Navajo wedding basket

Navajo Traditions: Ceremonial Baskets

Below are three interpretations as to the meaning of the symbols woven by the Navajo into their ceremonial baskets, sometimes called “wedding baskets.” These baskets are known for their distinctive colors and markings and are often crusted with corn meal from various ceremonial blessings.

1. The Navajo wedding basket reflects many values of traditional life and so it often contains all six sacred mountains: Mt. Hesperus (Dibe Nitsaa – Big Mountain Sheep), Mt. Taylor (Tsoodzil – Turquoise Mountain), Huerfano Mesa (Dzil Na’oodilli – Holy People Mountain), Mt. Blanco (Tsisnaasjini’ – White Shell Mountain), San Francisco Peaks (Doko’oosliid – Abalone Shell Mountain) and Gobernador Knob (Ch’oolii – Sacred Mountain in old Navajoland), 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 the earth through 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. (Sacred Land Sacred View, Robert McPherson (1992)).

2. A word might be said regarding the symbolism attached to the design of Navajo wedding trays, for it is one of the few southwestern basketry decorations which probably has meaning. One very simple interpretation is that the inner black steps represent the underworld; the red band is the earth and life; and the outer black steps stand for the upper world. Fishler recites the following interpretation which he obtained from one of his Navajo informants. The center spot (often a tiny opening) in the basket “represents the beginning of this earth as the Navajo merged from the cane;” the white around this is the earth. Stepped black designs represent the mountains, boundaries of Navajo lands; water bags and rainbows are draped on the mountains, clouds also rise from them. All the white in the basket represents dawn, all red the sun’s rays, and all black the clouds, said the informant. Fishler adds much symbolism relative to numbers of coils; he then tells how Navajo legend relates that this wedding basket design was given to this tribe by White Shell Woman, and Thunder taught them to weave the water jar and carrying basket. The braided rim is explained by the Navajo in terms of this legend: A Navajo woman was weaving under a juniper tree, trying to think of finishing the rim in some manner different from that of the regular stitch. A god tore a small sprig from the tree and tossed it into her basket. Immediately she thought of the braided rim. (Indian Baskets of the Southwest, Clara Lee Tanner (1983)).

3. The basket is viewed as a map, through which the Navajo people chart their lives. The central spot in the basket represents the sipapu, which are also symbolized in the Navajo kiva, where the Navajo people emerged from the prior world through a reed. As the people emerged, all was white. The inner coils of the basket are white to represent this lightness, or birth. As you travel outward on the coils you begin to encounter more and more black. The black represents darkness, struggle and pain; the darker side of life. As you make your way through the darkness you eventually reach the red bands, which represent marriage; the mixing of your blood with your spouse and the creation of family. The red is pure. During this time there is no darkness. Traveling out of the familial bands you encounter more darkness, however, the darkness is interspersed with white light. The light represents increasing enlightenment, which expands until you enter the all white banding of the outer rim. This banding represents the spirit world, where there is no darkness. The line from the center of the basket to the outer rim is there to remind you that no matter how much darkness you encounter in your world, there is always a pathway to the light. (As told to Steven P. Simpson by a Navajo informant, 1993).