Navajo Weavings featuring Mountain Dancers
A look at these rare and unique pictorial weavings created in the 1920s and 1930s.
by Rebecca M Valette and Jean-Paul Valette
Based on a chapter in their forthcoming book Navajo Weavings with Ceremonial Themes A Historical Overview of a Secular Art Form to be published by Schiffer Books later this year.
Reprinted from April / May 2017 Issue of Native American Art Magazine
Most collectors of Navajo textiles are familiar with the Yeibichai weavings depicting the participants in the sacred Yeibichai Dance, which concludes the Nightway, the best-known of the various Navajo curative ceremonies.
Weavings portraying performers in the Mountainway, a lesser-known healing ceremony, have, because of their rarity, escaped the attention of scholars and at the same time intrigued collectors who have often misinterpreted their imagery. The purpose of this article is to introduce this particular category of weavings and describe their ceremonial imagery on the basis of the accounts left by the scholarly observers of the Mountainway, notably Washington Matthews (The Mountain Chant, 1887), Berard Haile (The Navaho Fire Dance, 14946), and Leland Wyman (The Mountainway of the Navajo, 1975).
The Mountainway is performed for the benefit of the patients suffering from ailments believed to be caused by some direct or inadvertent contact with bears or other mountain animals and may be held only during winter when the bears are hibernating. In its nine-day version, the Mountainway, like the Nightway, ends in an all-night spectacular show often referred to as the "Corral Dance," so-named because it takes place within a "corral" over 100 feet in diameter created by a tall ring of spruce branches that is erected in the early evening of the last day. The Navajo spectators, who may number a thousand or more, enter through the opening in the east and take their places around the perimeter. Families bring blankets and build small fires over which in the course of the long winter night they prepare food and brew coffee. Located at the center of the corral is an immense pile of wood, which will fuel a huge bonfire, hence the other common appellation "Fire Dance."
The performance begins at the rising of the evening star with the lighting of the great fire. When the flames are at their highest, a group of near-naked young men, their bodies caked in protective white clay, enter the enclosure an dance as close as possible to the fire holding wands with downy feathers which once burned off magically reappear. They are followed by a curative act where performers "swallow" arrows, which they then touch to the patient's body. Once these dramatic first acts are over, successive groups of ritually attired dancers from the Mountainway and other chantways perform their own special acts accompanied by chanters, drummers, rattle shakers, and bull-roarers. Except for the brief appearance of a trio of Yeibichai dancers impersonating the revered Yeis, or Holy People, none of these performers wear sacred masks, a distinctive feature which facilitates their identification in the weavings as Mountainway dancers.
The origin of Mountainway weavings remains unknown, although it may correspond historically to the public performances of Mountainway dance teams in the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonials in the 1920s. The best examples, which are considered masterpieces of Navajo pictorial weaving art, were produced by talented weavers from a group of extended families probably living in the Four Corners area within an area circumscribed by Lukachukai, Sweetwater and Teec Nos Pos. Versions of their original patterns continued to be made until the 1970s, and perhaps later, but are often of lesser artistic quality.
The black-and-white photograph taken in Gallup in the mid-1930s shows one of the teams that appear in the Corral Dance. Except for the absence of headmasks, these Mountainway dancers are generally attired like male Yeibichai performers with whitened torsos, ceremonial kilts, and woolen knee stockings. However, there are some differences: the dancers of this particular group representing the Shootingway are wearing conical or cylindrical hats with imitation buffalo horns topped with feathers. Long decorative streamers dangle from their elbows. In their hands are feathered hoops with faces symbolizing the Sun, the Moon, and the Black and Yellow Winds, the four most powerful celestial beings in the Navajo sacred narratives.
The dancers in weaving 2 with their red wool hats decorated with stylized buffalo horns can be readily identified as Mountainway performers. Their distinctive facial features - almond-shaped eyes, dark curved eyebrows, small nostrils, rounded mouths and pointed chins - clearly differentiate them from the masked Yeibichai dancers. Above their heads they hold large stylized hoops with upright eagle feathers that seem to be reflecting the orange and yellow flames of the bonfire. The dark background of the weaving evokes the nighttime atmosphere of the Corral Dance.
Most Mountainway weavings from the Four Corners area represent the dancers as pairs of stylized figures in a static posture. They are dressed in identical striped kilts with wide concha belts and wear long coral and turquoise necklaces. Their flared hats assume different shapes, depending on the creative inspiration of the weavers. The dancers are often presented in imaginary landscapes with various decorative elements.
The background of weaving 3 has three flowering plants which are quite incongruous since the Corral Dance is only performed in the cold winter months.
In weaving 4, several realistically depicted rabbits of different sizes add a bucolic note to the scene.
In weaving 6, the dancers are separated by a sacred corn stalk with birds perched on their hands on each leaf of the plant.
Only very rarely did Navajo women from other parts of the Reservation experiment with Mountainway themes. Weaving 5 represents a creative interpretation of the Lightning Dance.
In the center, three male Shootingway performers in red conical hats and ceremonial kilts are shown carrying long articulated wands built like retractable lazy tongs. In an actual performance, they would shoot these wants toward the bonfire to simulate flashes of lightning. Standing on both sides are four stylized female dancers with white deerskin leggings and varied headgear holding feathered wands. (During an actual performance, these women would be wearing colored velveteen blouses.) In the broad border surrounding the central scene, the weaver has placed an assembly of figures clad in red seemingly observing the various events as they develop in the course of the night.
These spectators are perhaps intended to evoke the spiritual Holy People called to dispense their goodness on the patient and the attending crowd. In a remarkable tour de force, the weaver has also designed into the border a reverse black pattern that resembles a circle of triangular ceremonial rattles.
In the "Dancing Feather" act, a young girl (or boy) circles a large basket, dancing to the accompaniment of rattles and drum beats. As she performs her steps, a tall feather, activated by invisible strings, rises from the basket and imitates her movements, tilting back and forth in rhythmic unison with her.
Weaving 7 presents a colorful depiction of this crowd-pleasing performance. In the center, above a symbolic red fire, is a large basket with an erect feather. To the left is the young female dancer in traditional dress and to the right is a male performer holding two feathered wants,. At his feet is an inverted basket drum.
Weaving 8 from the early 1920s may be one of the first Navajo textiles to feature Mountainway performers. Woven in natural wool, it exhibits the general characteristics of rugs from the Crystal or Two Grey Hills area and is, therefore, quite different in style and appearance from the preceding examples. Its central panel depicts the lively Feather Dance in which pairs of dancers, male and female, execute complex movements while waving triangular reed wands decorated with eagle feathers. On the right, a seated chanter beats the rhythm on an inverted basket drum. In the center, the two large eagle feathers standing in an open basket evoke the thematically related Dancing Feather act.
The Mountainway weavings presented on these pages attest to the creativity of the Navajo women who made them in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike later generations of weavers specialized in ceremonial theme textiles, they dd not rely for inspiration on published models. Instead they based their designs on their personal observations of ceremonial events and interpreted them in wool, each in her own individual way. The resulting Mountainway weavings are thus unique in both pictorial content and style. Our knowledge of these rare textiles will hopefully expand as new examples emerge from public and private collections.
To watch the fascinating Feather Dance and learn more about the Night Ceremonies, click video:
To visit the Woven Holy People exhibit, click here.
To learn more about the Yei / Yei be chei (Holy People) style of weaving click here.
To shop the Yei / Yei be chei available weavings, click here.