Coyote Star Basket by Elsie Holiday (#461)

19 3/4"


Elsie Holiday has taken a small aspect of a major Navajo cultural story and woven an amazing basket around it. Elsie loves Navajo culture. Her father Robert June Blackhorse was a Medicine Man and made certain that Elsie knew the myth and legend. In the Placing the Stars story, first man and coyote were responsible for placing the constellations and Milky Way in the night sky. It is said that coyote chose one piece of rock star mica for himself and placed it in the heavens. Elsie’s basket represents the spectacular beauty of that particular star.

Elsie Holiday

Elsie Stone Holiday - Basketweaver: Considered one of the best of the best Navajo basket weavers, Elsie Stone Holiday married into the famed Douglas Mesa family of weavers. Weaving baskets has become almost an addiction for her. "When I go two or three days without weaving I get anxious to get started again," she says. She weaves 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. "Sometimes I think, 'How long can this last?'", she wistfully states, but for now she is content with her art, finding immense satisfaction in creating premier quality baskets.

Learning the art of basket weaving from the family that is famous for the Navajo basket renaissance is certainly an advantage for Elsie Stone Holiday, and she has added talent and dedication to that advantage, with remarkable results.

Elsie knew how to weave rugs before she married, so weaving baskets was fairly easy for her to master. She learned from such renowned artists as Sally and Lorraine Black, Rose Esplain, and her mother-in-law, Betty White Holiday. Then she simply made the art her own by using her natural intuitive creativity.

The mother of six children, Elsie has only been weaving for about eleven years, since her children became old enough to allow her the time. Now they watch her, and sometimes help with the non-weaving tasks connected to the work, learning as they do so.

Elsie gathers the sumac strips used for her weaving along waterways in Hanksville or Moab, Utah, and Farmington, New Mexico. She says the reeds grow well along irrigation ditches, and are most pliable in the spring and fall months. She gathers about a six-month supply and then takes them home and readies them for weaving by stripping off the bark and splitting the reeds. Then Elsie does something few other weavers care to do- she takes the split reed and pulls it through a hole in a can, to strip away any excess, making the strips uniform size. It is this, and her propensity for a uniform, tight weave, that makes Elsie's baskets premium quality. If she notices any irregularities, Elsie picks out her weaving and begins again. She truly cares about making her baskets as perfect as possible.

Elsie's technique is not her only fine point, she also has a wonderful imagination for new design ideas. Elsie is modest when praised for her work and eager for any suggestions. She has an enthusiastic desire to please those who buy her baskets.

Elsie's father is a practicing medicine man, but it is her mother-in-law who has helped her with her weaving by performing ceremonies for her. A crystal gazer, Betty knows much about traditional Navajo medicine. She sprinkled corn pollen on a spider web and placed it on Elsie's head, all the while saying a prayer. The spider web represents the weaving done by spider woman, an important personage in Navajo mythology. Elsie confirms the validity of the ceremony by proclaiming how much it has helped her in her weaving.

Coyote, First Man and Placing the Stars

After four nights had come and gone First Woman and First Man saw that the sky was too dark. More lights were needed up there for those who wished to travel by night, expecially when the moon did not shine.

So they gathered as many fragments of rock-star mica as they could find. Then, First Man sketched a design on the ground, so that he could work out a plan for lighting up the heavens. Once he was satisfied with his scheme, he began to carry it out.

Working very slowly and very carefully, he placed one fragment of mica in the north. There he wished to have a star that would never move. By it those who journeyed at night could set their course.

Then he placed seven more pieces of rock-star mica. those became the seven stars we now see in the north.

Next he placed a bright piece of mica in the south. Likewise, he placed one in the sky to the east. And he put another one in the sky to the west. He did so very carefully and very thoughtfully.

So it was that he slowly built several constellations. for he wanted the results of this work to be perfect. But while he was laboring, along came the Coyote.

For a while he watched First Man as he worked. then he looked down at the pieces of mica that had been gathered. there he found three red fragments. and when he noticed them he had this to say:

"I will take these for my very own stars," he said.

"And I shall place them where I please."

So saying, he put them exactly where we now see three large red stars among the white ones that shine above us in the darkness every night.

Meanwhile, First Man continued his work as carefully as before. One by one he positioned each star according to his original plan. And Coyote watched him, observing the results of First Man's slow progress.

Until at last he grew impatient and cried out, having this to say: "Never mind doing it that way!" he said. "Why must I wait this long for your work to be done? Let the stars sit whereverf they will."

So saying, he gathered all of First Man's pieces of rock-star mica in his paw. then he threw them up into the air, blowing a strong breath at them as they flew. Instantly they stuck to the sky helter-skelter in random bunches.

At least those stars which the First Man had already placed remained in their proper positions. so some constellations were carefully fixed. Othyerwise the stars were scattered across the sky in uneven clusters.

To this very day, those who look at the sky on a dark night can see the unevenly placed stars. And by looking at them they can observe the everlasting disorder created by the Coyote in his impatience, it is said.

From Dine' Bahane'; 1984, Paul G. Zolbrod.


Constellation Categories
 Life Stage



 Nahookos bika'ii

(Big Dipper)

 Nahookos ba'aadii



(the Pleiades)

 `Atse'ets' ozi


 Hastiin Sik'ai'i



(front part of Scorpius)
 Old age

 Gah heet'e'ii

(tail of Scorpius)


(the Milky Way)

The division of the year into twelve months may also have been superimposed on traditional Navajo concepts. This may be why only some of the months have specific constellations associated with them. Four of the months were said to have feather headdresses composed of the following constellations: November (Nilch'its'osi, Time of Slender Wind) had Hastiin Sik'ai'i (Old Man with Legs Ajar) as its feather; December (Nilch'itsoh, Great Wind) had `Atse'etsoh (First Big One); January (Yas Nilt'ees, Crusted Snow) had Yikaisdahi (Awaits-the-Dawn); and February (`Atsa Biyaazh, Baby Eagle) had Gah heet'e'ii (Rabbit Tracks). In July (Ya'iishjaatsoh, Great Seed Ripening), Dilyehe (which has no agreed-upon English translation) appears in the early morning. Chamberlain's (1983) identification of these constellations varies slightly from O'Bryan's. The following constellations rise heliacally that is, they first appear in the morning sky before the sun comes up at the following times: in November, Hastiin Sik'ai'i (Corvus) appears (O'Bryan identifies this as Orion); in December, `Atse'etsoh (the front of Scorpius, or at least Antares) is visible; in January, the brighter part of Yikaisdahi (Milky Way) begins to appear like false dawn; in February, Gah heet'e'ii (the tail of Scorpius) appears (O'Bryan identifies this as a star cluster under Canis Major); and by July Dilyehe' (the Pleiades) is visible before the morning light. Pgs. 75, 77

Chanters A and B identified the eight major Navajo constellations recognized today as Na'hookos bika'ii, the Big Dipper; Na'hookos ba'aadii, Cassiopeia; Dilye'he', the Pleiades; A'tse'ets'ozi, Orion; Hastiin Sik'ai'i, Corvus; A'tse'etsoh, the front part of Scorpius; Gah heet'e'ii, the tail of Scorpius; and Yikaisdahi, the Milky Way.
The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia revolve around the almost motionless star called Polaris, forming a universal reference point that is visible at all times of the year in the northern hemisphere. The Navajo names for these constellations translate as the Male One Who Revolves and the Female One Who Revolves, a reference to their movement around Polaris, which is thought of as the source of their illumination.
Dilye'he', the Pleiades, is a small but distinctive cluster of six easily visible stars with a fainter seventh star; seven stars are usually depicted in Navajo renderings.
Orion, whose Navajo names translates as the First Slim One, is a conspicuous winter constellation composed primarily of a quadrangle of bright stars bisected by three stars that form a belt.
Corvus (the Crow) has a Navajo name that means Man with Legs (or Feet) Ajar. This constellation forms a quadrilateral figure located in a fairly dark part of the sky; most Navajo renderings include four stars.
The large fishhook shape of Scorpius, a summer constellation in the southern sky, is easily identifiable." The Navajo (as well as the Skidi Pawnee [Chamberlain 1982]) divide Scorpius into two constellations: A'tse'etsoh, the First Big One, is the front of Scorpius, while Gah heet'e'ii, Rabbit Tracks, is the tail of Scorpius.
Yikaisdahi, the Milky Way, is a universally known "landmark" in the sky because of its continual presence and conspicuous appearance, owing to the multitude of distant stars that compose this whitish ribbon.
The underlying theme of the story of stellar creation is the interplay of order and disorder. While the Navajo recognize specific orderly groupings of stars in the heavens, which were carefully placed by the Holy People, they consider other stars to exist without patterning, in a state of disorder, as a result of the impulsive actions of the trickster and philosopher, Coyote.
As with the other temporal markers, the stars were created for a purpose: not only were they to provide light in the heavens for those times when the moon was absent or waning, but also they were to provide seasonal and nightly markers for agricultural, hunting, and ceremonial activities. Their creation, as part of all Creation, was intended to unfold nizhonigo, or "in an orderly and proper way," as discussed above. However, Coyote, "patron of disorder" (Consultant G), intervened by disrupting both process and product.
Black God is generally considered to be the creator of the constellations; he is also known as Fire God because he is responsible for all fire, including the fire in the stars that is the source of their light. When diyin dine'e' entered the hogan of Creation, "the sky and earth lay on the floor of the hogan with heads pointing eastward, the sky on the south, the earth on the north side. Both had received the 'breath of life' with various winds, though they were not 'dressed' yet" (Haile 1947c:1).
In Haile's (1947c:1-4) version taken from Upward Reachingway, Black God entered the hogan with Dilye'he' (the Pleiades) lodged at his ankle. When he stamped his foot vigorously, the constellation jumped to his knee. Another stamp of his foot brought it to his hip. He stamped again, bringing the constellation to his right shoulder. The fourth and final time he stamped his foot, the Pleiades lodged along his left temple where, he said, "it shall stay!" Thus, Dilye'he' is located on Black God's mask (see figure 4.9). In Haile's work, this constellation appears on Black God's left cheek (Haile 1947a) and on Black God's temple (Haile 1947c:3). In my experience, the Pleiades is usually not visible on Black God's mask, either in Nightway sandpaintings of Black God that I have watched being made or on the mask worn by the Black God Impersonator.12 Chanter D explained that this is because Black God's face represents the entirety of the heavens, and the Pleiades is very small in proportion to the entire sky.
Black God's feat of placing Dilye'he' where he wanted it confirmed to the supernaturals in the creator group that he had the power to beautify the "dark upper," as they called the sky, by producing and placing constellations. Moving in the sunwise circuit, Black God first positioned Corvus in the east. In the south, he placed Horned Rattler (Haile does not list Western equivalents for all the constellations he mentions), Bear, Thunder, and 'A'tse'etsoh (the front part of Scorpius). In the north he placed the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion, the Pinching or Doubtful Stars (Aldebaran, lower branch of the Hyades), Gah heet'e'ii (which Haile identifies as a star cluster under Canis Major, but which today is generally identified as the tail of Scorpius); and finally the Pleiades. Because none of these constellations could shine without an igniter star to furnish their light, he added biko', an igniter. Finally, he sprinkled the heavens with the Milky Way.
Black God, weary from the process of creation, was resting when Coyote snatched Black God's fawnskin pouch, which contained the remaining unnamed and unplaced star crystals. Coyote then flung these stats into the night sky where they were scattered at random instead of forming the orderly patterns of constellations for which they had been intended. According to Haile's (1947c:4) consultant, "That explains why only the stars put there by Fire god [Black God] have a name and those scattered at random by Coyote are nameless."
Suddenly, Coyote took one remaining crystal and deliberately placed it in the south. This Coyote Star, Ma'ii bizo, was the source of confusion and disorder just as Coyote intended it to be. Accounts disagree on the identity of this "Monthless Star," so called because it is in the heavens for less than a full month, as well as on whether it is one star (Haile 1947c:8, 1981a:129; Klah 1942:58; O'Bryan 1956:21; Consultant G) or three (Matthews 1883:214).
While some accounts agree that Black God was in charge of the creation of the stars (Haile 1947a:29-30, 60-61, 1947c:1-2, 1981a:128-29), others say that First Man and First Woman or other Holy People were responsible (Klah 1942:39,66; Matthews 1883:213-14, 1897:223-24; O'Bryan 1956:20-21;Yazzie 1971:21; Newcomb 1967:78-88; Chanter A).
Although accounts differ concerning the identity of the supernaturals responsible for the creation of the stars, all versions do share the underlying theme of the universe as an orderly system. The order inherent in the cosmos was meant to serve as a pattern for proper behavior in both general and specific ways. "laws," or rules for proper conduct, were symbolized in such constellations as Gah heet'e'ii (the tail of Scorpius), whose seasonal movements determined the periods when hunting would be allowed (Newcomb 1980:197). Similarly, the two Na'hookos, the Male and Female Ones Who Revolve (the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia), represented a married couple that encircled Polaris, the fire in the center of their hogan; these two constellations, along with Polaris, represented laws against two couples living in the same hogan or doing their cooking over the same fire, as well as the mother-in-law avoidance law to be followed by her son-in-law. Pgs. 78-88

The first man and the first woman made the sun and hung it in the heavens with a spider web. Then they made the stars and hung them in the heavens; then they made the rainbows and put them in the corners of the heavers. Then they said to each other, "If we do not build a prop for the heavens they will fall down; what shall we build it of?" So they thought and thought, and then the man said. "We will make four men of mirage stone and put them at the corners of the heavens on the rainbows, and they can hold the heavens up." So they made them, and they hold the heavens up, and they never die. Then after they had made the sun, moon, and stars, and all the things in the heavens and the earth, with the aid of their son in the heavens, the man went to the house of the sun in the east and the woman went to the house of the sun's wife in the west. We cannot see them now but we can see their shadows and their fires at night. The great bear is the shadow of the man, and Cassiopeia is the shadow of the woman, and the north star is their fire. Scorpio is the shadow of the chief of the good natured people, who died of old age; the walking stick is his walking stick; the basket is what he eats form; the rabbit tracks are what he eats. Corvus is the blue bottle fly that carried the news over the heavens; the Pleiades are their ants, the yellow ants, the black ants, the little black ants, the cicada, the badger, and the blue coyote, that came from beneath the earth; after they died they went up there to live. The blush of dawn (the Milky Way) is some bread that the first girl was making when the first boy stole it and ran with it to the east, so it is there now. The war gods of the stars are four guards that the first man and the first woman made to guard them while they slept while they were on the earth, and when they stretched the earth they set them up at the four corners to guard the earth. Their names are the big black star, the big blue star, the big yellow star, and the big white star. Pgs. 133,134

In the Big Starway, stars are the etiological factors; that is, stars cause the patient to suffer form a host of symptoms, such as the mental distress, insomnia, and bad dreams that characterize "ghost sickness" or bewitchment. This is the only Chantway in which stars are the direct cause of illness; thus, stars are most dangerous in this context. Although the sandpaintings of several chants contain stars, the Big Starway and the Hand Tremblingway are the only Chantways whose sandpaintings feature stars. The sandpaintings of the Big Starway depict particular stars, such as the Big Blue Star, which is described as "a . . . star which wanders about and shoots people with magic arrows to cause fevers and mental aberration." Pg. 151

At the beginning of my research, I asked chanters about Reichard's (1950:470) characterization of stars as "feared." When I asked if this was true of all stars, every chanter and consultant answered with a resounding no. The "feared" nature of the Blue Star comes from its association with witchcraft. Pg. 152

References to Nahookos Bika'ii and Nahookos Ba'aadii or Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. Relationships in myths of the Navajos and interpretations. Pgs. 153-156

References to Dilyehe (no translation) refer to Pages 156-163. Symbolism of constellation.

The name Yikaisdahi (the Milky Way) means "Awaits-the-Dawn," a reference to the manner in which this Navajo constellation is said to appear to glow more brightly just before the break of day. Dawn is one of the four cardinal light phenomena, a vital life-giving source. Consultant P explained that there is a also a cane in the sky for Yikaisdahi and its associated star (planet), So'tsoh (Venus), because they are associated with the dawn. "Yikaisdahi tells you that the new day, the dawn, is coming, and the cane belongs to an old man who leans on the cane while he waits for the sun to come up so that he can say prayers and make a pollen blessing." Chanter A recounted a story about this constellation. Coyote stole a piece of ash bread (made of corn and baked in an outdoor oven or in the ashes) from First Man and First Woman. The ashes were then strewn across the sky to form the Milky Way. Pg. 169

Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting; 1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce.

The creation of the stars is attributed to Hashchezhini, the Fire God, who also distributed the various constellations, giving each its peculiar name. As in other instances, so also on this occasion the Coyote contrived to participate in the work of creation by robbing the Fire God of his pouch in which he carried the material for the stars. And after he had placed his own star conspicuously in the southern skies he scattered the remnants of the pouch over the entire heavens, which accounts for a multitude of stars bearing no special name. In consequence, too, the entire creation of the stars is attributed by some to the Coyote. Though there are comparatively few constellations the names of which are generally known, it is none the less well established that astrology is extensively practiced among the Navaho. The fact that the class of singers pursuing dest'i, "looking," or astrology, are much in demand previous to the conducting of any important ceremony, would seem to indicate as much. Hence it is reasonable to assume that a much wider knowledge of the various constellations exists than is here indicated. This knowledge, however, is in possession of some few individuals who are loath to disclose it, owing to the circumstances that astrological pursuits, which require the secret and solitude of night, are opprobriously classified with witchcraft.
The older shamans were wont to initiate their pupils gradually into the intricacies of astronomy by pointing out the new constellations to them as they appeared on the horizon. And as an apprenticeship usually required several years, sufficient time was had to make the initiation a thorough one. This extended also to stellar influence on climatic changes, or the destinies of man, with the corresponding remedies, and the like information. Certain portions, however, of this knowledge were enveloped in some mystery, which was lifted only after the most rigid test of fidelity. Thus, for instance, words like sa'a naghai, "in old age walking," and bik'e hozho, "on the trail of beauty," are said to signify some important, though well known constellation, a change in which would prove disastrous to the existence of the universe. Hence this invocation, which is attached to a large number of prayers and songs, would seem to be a petition for the preservation and prolongation of age and life, while "the trail of beauty" (in the skies) indicates the proper key to their interpretation. What may be considered an instance of stellar influence upon climatic changes is told of i'ni, thunder, a constellation appearing in the southern skies, and a companion of the constellation shash, the bear. When i'ni beets'os, the feather or tip of thunder approaches and touches the snout (bichi') of the bear, it is a reliable indication of the return of thunder in spring, with the renewal of life in vegetation and the animal kingdom. As a rule each larger constellation is equipped with satellites, large stars, which form an integral part of a given group. Thus, atseets'osi beets'os, the feather or tip of Orion; shash beets'os, the feather of the bear. They are also provided with bokho, fire or flint of the star, which ignites it, and in other instances with bizhi, body, bichi, nose, bija, ears, or bitse', tail, to distinguish and trace the figure. . . . . . . atseets'osi, tailfeather, or the slender first one; the belt and sword of Orion. ets'osi, the feather, was the name given by Hashchezhini, the Fire God, which Coyote changed to atseets'osi (atsedi ets'osi, of the First feather), with reference to himself; hence, the Coyote's feather. Pgs. 42, 44

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

When First Woman placed the stars in the night sky, she used them to spell out all the laws that would be needed by the first people. These could not be written in the sand or on the water, since few people could not see them there, but when they were written in the sky, everyone could look up and study them. In Navajo star lore there are constellations named for all the animals mentioned in their mythology. There is the bear, the wolf, the porcupine, the badger, the chipmunk, the elk, the mountain sheep, the Gila monster, the lizard, the horned toad, the bumblebee, and may others. The five stars that form the "rabbit tracks" are called the "hunter's guide." When this constellation is in one position, the hunters lay aside their bows and arrows and remain at home. But when it tips to the east, the young of the deer and the antelope are no longer dependent on their mothers, and the hunting season begins. The coyote star in the south is the same as our "dog star," and the polar star is called the campfire of the heavens." Pgs. 196-197

Hosteen Klah, Navajo Medicine Man and Sand Painter; 1964, Franc Johnson Newcomb.

Stars (so') (U) are feared by the Navaho. Big Stars figure in the Big Star and Hand Trembling chants, both Evil. Perhaps, being closely associated with First Man and Coyote, stars were never brought under dependable control. When First Man was planning the sky, he intended to arrange the stars deliberately and carefully. He had placed a few constellations nicely when Coyote passed by, pulled out some hairs, and blew them up to the sky, where they became red stars. Coyote then gathered up the rest of the stars and, by blowing, sent them up to the sky, where they now shine in the indeterminate clusters of the Milky Way (Darkness; Reichard, Big Star Chant ms.; Goddard, pp. 137-8; cp. Tozzer 1908, pp. 28-32; Haile 1938b, pp. 67-8).

Navajo Religion, Vol II; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950

Navajo Basketry

Basketry is a woman's industry, which is also pursued by the nadle (he changes), hermaphrodites, or men skilled in the arts and industries of both men and women. Basketry, however, is not classified with textile fabrics (yistl'o), but with sewing (nalkhad). It is of interest also that, while the basket is in progress, the sewer is untouched and avoided by the members of her family. The material, too, of which the basket is made is placed beyond the immediate reach of the household. Finally the sewing is accomplished with the utmost expediency, and is undertaken by skilled sewers only. Should an unskilled person tamper with this occupation, it is believed that sickness and rheumatic stiffness affects the wrists and joints. This is remedied by the singer who, in the course of a ceremony, clothes both arms of the patient with the skin of a fawn (bi'yazh), whereupon a hole is broken into the south side of the hogan through which the patient extends her hand and wrist. As soon as the wrist appears on the outside, her younger sister takes it between her teeth, pressing them lightly into the skin, which supposedly removes the stiffness (nasdo'). At present this rite is rarely necessary, but suggests a reason for the taboo (bahadzid) placed upon anything connected with basketry and for the readiness with which the Navaho decline to pursue the industry.



The dimensions of a basket often exceed twelve to fourteen inches in diameter, and are usually a fraction more than three inches in depth. As a material, the twigs of sumac (ki, or chilchin) are used. A triple incision is made into the butt end of the twig, one part of which is held between the teeth while the other two are torn off with the fingers. Each part is then scraped clean of its bark with a knife of piece of tin, and the twigs to be dyed are laid aside in a heap, while the natural color of the twig furnishes the lighter shades of the designs. The dyes used are identical with those used for coloring wool, though, obviously, the mordant of boiled sumac leaves (ki) becomes superfluous. Cedar ashes supposedly add luster to the color and contribute to its adhesive quality. Black was obtained from surface coal (lejin), added to boiling sumac leaves (ki), or from a sulfurous rock (tsekho), slightly roasted (ilt'es) with pine gum or rosin (je'). When ready this was added to the boiling twigs giving them a lustrous black color similar to charcoal (t'esh nahalin). The root of juniper (gad behetl'ol) and mountain mahogany (tseesdasi behetlol) are boiled together, after which the ground bark of alder (kish yikago) is added to obtain a pale red, into which the twigs are immersed. At times the joint fir (tlo' azehi, Ephedra trifurcata) is substituted for alder bark, while cedar ashes add luster to the color.

Blue was frequently obtained with indigo, though a native blue is also prepared from a bluish clay or ocher called adishtl'ish, which is pulverized and mixed with water. Various shades of yellow are obtained with plants like Bigelovia (kiltsoi), the sneeze weed (naeeshja ilkhei, Helenium hoopesii), or the sorrel (jat'ini), the flowers of which are crumpled and boiled, with cedar ashes thrown in.

The dyeing done, the twigs, both colored and uncolored, are placed in water to render them moist and pliable. The butt ends of the first twigs are wound around a small stick known as the bottom of the basket, and secured there with yucca. An awl, made of deer-bone (bi' bikhetsin), is now used in sewing the basket for which an iron awl is found impractible. The sewing is always done sunrise, or from left to right, giving the basket the shape of a helical coil when finished. Much deftness and constant application are required to obtain a close weave which will hold water after a few minutes moistening, while baskets of inferior quality require moistening much longer. The designs are, of course, woven with the colored twigs. Yellow and blue, however, are now rarely used, and the usual pattern is a band three to six inches wide, woven with zigzag edges in black with a line of red running through the center, and set, as it were, on a light background made of the natural color of the twig. Or, this band is sometimes displaced by a set of four or more square figures woven at intervals, with a colored circle entwining the lower part of each square. The colors in this and the first pattern might be increased to two or more according to taste. Both patterns are designated as tsa', basket, without reference to their designs. Of the two extinct patterns, the tsa' netse', or coiled basket, presented a design of vari-colored coils following each other, while the tsa' hokhani, or basket of enclosures, presented a set of four triangles whose apices rested on the center or bottom of the basket. From the base of each of these triangles three squares, increasing in width, extended to the rim of the basket, giving the whole design a shape similar to the Maltese Cross. While no special rules were laid down with regard to the blending of colors, or the number of figures and circles in a design, it was essential that every design be broken or intersected by a line of uncolored twigs. In baskets with circular designs this was comparatively easy, but in the tsa' hokhani, or basket of enclosures, it was found necessary to intersect one set of squares in order to make this line quite apparent. It was therefore called qaatqin (qatqin), the way out, or chohot'i, the line leading out, and was prescribed lest the sewer, in bending all her energies and applications upon her work, enclose herself and thus lose her sight and mind. A parallel is found in overdoing weaving, singing, in amassing fortune, or in the opening left in the figure of the queue and bow. This intersection always runs in a radial line with the close of the seam on the imbricated rim of each basket, which in turn serves as a guide in the directional assignment, as the close always faces eastward. Hence the singer always looks or feels for the closed rim, designated as bida' astl'o, where the rim is woven (instead of sewed). The details involved in mending this rim, as well as the taboo placed upon the wearing of a basket as a headgear, the legends of the origin of the basket, and relative subjects, are beyond the scope of the present work. Suffice to say, that the basket is made exclusively for ceremonial use, and is an integral part of every rite, as none is holy (diyin) without it.

The strength and elasticity of the Navaho basket renders it serviceable as a drum, in other words, it is turned down and beaten with the drumstick. Should it be turned up again before the close of the ceremony, it indicates that the singer has suspended the continuation of the ceremony. The basket is also used as a receptacle for the rattles, prayersticks, stones, herbs, medicines, and like ceremonial paraphernalia. The ceremonial bath is administered in the basket. The mask of the Fringed Mouth (zahodolzhai) is supported on a basket from which the bottom has been cut out. At the marriage ceremony a new basket is required in which to serve the porridge. As it is frequently impossible for the couple to consume its contents, the basket is passed around to the visiting guests. Whosoever consumes the final portion of the porridge also takes possession of the basket, wherefore baskets thus obtained are designated as tsa' na'obani, or the basket which was won. It is otherwise referred to as danakhan bi'odani, the basket from which they eat the porridge. The so-called wedding basket is therefore unknown. In the early days baskets were woven of yucca braid. The pith of the yucca leaf was extracted and dyed in the same manner as sumac twigs today. It was also permissible to use the designs of the basket in the decoration of the uppers for moccasins made of yucca. The remnants of twigs used for baskets are employed in constructing the so called owls (naeshja). Pgs. 291-296

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

Even such everyday tasks as weaving must be done only in moderation. Many women will not weave more than about two hours at a stretch; in the old days unmarried girls were not allowed to weave for fear they would overdo, and there is a folk rite for curing the results of excess in this activity. Closely related is the fear of completely finishing anything: as a "spirit outlet," the basket maker leaves an opening in the design. Pgs. 225-226

The Navaho; 1946, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton.

According to Washington Matthews the Navahoes have many legends with which baskets are connected. Here is a description of the first baby baskets ever made. Surely none but a poetic and imaginative people could ever have conceived so wonderful a basket. Their gods of war were born of two women, one fathered by the sun, the other by a waterfall, and when they were born they were placed in baby baskets both alike as follows: The foot-rests and the back battens were made of sunbeam, the hoods of rainbow, the side-strings of sheet lightning, and the lacing strings of zigzag lightning. One child they covered with the black cloud, and the other with the female rain.

Another form of this story says that the boy born first was wrapped in black cloud. A rainbow was used for the hood of his basket and studded with stars. The back of the frame was perihelion, with the bright spot at its bottom shining at the lowest point. Zigzag lightning was laid in each side and straight lightning down the middle in front. Niltsatlol (sunbeams shining on a distant rainstorm) formed the fringe in front where Indians now put strips of buckskin. The carry-straps were sunbeams. Pg. 23

In many Indian ceremonies baskets play a most important part. For nine days these ceremonies last, the first day being devoted to the building and dedication of a medicine hogan and a sweat house. Around this sweat house wands of turkey feathers were placed, which were brought hither in one of these sacred baskets; and when the sweating process was over the wands were collected, placed in the basket and removed to the medicine hogan. On the fourth day two of these baskets figured prominently in the ceremonies. A medicine basket containing amole root and water was placed in front of a circle made of sand and covered with pine boughs. A second basket contained water and a quantity of pine needles sufficiently thick to form a dry surface, and on the top of these needles a number of valuable necklaces of coral, turquoise and silver were placed. A square was formed on the edge of the basket with four of the turkey wands before mentioned. The song priest with rattle led several priests in singing. The invalid sat to the northeast of the circle, a breech cloth his only apparel. During the chanting an attendant made suds by macerating the amole and beating it up and down in the water. The basket remained in position; the man stooped over it, facing north; his position allowed the sunbeams which came through the fire opening to fall upon the suds. When the basket was a mass of white froth the attendant washed the suds from his hands by pouring water from a Paiuti basket water-bottle (Fig. 20) over them, after which the song priest came forward and with corn pollen drew a cross over the suds, which stood firm like the beaten whites of eggs, the arms of the cross pointing to the cardinal points. A circle of the pollen was then made around the edge of the suds." This crossing and circling of the basket of suds with the pollen is supposed to give them additional power in restoring the invalid to health. The invalid now knelt upon the pinion boughs in the center of the same circle. "A handful of the suds was placed on his bead. The basket was now placed near to him, and he bathed his head thoroughly ; the maker of the suds afterwards assisted him in bathing the entire body with the suds, and pieces of yucca were rubbed upon the body. The chant continued through the ceremony and closed just as the remainder of the suds was emptied by the attendant over the invalid's head. The song priest collected the four wands from the second basket, and an attendant gathered the necklaces; a second attendant placed the basket before the invalid, who was now sitting in the center of the circle, and the first attendant assisted him in bathing the entire body with this mixture; the body was quite covered with the pine needles, which had become very soft from soaking. The invalid then returned to his former position at the left of the song priest, and the pine needles of the yucca,or amole, together with the sands, were carried out and deposited at the foot of a pinion tree. The body of the invalid was dried by rubbing with meal." This taking out of the sands, pine needles, etc., used in the ceremony was supposed to take away so much of the disease that had been washed from the invalid.

Later in the day at another most elaborate ceremony baskets filled with food are placed in a circle around a fire in the medicine lodge. One of the priests takes a pinch of food from each basket, and places it in another basket. This is then prayed over, smoked over and thus made a powerful medicine by the song-priest. After the priest has gone through several performances with it, the invalid dips his three first fingers into the mixture, puts them in his mouth, and loudly sucks in the air. This is repeated four times. Then all the attendants do likewise, with a prayer for rain, good crops, health and riches. This food is afterwards dried by the chief medicine man, made into a powder, and is one of his most potent medicines. On the sixth day a great sand painting is made in the medicine lodge, and the invalid, as he enters, is required to take the sacred medicine basket, which is now filled with sacred meal, and sprinkle the painting with it. The chief figures of the painting were the goddesses of the rainbow, whose favor it was desired he should gain. Again and again in the ceremonies these sacred baskets are used, and on the ninth day in the concluding dance the invalid takes it full of sacred meal and sprinkles all the dancers. The full description of this wonderful series of ceremonies is found in the Eighth Annual Report of the U. S. Bureau of Ethnology.

If the margin is worn through or torn, the basket is unfit for sacred use. The basket is one of the perquisites of the shaman when the rites are done; but he, in turn, must give it away, and must he careful never to eat out of it. Notwithstanding its sacred uses, food may be served in it by any other person than the shaman who has used it ceremonially. Fig. 29 shows the other form of Navaho sacred basket. It is also made of aromatic sumac, and is used in the rites to hold sacred meal. The crosses are said to represent clouds, heavy with rain, and would indicate that this basketry design may have had its origin in its use during ceremonies intended to bring the rain. Another important ceremony of the Navahoes in which this basket figures is that of marriage. Another interesting thing about this Navaho wedding basket it is well to notice, and that is that the finishing off of the last coil of the basketry always comes directly opposite to the Shipapu opening. This is for the purpose of enabling those who use the basket at night to determine where the Shipapu opening is, so that they may hold the basket in the proper ceremonial way, which requires that the Shipapu opening shall always be turned towards the East. This finishing off place on the rim of the basket is called by the Navahoes the a-tha-at-lo. According to Matthews, the sacred basket used in all these ceremonials has another important function to perform. It is used as a drum. He says: "In none of the ancient Navaho rites is a regular drum or tomtom employed. The inverted basket serves the purpose of one, and the way in which it is used for this simple object is rendered devious and difficult by ceremonious observances." Then over a page of description is required to tell how the shamans proceed when they "turn down the basket" to make a drum of it at the beginning of the songs, and "turn up the basket" at the close. Everything is done with elaborate ceremony. "There are songs for turning up and turning down the basket, and there are certain words in these songs at which the shaman prepares to turn up the basket by putting his hand under its eastern rim, and other words at which he does the turning. For four nights, when the basket is turned down, the eastern part is laid on the outstretched blanket first, and it is inverted toward the west. On the fifth night it is inverted in the opposite direction. When it is turned up, it is always lifted first at the eastern edge. As it is raised an imaginary something is blown toward the east, in the direction of the smoke-hole of the lodge, and when it is completely turned up hands are waved in the same direction, to drive out the evil influences which the sacred songs have collected and imprisoned under the basket."

Even in the making of this sacred basket many ceremonial requirements must be heeded. In forming the helical coil, the fabricator must always put the butt end of the twig toward the center of the basket and the tip end toward the periphery, in accordance with the ceremonial laws governing the disposition of butts and tips. Pgs. 33-37

Indian Basketry and How to Make Baskets; 1903, George Wharton James.

By 1973 there were over 100 basket weavers on and off the reservation, and 125 potters in Chinle Agency alone. At least in part, commercialization stimulated the revival of these crafts. . . . . In the Oljeto area, basketweavers began producing baskets with yei figures woven into their designs. While such baskets could not be used in religious ceremonies, they found a ready market with non-Indians. Pg. 252

A History of the Navajos, The Reservation Years; 1986, Garrick Bailey and Roberta Glenn Bailey.

The Navajo wedding basket also reflects many values of traditional life and so often contains all six sacred mountains, including Huerfano and Gobernador Knob, though the size of the basket may determine the number of mountains in the design. The center spot in the basket represents the beginning of this world, where the Navajo people emerged from a reed. This is where the spirit of the basket lives. The white part around the center is the earth, the black symbolizing the sacred mountains upon which are found water bowls. Above them are clouds of different colors. The white and black ones represent the making of rain. A red section next to the mountains stands for the sun's rays that make things grow. Pg. 19

Sacred Land, Sacred View; 1992, Robert S. McPherson.

The basket for the emetic in the first War Ceremony was of crystal.

An indispensable requirement of a chant is the basket; at least one is believed to represent whiteshell. All the precious stones are mythical basket materials. Frequently the basket is of one stone with a contrasting rim - whiteshell rimmed with turquoise or the reverse; abalone rimmed with redstone or the reverse, jet with an abalone rim or the reverse.


The fibers of baskets used to be of yucca. Baskets are not used much secularly but have a prescribed place in ceremonies.

They are often called "wedding" baskets because one holds the ceremonial mush which the bride and groom eat alternatingly. The function of the basket in curing ceremonies is perhaps greater, but not as well known. When preparations for a ceremony are made, one of the questions asked is, "How many baskets must be provided?" They become consequently an important item of trade. Their manufacture is surrounded with such a number of taboos difficult to keep that Navajo rarely make them, preferring to trade them from their neighbors, the Ute and Paiute, who have not the prescribed taboos.

Another form of purification is the yucca bath. The "one-sung-over" bathes from head to foot in the yucca suds which fill a ceremonial basket. He is careful to stand within the limits of a platform made of sand from the cornfield which has been carefully spread. On it special places are designated for the basket and for the patient's knees and hands, for he kneels to get his hair in the basket. The water which drains off of him must fall on the sand. When all is over, this may be gathered up like a blotter and the evils may be carried out and dissipated.

Dezba: Woman of the Desert; Gladys A. Reichard, 1939

An indispensable requirement of a chant is the basket; at least one is believed to represent whiteshell. All the precious stones are mythical basket materials. Frequently the basket is of one stone with a contrasting rim - whiteshell rimmed with turquoise or the reverse; abalone rimmed with redstone or the reverse, jet with an abalone rim or the reverse.

The basket for the emetic in the first War Ceremony was of crystal.

Navajo Religion, Vol I; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950

Basket (tsa') has already been extensively treated. There are, however, certain points that have not been stressed; one concerns the number of baskets necessary to a ceremony-the discussions often imply that there is only one (Ch. 14). A part of the agreement between chanter and sponsor is the provision of the baskets, as important as the payment to the singer. When the chant is over, some baskets are presented to the chanter or some other participant in the ceremony; borrowed baskets are returned to the owner, who may be the chanter or almost anyone who can provide them. Certain taboos, some very strict, attach to the basket. Nowadays it has become an article of trade, procurable at a trading post. Baskets so bought may be considered neutral, having no restrictions and no evil attached to them; the ceremony gives them blessing value.

Because of the 'drawing power' of the earth, sacred objects should not touch the ground; consequently, ceremonial properties-War Ceremony rattlestick, prayersticks, hoops, bundle equipment-must be placed on or in something; it is often a basket, especially for assembled bundle equipment.

I had to provide five baskets for the Shooting Chant Prayerstick branch. I paid for four and borrowed one from RP, the chanter. One was used for the layout of branch symbol prayersticks during their preparation and for the subsequent bundle equipment layout, one for the emetic, one for the drum, one for the bath, and one for the ceremonial mush. After the bath the chanter put his bundle layout in the basket that had been used for the bath. Every ceremony undoubtedly has similar requirements; some have more, some fewer.

The basket represents jewels and therefore the potentiality of wealth, with its provision for proper offerings. Baskets are often thought of as consisting of one of the precious stones, rimmed with a contrasting jewel (Ch. 12); such baskets are prescribed for the Hail Chant. In addition, one of Heat and one of Mirage (aragonite) are required. The War Ceremony emetic was prepared and the unseasoned mush was served in a rock-crystal basket. Since the mush was inexhaustible, there is a relation between the rock-crystal basket and the yellow bowl.

The Flint Chant baskets represent jewels; the plants put into them ceremonially became meat which, with other plants eaten by rare game, became gruel (Kluckhohn-Wyman, pp. 44, 60; Matthews 1894b, pp. 202-8; 1897, p. 211, 5n; Haile 1938b, pp. 33, 105, 207, 243; 1943a, pp.15, 184, 190; Goddard, pp. 142, 164; Reichard 1944d, p.49; Shooting Chant ms.; Tschopik, pp. 257-62).

Basket drum was described by Matthews and Kluckhohn-Wyman (Matthews 1894b; 1902, pp.59-63, 163, 165; Kluckhohn-Wyman, p.44; Haile 1938b, pp.33, 243).

Navajo Religion, Vol II; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950