CHAPTER X. The Significance and Symbolism of Color in the Navaho Blanket

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IT was to be expected that as primitive man developed the weaving art, the introduction of color into his textiles would suggest itself. Surrounded on every hand by vivid brilliancies of color—in the gorgeous and glowing sunrises and sunsets, in the dazzling brilliancy of the sunshine upon the variegated colorings of the desert, in the equally impressive color-attractions of his corn-fields, the wild flowers, the birds, reptiles, and animals with which he daily came in contact—he could scarcely ignore their insistent intrusion.

How it was that color ultimately came to have a distinct symbolism in the Indian mind is a most interesting question, and one upon which, doubtless, knowing experts of the white race would have great and wide diversity of opinion.

On this question, however, W. S. Blatchley, State Geologist of Indiana, writes some interesting and important things. To the thinking reader it will appear remarkable that a modern scientist should reason things out and come to the same kind of conclusions, even though not exactly the same conclusions, that were reached centuries ago by the socalled savages of our Western Wilds. Professor Blatchley says:

The ‘‘„Symbols of Nature's Hues,„’’ is a theme which to a painter's brush or a poet's pen should yield inspiration noble. Green stands for youth, for cells rich in protoplasm and chlorophyll, strong in the power of storing energy, potent in the factor of growth. For that reason green is ever welcome, for it is the hue of promise, of hope, of growth, and work, of life yet to be, of crops of the future. It is the garb of springtime, the garb in which Mother Earth delights to clothe herself after her winter's sleep.

Yellow and blue, orange, and red, represent maturity, the harvest time. Growth has ceased. Energy is stored. Cells are full of starch and protein, of food and power. These hues should also stand for peace and content, for happiness if it is ever to be—for these years which are the crowning glory of a life well spent.

Brown and gray are sombre colors, hues of death and decay. Too often they follow the green of youth with none of the brighter tints intervening. The crop is harvested before full maturity. The seed shrivels and shrinks. Life is a failure, a succession of years of longing for that which never comes, which never can be.

Black is for mourning, for despair, for grief over brown and gray, for the shroud to cover their faces, hide their faults. It is a hue seldom seen in Nature for her days and years are full of promise, too precious to be wasted in long spent grief. Green and the hues of perfect maturity are those in which she most delights.

Fig. 39. Modern Native Wool Navaho, Best Quality. (Fred Harvey Collection.) The weave and material in this blanket arc as good as in some of the older ones. The quantity of this grade now produced is comparatively limited. [Page 56]

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Browns and grays and blacks are for her waste places, her deserts and mountain tops, her late autumns and winters; greens for her oases, valleys, and prairies.

White is for innocence, for purity, for the first hours of the new born plant and animal, for the mantle which shall hide the black despair of deepest winter, but which shall be uplifted to disclose the first glimpse of the garb of green which follows the great awakening.1

Thus reasons a modern scientist. Let us look at and compare this with the reasoning of the Navaho Indians. To the older Indians, who had not yet become sophisticated by contact with the white man, color was sacred—a gift of the best of their gods, and it was also symbolic. Every color meant something; it was not a mere haphazard, a chance, an accident. Red is the color of the sunshine, hence its glorification in so many Navaho blankets. In the early days one could scarcely find a blanket which did not contain red—red, red, more red, much red. For sunshine was the medium in which the Navaho lived, moved, and had his being. Sunshine was his life. Take him away from it and he speedily pined away and died. It was his daily blessing, his stimulation, the source of his exhilaration, his joy. Do you wonder, then, that he used it abundantly in his blanket, that he wanted to wrap himself up in it on the days when the dark clouds hid the real sun, sleep on it during the darkness of the night, cover his children with it when they were cold, or when they slept?

When one realizes this fact he sees that the Indian's love for red is not a mere vagary, a whim, a fancy of the eye, a barbaric taste in the wildly gorgeous, a flaunting of his inability to appreciate color, but a keen and grateful recognition of one of the greatest gifts of the gods to men—the warming, vivifying, fructifying, life-giving sun, and in the use of the color of the sunshine he pays a subtle compliment to the gods.

Red, however, is but one of the colors, and the Navaho appreciates others, and the reason is evident when one understands the working of his mind.

He sees in the East the white light of the morning, hence white is always symbolic of the East. The cloudless South is generally blue, hence blue always symbolizes South. The sunset in the West is so often characterized by yellow that that color always symbolizes West, while from the North come the dark, black clouds, hence black always symbolizes North.

Then, by a symbolism of sex, color comes also to have a sexual significance. On this subject Dr. Matthews writes:†2

Of two things which are nearly alike, or otherwise comparable, it is common among the Navahos to speak of or symbolize the one which is the coarser, rougher,

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stronger, or more violent as the male, and that which is the finer, weaker, or more gentle as the female. Thus: a shower accompanied by thunder and lightning is called ni'ltsabaka or he-rain, while a shower without electrical display is called ni'ltsabaad or she-rain; the turbulent San Juan River is called To'baka or Male Water, while the more Placid Rio Grande is known as To'baad or Female Water. Other instances of this kind might be cited from the vegetable kingdom and other sources. As an instance of this principle the south, and the color of the south, blue, belong to the female; the north, and the color of the north, black, belong to the male. The north is assigned to the male because it is to the Navahos a rough and rigorous land. Not only do inclement and violent winds come from the north, but the country north of Navaho-land is rugged and mountainous, and within it rise the great snow-covered peaks of Colorado. The south is assigned to the female because gentle and warm breezes come from there, and bcause the landscape south of the Navaho country is tame compared to that of the north.

Hence in the preparation of his Plumed Wands to be used by a shaman, or medicine man, in certain ceremonials, those which are to represent the male are painted black—the color of the North —and these are used in the masculine region, the North, while those of the female are painted blue—the color of the South — and are used for the South.

Here are some of the methods invariably followed by the shamans to denote certain specific objects and thoughts, in which color and design have distinct meaning:

Red on a black or dark background suggests sunlight on the back of a cloud, and on some of the masks used in sacred dances borders are made of the feathers of red-tailed woodpeckers to represent rays of sunlight streaming out at the edge of a cloud.

On many of the masks used in their ceremonies there is a yellow streak at the chin, crossed with black lines, to symbolize rain and the evening sky. Rain is commonly represented by eight vertical lines, painted black.

The rainbow is a hard symbol to produce in any textile material owing to the geometrical necessities of weaving, but the attempt is often made, generally in four colors.

In the sand-paintings rainbows are symbolized in two different ways, for they are regarded as of two different origins and entities. Sometimes they are the trails, the paths of the gods in the heavens, and at other times they are the gods themselves. When it is desired to represent them as symbols of the former they are supposedly made in five lines of color, though generally only red and blue are used, with dividing and border lines of white—thus making the five.

As a deity the rainbow is regarded as female for the reasons explained in the references to the symbolism of sex. And as there are five colors (to the Navaho) in the rainbow, some of their medicine-men

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affirm that each color represents a different individual. Hence, according to this theory, there are five rainbow goddesses.

They say the bows are covered with feathers, which give the colors. In the dry-paintings, the rainbow is usually depicted with a head at one end, and legs and feet at the other. The head is always square, to show that it is a female. Three colors only have been seen in the body of the bow, which is red and blue, bordered with white. In some sweat-house decorations, the rainbow symbol is shown with a head at each end, indicating that each separate band of color represents a separate goddess.

In many of the sand-paintings, where the gods are represented and their legs are drawn (some are covered with skirts so they cannot be drawn), they are girded with rainbow garters. These are invariably the parallel lines of color, supposedly five, though generally red and blue are used, separated and also banded on the outside with white, thus forming the five lines.

It may be interesting to note that you will never see a Navaho point to a rainbow, or a rainbow symbol, with his finger. To do this would be unlucky and be sure to result in the coming of a felon on the offending member. He always points at it with his thumb.

In making the prayer-sticks, hundreds of which sometimes are used in a single Navaho ceremony, this symbolism of color comes into play. Those that are to be placed to the East are made of mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus parvifolius); those to be South of a shrub called coyotecorn (Forestiera neomexicana); those to the West of juniper (Juniperus occidentalis); and those to the North of cherry (Prunus demissa). Dr. Matthews says of these:

Mountain mahogany is probably selected for the east, because its abundant plumose white styles give the shrub a whitish aspect and white is the color of the east. Forestiera may be chosen for the south because its small olive-shaped fruit is blue, the color of the south. Juniper is perhaps taken for the west because its outer branchlets and leaves have, in the arid region, a tone of yellow, which is the color of the west. Cherry seems to be adopted for the north because the fruit of Prunus demissa, the common wild cherry of New Mexico, ripens black, and black is the color of the north.3

Those who have observed the ceremonies of the Navahos doubtless have been struck with the frequency of the appearance and use of the long cotton-string. It is used on the prayer-sticks, attached to the prayer-plumes, the sacred cigarettes, etc. The white cotton string represents the biké-hozoni, the beautiful or happy trail of life, so often mentioned in the Navahos' songs and prayers, which the devotee hopes, with the aid of the gods, to travel. ‘‘„With all around me beautiful, may I walk,„’’

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say the prayers, and for this reason the string passes through beautiful beads, which, by their colors, symbolize the four cardinal points of the compass. ‘‘„With beauty above me, may I walk„,’’ ‘‘„With beauty below me, may I walk,„’’ are again the words of the prayers; so the string includes feather and hair of the turkey, a bird of the earth, and of the eagle, a bird of the sky. ‘‘„My voice restore for me,„’’ ‘‘„Make beautiful my voice,„’’ are expressions of the prayers and to typify these sentiments the string includes feathers of warbling birds whose voices ‘‘„flow in gladness„’’ as the Navaho song says.

Hence it will be seen that color has a definite symbolism to the Navaho and that everything connected with it is sacred and significant.


1. Woodland Idyls, pp. 47-48, by W. S. Blatchley; The Nature Publishing Co., Indianapolis.

2. The Night Chant, Memoirs of American Museum of Natural History, Vol. VI, p. 6.

3. The Night Chant.

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