Hózhó and Navajo Basketry

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Following is text from the exhibition brochure reprinted with permission of Brigham Young University Museum of Art:

What is Hózhó?

In the Navajo language there is no word for religion, nor for art.  The only word that could be used to describe both is "hózhó"- a word that defines the essence of Navajo or Diné philosophy.  It encompasses beauty, order, and harmony, and expresses the idea of striving for balance. Every aspect of Navajo life, secular and spiritual, is related to hózhó. As humans we straddle the border between health and sickness, good and evil, happiness and sadness.  We are always trying to gain harmony in life, preserve beauty, and find order again after balance has been disturbed.  According to the Navajo worldview, the purpose of life is to achieve balance, in a continual cycle of gaining and retaining harmony.  This exhibition explores one aspect of Navajo creativity that exemplifies hózhó - their basketry.  

When hózhó has been lost, a ceremony is held to restore balance.  Baskets are a necessary part of ceremonies that re-establish hózhó.  They are the material expressions of the essence of the Navajo worldview.  In order for weavers to make baskets that are beautiful, they themselves must "walk in beauty," or live in hózhó.

 

Preserving Hózhó through crisis and change

To retain hózhó, the Navajos have continually had to adapt in order to survive and preserve their way of life.  In their creation story, the people moved from one world to another as each world was gradually upset by evil, lust, or greed, thereby disturbing hózhó.  According to Navajo legend, hózhó could only exist on Earth, the final and Fourth World.  

If a weaver is lacking in hózhó, it reflects in her art.  When one weaver was passing through a difficult period in her life, her baskets were crooked and uneven, and did not reflect beauty.  Only when the weaver regained balance in her personal life did her work become beautiful and balanced once more.  

 

Mary Holiday Black and the renaissance of Navajo basket making

In 1864, nine thousand Navajos were compelled by military force to walk from their native lands to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The Navajos refer to this event as the "Long Walk." Eventually they were released in poverty to live on a reservation. The Navajos of the Douglas Mesa and Monument Valley areas, however, escaped to the backcountry with their herds and continued their traditional lifestyle.  As a result, they did not have the spiritual crisis of their brothers and sisters held captive at Fort Sumner, and their basket making continued unhampered.  Mary Holiday Black, a descendent of the Douglas Mesa Navajos, began a basketry renaissance by sharing her family's continuing interest in basketry with her children. Today, Peggy Black, one of her daughters-in-law, represents the darkness of the Navajos' captivity and the light of their eventual release through the symbolism of her basketry.

In 1978 at the age of sixteen, Sally Black, Mary's eldest daughter, began depicting sacred ye'iis, or Holy People in her baskets.  This marked the beginning of the renaissance in basketry and the story basket movement.  Much controversy surrounded her portrayals of the Holy People, but these works have gradually received acceptance among some Navajos.

 

Process, nature, deities, and Hózhó

Hózhó determines a basket's meaning, its purpose, and governs its creation. Hózhó is related to the natural world and to preserving balance between man and nature.  Navajo weavers still gather materials for their baskets in the same laborious way their mothers did hundreds of years ago, thus preserving their close relationship with the earth. In recent years, due to increased fencing and other restrictions, it has become increasingly difficult to find good sumac, a natural plant, fibers from which baskets are woven.

The Navajos feel an intimate bond with the land, and geography is sacred to them.  Many weavers depict their natural world in their art.  Each aspect of the environment is related to a ye'ii or a Holy Person.  The ye'iis, who are often shown in Navajo sand painting or rugs, exist to help maintain hózhó in the world.

According to Navajo legend, the ye'iis were born at the intersection of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers.  The meeting of the two rivers, before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, resulted in mist, in which rainbows were often seen.  Rainbows mark the ye'iis' paths through the world.

In a continual process of adaptation and finding balance, modern technology aids weavers in creating designs.  Damien Jim, a young Navajo graphic designer working at the Twin Rocks Trading Post, in Bluff, Utah, has been creating computerized designs for baskets since the 1990s.  Damien works with weavers to design baskets that compliment their individual styles.  

 

Changing uses of Navajo baskets

Three types of Navajo baskets existed originally: the burden basket, the water jug, and the basketry tray.  Basket production decreased with the advent of the trading post system in the 1870s and the traders' emphasis on the profitable local production of Navajo rugs. Western pots, pans, and other containers replaced the basket's utilitarian role, and baskets were made increasingly for decorative and ceremonial uses. Ceremonial baskets were often purchased from the Utes and Paiutes, as the Navajo creation of ceremonial baskets was governed by a strict set of taboos.  

By the mid-twentieth century, utilitarian baskets were made predominantly for the tourist trade. However, basketry trays like the works included in this exhibition, survived the transition, and are now made for ceremonial and decorative uses.  Their role in preserving hózhó has been redefined as their purpose has altered to suit a changing world.

Today, the sale of baskets provides necessities for many Navajo families, supplying food, gas money, and the funds to pay monthly bills. Daughters, granddaughters, and increasingly sons and grandsons, now learn basket making.

     

Story baskets

Navajo myths and legends help preserve hózhó.  Mary Holiday Black, the leader of the story basket movement, said, "If we stop making the baskets, we lose the stories."  Many Navajo stories deal specifically with situations in which hózhó is lost and then regained.  As there was no written form of the Navajo language until the 1960s, many of the songs and stories have not been recorded in words. The role of basketry is to help ensure that the stories are remembered and to preserve hózhó.

Many Navajo stories are considered sacred.  They are told only during certain seasons of the year.  Winter is the Navajo story telling time, as the snakes are asleep and families gather inside hogans around the hearth, listening to the elders relate Navajo legends.  Because this exhibition occurs during the warm months, care has been taken not to share the sacred stories, told only in winter.   

 

Ceremonial baskets

The ceremonial basket is necessary for use in Navajo ceremonies that are intended to restore balance to a person's life.  Ceremonies occur if a person has been ill, passing through a period of change, or needs success in business.  Baskets are used in ceremonies to wash away the bad, in an attempt to restore harmony and beauty to a person's life.

A pathway leads from the center of the basket to the edge. This is "the way out," or the doorway of the basket, also called the "ceremonial break."  It represents the emergence of the people and the birth canal of Changing Woman, a Navajo female deity.  Many weavers believe in the importance of including a pathway in each basket. Some weavers believe, in accordance with Navajo tradition, that creating a pathway allows their creativity to continue beyond the basket and allows healing to occur when used in a ceremony. The pathway is aligned to the East during a ceremony. Weavers believe that if they do not include a pathway, their minds will be shut and they will no longer be able to create.  

 

Navajo legends and symbolism

Both story baskets and ceremonial baskets make extensive use of symbolism. For example, the Spider Woman Cross is an important traditional Navajo design and relates to the female deity who gave the art of weaving to the Navajos. The cross form is sometimes compared to clouds, and baskets depicting the cross are often used in ceremonies to bring rain.  The number four is a sacred number for the Navajos, coinciding with the number of points on the cross. It also represents the four essential elements (abalone, turquoise, white shell, and jet), the four sacred plants (corn, squash, beans, and tobacco), the four sacred rivers (Colorado River, Little Colorado River, San Juan River, and the Rio Grande); and the four sacred mountains that define the four cardinal directions (Mount Blanca of the East, Mount Taylor of the South, San Francisco Peaks of the West, and Mount Herpersus of the North).  In addition, each direction is represented by a color: white, blue, yellow, and black, respectively.

 

Basket making and the Navajo family

Weavers share the art of basket making with their children.  Many young weavers learn by watching their mothers, and increasingly by watching their fathers. They learn the Navajo legends and understand the Navajo worldview.  In a constant process of preserving balance, these young people will pass their creativity and their love of basket making on to their children, thereby providing a simple but profound domestic activity that unites families and helps them to live in harmony with each other and their environment. In this way also, children are taught "to walk in beauty."

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