These objects were primarily utilitarian and decorated with geometric patterns that may or may not implicitly refer to cultural history or identity. The permanent and explicit depiction of a divinity on these objects was taboo.
The prohibition against depicting the sacred was challenged shortly after the turn of the 20th century by an artisan named Gle-nup-pah and her younger sister, Yah-nah-pah. These women caused a revolution in weaving at a time when the craft was in transition. They began to weave a distinctive identifiable figure — the Yeibichai dancer, personifying the ancient Yei divinity known as The Talking God. The act of weaving and making visible the sacred and protective figure from the “Nightway” or “Night Chant” ceremony was controversial because of the private nature of the ceremony and the fact that the design was made for financial reward.
Gle-nup-pah’s Yeibichai dancer is depicted — in “Single Ceremonial Dancer,” 1910, a hand spun wool blanket — as a tall, single, costumed figure with three feathers on his geometric head. The hard-edge simplification of the face, which is masked, contrasts with the more rounded and accurate depiction of the naked upper torso and outstretched arms. Gle-nuppah’s inventive figurative design changed forever how gods would be imagined and depicted in textiles.