Date of this Version
From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988
Navajo weaving from northeastern Arizona and contiguous areas if the American Southwest is widely recognized for colors and patterns that range from subtle shades to dynamic brilliance, from soft stripes to bold geometries to fanciful pictorials. The apparent diversity in this native textile art, developed over the past three centuries, has defied any unified description of The Navajo Style. While Navajo blankets and rugs may be superficially categorized and classified, put into chronological sequences and evolutionary schemes, when the textiles are viewed synoptically, the delineation of Navajo aesthetics remains a formidable task.
The search for a Navajo style and sense of aesthetics has focused principally upon the finished products, on blankets and rugs in private and museum collections. In contrast, the ethnoaesthetics of weaving—that is, how Navajo textiles are conceived, created and judged by native craftspeople themselves—has received little systematic ethnographic investigation to date. Evelyn Payne Hatcher (1974) concentrated on the aspects of Navajo art related to the formal characteristics of line, color, layout, perspective and so forth. George Mills (1959) draws from other fieldworkers' assessments of Navajo values, and relates their art forms to psychological and generalized cultural traits. Gary Witherspoon (1977, 1987) has argued that Navajo woven patterns derive from and reflect the Navajo ethos at a deep structural level and, further, that specific motifs directly symbolize elements of the native religious repertoire. Evidence for his case derives from an external analysis of the Navajo belief system and an interpretive survey of published textile designs. In contrast, Kate Peck Kent (1985), following Gladys Reichard (1934, 1936), has hypothesized that Navajo weavers' own aesthetic judgements are based upon technical skills as much as on visual designs or inherent symbolism. Reichard spent considerable time in the field during the early 1930s; Kent pursued her investigation through an analysis of the patterns found in museum textile collections. Both vigorously deny any symbolic meaning attributed to Navajo textiles.
In this paper, I would like to discuss an approach that utilizes ethnographic field methods to probe the nature of Navajo aesthetics from the native point of view.1 A pilot study designed to test the efficacy of such ethnoaesthetic research is described, and directions for future study suggested by the preliminary investigation are outlined. With interviews and field observations just completed in August 1988, the discussion here can only be suggestive, with more conclusive results awaiting further data analysis. Nevertheless, I suggest that by examining the internal, culturally empowered processes of designing, executing and evaluating handwoven products, a greater understanding of Navajo aesthetics may be gained.