Whatever their murky beginnings, Navajo storm rugs have since become one of the most popular Navajo rug designs and invite many interpretations as to their meaning.
Explaining the Navajo storm design presents a bit of a dilemma. The pattern is created by weaving artists from all corners of the Navajo reservation and beyond, yet pinpointing its origin and meaning is a different story, or I will say, several stories.
Although storm pattern rugs later became associated with Tuba Trading Post on the western side of the Navajo reservation, many feel it first made its appearance and was first popularized by J.B. Moore, a short-lived but influential trader at the Crystal Trading Post in the nineteen-teens. In his first catalogue published in 1911, he featured two weavings with the quincunx (I love this word...it was one of Kira’s spelling bee words last year) layout and attributed the pattern to one family designated specifically to weave what became known as the storm design.
Our culture loves asking the question, “...but, what does it mean?” The first story comes from Cameron Trading Post: Jean Mann, a weaver from the area explained that the center of the rug, in the square part, was the weaver’s home or the weaver’s hooghan. Lightning connects the weaver to the four sacred mountains that form the border of Dinetah. These mountains are the squares in each corner of the rug. The rain is the warp of the rug. Centipedes flank the hooghan on each side. In early versions of storm weavings, above and below there were whirling logs close to the hooghan. This symbol, similar to and because of, the Nazi swastika was later changed to look like another centipede. Outward from this element is the 6-legged water bug. The whole rug symbolizes a storm and also portrays the storm as a sacred occurrence.
My understanding is that J.B. Moore had a fondness for Oriental weavings and possibly introduced Eastern rug patterns to the local weavers. An explanation given by the Navajo Rug Repair Company, experts in cleaning and repairing Oriental and Navajo weavings, lends credence to this theory. They state, “One story about the design origin is that it was derived from the labels on flour sacs sold to Navajos in the early years. This author has not been able to find any flour sac labels that show anything like this design (the same story is often written concerning the swastika design as found in some Navajo rugs). I theorize that the Storm Pattern's origin lies within Kufic script that is found in Persian, Caucasian and other Mid-eastern rugs, particularly in the borders of those rugs. The "Storm Pattern" design shows the favored quincunx pattern, a ubiquitous design styling in the Orient.”
I like what Ann Hedlund, a cultural anthropologist and director of the Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson has to say about J.B. Moore’s introduction of the design:
“In 1911, trader J.B. Moore published a catalogue showing a Navajo rug with a central rectangle, four zigzag arms radiating to the corners, and bold, isolated geometric motifs along the ends and sides. Stating, ‘This pattern is one of the really legendary designs embodying a portion of the Navajo mythology,’ Moore started his own legend that has yet to be unraveled or understood. No earlier Navajo design resembles this one—in weaving, sandpainting, or any other medium.” Professor Hedlund’s explanation supports the idea of outside influences on Navajo weaving and to me, belongs in the category I have endearingly titled “Great White Trader Stories”.
Ann Hedlund chimes in again with the following thoughts:
“Weavers today differ in their interpretation of the motifs and layout. Some deny knowledge of any symbols and say the stories came from traders. Others suggest that maybe the center symbolizes a Navajo hogan, a lake, or the center of the universe; the corner elements are spoken of variably as the four sacred mountains, the four winds, or the four cardinal directions. The radiating zigzag lines are usually called lightning lines or whirling logs. The individual motifs at both ends are called water bugs or pinon beetles.”
---Georgiana Kennedy Simpson