CHAPTER XVII. Kachina or Yci Blankets

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER XVI. The Outline Blanket Next: CHAPTER XVIII. The Classification of Modern Blankets

[page 139]

IN THE Hopi and Zuni pantheons there are certain divinities of greater or lesser power and importance, called Kachinas. These are often represented upon the baskets of the Hopi, as in Fig. 199, and these are called Kachina baskets. Corresponding somewhat to these Pueblo divinities are the Navaho Yei, representations of which are common in the sand-paintings. To reproduce these, however, in any unauthorized or secular fashion has always been deemed impossible by the reverent and devout Navaho. Even to see a photograph of a sand-painting, if it contained a representation of the Yei, gave a shock to most Navahos, and while the medicine-men chanters never resented Dr. Matthews's making pictures of the paintings, and, indeed, as he says, often came to ask to look at them when instructing younger members as their assistants, this may be regarded as the familiarity of the professional rather than the normal attitude of the ordinary lay member of the tribe.

Possibly strict truth demands that a little explanation be made of the feeling of the Navahos about reproducing pictorial representations of the Yei. While in many there is no doubt that reverence and devout feeling enter into this disinclination to reproduce the sacred Yei, to others, especially of the men, fear and superstition have a large place. One may have both fear and superstitition and yet be reverent and devout, but, too often, alas, not only with Navahos but also with whites, there is such a thing as being possessed by the spirit of the former and not of the latter. It is when fear and superstition reign supreme, unsanctified, unmodified by reverence and devotion, that fanaticism, bigotry, and cruelty control.

With these thoughts in view it can well be understood with what shocked surprise, thrilled horror, and fierce condemnation the Navahos learned that a blanket, clearly of Navaho origin, was on exhibition at a certain trader's store into which was woven as the design the figure of one of the yei. It is almost impossible for a white man to comprehend the vast sensation this caused. Councils were held over the reservation to discuss the matter, and the trader was finally commanded to remove the blanket containing the offending emblems from the wall of his office. He refused, and for a time his life was deemed in jeopardy. But he was a fearless and obstinate man, and resisted all the pressure brought to bear

[page 140]

upon him, though among themselves the Navahos still argued and discussed the sacrilege, and a shooting-scrape in which one man lost his life was the outcome.

For a long time it was not known who the weaver of this blanket was, but it eventually became known. She is one of the inventive geniuses in design, whose taste invariably goes to figures. Horses, sheep, cattle, men, women, etc., she loves to picture as she weaves, and her skill in manipulating the yarn is as great as her designing ability. She it was who, having lost the superstitious fear that oppresses most Navahos, men or women, as to the evil power of the Yei, determined to make the blanket, incorporating their sacred figures as her design. The blanket was seen by a collector and sold to him for several hundred dollars. For some time the weaver refused to make another, but finally produced one of others of the gods, and later still another. There are only some six or seven of these Yei blankets known to exist. Two of them are now in the possession of Mr. Richard T. F. Simpson, Indian trader at Canyon Gallegos, near Farmington, New Mexico, one of which is reproduced in Fig. 200, and another is owned by Mr. William MacGinnies, of Boulder, Colorado.

Fig. 201 is a half-tone reproduction of one of the earlier of this woman's Yei blankets. This is clearly an attempt to produce in weaving one of the figures from one of the sand-paintings used in The Night Chant. The figure is that of a Yebaad, or female divinity, for the Navahos provide all the male gods of their pantheon with wives. This may account for the fact that Navaho women are equally influential in the affairs of the tribe as the men. Or it may be the other way, viz., that because Navaho women are powerful and influential in tribal matters they therefore occupy an important place in the Navaho pantheon.

In The Night Chant the female divinities are supposed to exercise great healing influence, and they generally appear in the dances on the two last nights. In these dances the character is generally assumed by a youth, largely naked, the exposed portion of the body being painted white. He wears an ornate scarf or skirt around the hips with a belt, the ends of which are fringed or tasselled, and from which depend pieces of twigs of juniper or other ornamentation.

These are crudely represented in the figure, while the skirt or loin cloth is represented by the widening out of the design above the knees. The peculiar dangling objects at the two bottom corners of the skirts are bunches of tassels or other ornaments of which the Navahos are inordinately fond. The head dress or mask of the Yebaad is of the female type, which differs fundamentally from that of the Yei, or male gods. While the latter, like a bag inverted, covers the entire head and neck, and completely conceals the hair of the wearer, the former conceals only

Fig. 196. A Fine Modern Blanket of the Best Type. (Fred Harvey Collection.) [Page 137]

Fig. 197. Good Representative Specimen of Outline Blanket. (Author's Collection.)

Fig. 198. Single Saddle Blanket with Outlines.

[page 141]

the face and throat and allows the hair to flow out freely over the shoulders. The Yebaad actor never wears the hair bound up in a queue. While the male mask is soft and pliable, the female mask is stiff and hard, being made of untanned skin. It is nearly square in shape; the top is slightly rounded and in some cases the base is a little broader than the top. There is a flap or wing, called the ear, on each side about two inches broad, as long as the margin of the mask proper, and indented or crenated on the outer margin. The margins are all alike in each set of masks, but not in any two sets. The hole for the mouth is square. The holes for the eyes are triangular—the apices pointing outwards. The mask is painted blue, the ears white, a square field around the mouth-hole, and a triangular field around each eye-hole are black.

The Yebaad holds a bunch of spruce twigs in each hand and long arm pendants hang down from elbows to wrist. The lower legs are uncovered, to denote that the figure is standing or dancing, the skirt always covering the legs of a sitting figure.

Fig. 202 is from a painting made of another noted Yei blanket, owned by Mr. W. MacGinnies. Its size is fifty-eight by eighty-seven inches, and it is made throughout of wool, both the warp and weft. The background is a beautiful silver gray, somewhat similar, and as closely approximating as the dyer could attain, to the gray sand used in the sacred paintings. The chief and outside figure, which makes the border for three-fourths of the way around the blanket, is that of the rainbow deity.

In the paintings it consists of two long stripes, each about two inches wide, one of blue, one of red, bordered and separated by narrow lines of white. At the southeastern end of the bow is a representation of the body below the waist, such as the other gods have, consisting of pouch, skirts, legs, and feet. At the northeastern end we have head, neck, and arms. The head of the rainbow is rectangular, while the heads of the other forms in the picture are round.

There are those who have seen this blanket who affirm that it is a reproduction of one of the pictures of a sand-painting used by either Dr. Matthews or Colonel Stevenson to describe certain ceremonies of The Night Chant, in one of the reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Such is not the case. There are some points of similarity, but in some most important points this blanket is strikingly dissimilar.

Mr. MacGinnies informs me that certain Navahos gave him the following explanation of the design:

The outside figure, the one extending three-quarters around the rug, is the god of double sex, being the Navaho way of expressing their conception of the deity, who never dies, constantly reproducing himself, so to speak, the red part representing the male and the blue the female. This was the being who, according to their traditions, gave them the corn, and you will notice an ear of corn pass between the hands of this figure and of the god next to it on the blanket.

[page 142]

The other figures are shown as giving the lightning and the rain; the corn stalk with its symbolic number, three ears of corn; the bluebird, representing the messenger, resting upon the tassel at the tip of the stalk; the rainbow colors, which are also the colors of the Summer People under the feet of the figures. The long strings of half diamonds depending from the hands of the two inner figures have been explained to me as being the calendar sticks, they being divided into certain numbers of different colors to represent different epochs or pages in the history of the people, the true crosses at the end of the strings being either symbolic of the deity or being phallic symbols.

I am inclined to the belief that Mr. MacGinnies has been misinformed. As I have elsewhere explained, the Navahos believe there are five colors in the rainbow, and some assert that each color is a different individual. Hence, according to this theory, there are five rainbow goddesses. It will be noticed that there are five distinct lines in the outside figure, the white and yellow separating the red and the black. This gives the five colors, or the five goddesses, as the case may be. The bird represented is the bluebird (Sialia arctica), which is called by the Navahos Tholy. He is of the color of the south, and the upper regions. He is the herald of the morning. His call of ‘‘„Tholy, Tholy„’’ is the first that is heard when the gray dawn approaches. Therefore, is he sacred, and his feathers form a component part of nearly all the plume-sticks used in the worship of the Navaho. Two bluebirds, it is said, stand guard at the door of the house where the gods dwell; hence they are represented in the east of the picture.

There is little or no doubt in my own mind that this blanket is a more or less accurate reproduction of some sand-painting used in a ceremony to which the women have free access, and that the white race, as yet, has no photograph or drawing of. As I have before explained, we have but few of the sand-paintings pictured, and no one as far as I know, save Mrs. John Wetherill, is now engaged in study upon this important and instructive branch of Navaho ceremonial and religious art.

The rarity of these Yei blankets makes them highly desirable, and happy is that collector who has one in his possession.

Another blanket that contains some of the sacred symbols of the sand-paintings is shown in Fig. 203, designed and woven by Dug-gau-eth-lun Bi-dazhie. It is 64x92 inches in size, and the swastikas, with their flying terminals, are regarded with great reverence and superstition by the devout Navahos. This woman and her near relatives who are weavers have overcome their superstitious dread about the making of such blankets, for they have repeated this and similar designs in a dozen or more blankets during the past ten years. They are ready to make them to order in any colors, sizes varying from 45x75 inches up to 6x9 feet. These blankets are classed as extra standard.

Fig. 199. Hopi Basket, Showing Figure of Kachina.

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER XVI. The Outline Blanket Next: CHAPTER XVIII. The Classification of Modern Blankets

© Arizona Board of Regents