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The Whirling Log in Navajo Weaving - By Dennis J. Aigner

A Symbol's History

The Whirling Log in Navajo Weaving

Editor’s Note: Prior to the late 1930s, the Whirling Log was primarily known as a Native American symbol of luck and friendship. To recognize the symbol’s earlier history, and to educate our readers who may see the symbol within the art market, we are presenting this excerpt from Dennis J. Aigner’s book, The Swastika Motif: It’s Use in Navajo and Oriental Weaving. It is our hope that when you encounter this symbol within Native American art and history, you regard it with its original intent.

The two most influential traders in the early days of the Navajo Reservation were Juan Lorenzo Hubbell and John B. Moore. Both encouraged their weavers to incorporate the swastika motif into their designs because it was such a popular symbol in Anglo-America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when both Hubbell’s Trading Post at Ganado, Arizona, and Moore’s Crystal Trading Post, in New Mexico just north of Ft. Defiance, were flourishing. Of the 38 classic Hubbell rug designs illustrated in Marian Rodee’s definitive book, Weaving of the Southwest, four contain the swastika. And of the 31 designs offered in Moore’s illustrated catalogs, nine have the symbol in them. But many other swastika rug designs were produced by weavers living around these trading posts and others nearby.

These days the swastika, as it was used in Native American arts and crafts of that time, is often referred to by the more politically correct term, “whirling log.” But this does disservice to the venerable histories of both the swastika and the whirling log of Navajo mythology, which are unrelated.

The Swastika
In its basic linear form, the swastika is one of our most ancient and universal symbols. While no one knows the precise time and place of its origin, scholars agree that it is prehistoric, the earliest known artifacts bearing the symbol being a swastika-like motif on a bird effigy and bracelet carved out of mammoth ivory and found in the Paleolithic site of Mezin (or Mezine), not far from Kiev, Ukraine, and dating from 10,000 B.C.  In Sanskrit, one of the old Indo-Aryan languages, the word svastika means “auspicious mark” or “well-being.” And in the other cultures from which its oldest origins of usage derive, the swastika was an extremely positive symbol.

Exhibit 1. Whirling log sandpainting rug, ca. 1935, 56 x 39"

In his 1894 essay on the swastika, Thomas Wilson of the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian) produced an interesting map showing the geographical dispersion of the swastika, and he systematically developed a foundation for it by presenting archeological evidence, starting with the Orient and ending with South America. Wilson is equivocal about the swastika’s origins, saying only that it probably appeared first in Central and Southeast Asia among the predecessors of the Brahmins and Buddhists and prior to the Indo-European migration into the Indus Valley (now in Pakistan), where Sanskrit originated. This would have been at a time when trade routes from the Orient westward were undeveloped, and hence such origins would have had to be unrelated. Such is the case with other disparate geographical locations on Wilson’s map, in particular, the United States, Central and South America, given the time periods when the swastika first appeared in these regions.

Exhibit 2. Hubbell “classic” design swastika rug, ca. 1890, 68 x 45"

The earliest evidence of the symbol in America comes from excavations at Fains Island and Toco (Toqua) Mounds, Tennessee (1250-1650 A.D.), and Hopewell Mound in Ohio (200 B.C.–500 A.D.). In the Toco Mound, a Buddha-like statue was found along with an engraved shell pendant with a swastika rendered in a fashion similar to Buddhist and Jains objects in India. The Hopewell Mound artifact is a hammered copper swastika resembling Bronze Age artifacts from Anatolia (Turkey). Moving from pre-history to history, in Kansas and Nebraska, the Kansa, Sac and Ioway Indians used the swastika symbol on ceremonial sashes and weapons. The symbol meant good luck or stood for the wind and its various directions. In the Hopi culture, the swastika is a depiction of the migration routes Hopi clans took through North and South America in order to arrive at their present location. For the Assiniboine tribe (Montana), the swastika represents the four directions. And, while of no known special significance, the swastika motif appeared widely on the ceramics, basketry, beadwork and jewelry of many Southwestern, Northwestern and Northeastern tribes.

The Whirling Log
Navajo mythology was passed down as an oral and visual tradition until the end of the 19th century, when the first attempts were made to codify the Navajo language by various missionary groups. But it was not until the late 1930s and early 1940s that a comprehensive system for transcribing the Navajo language was developed, as pressure mounted for teaching Navajos how to read and write in their own language, after decades of suppression by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The visual tradition was based on the use of drypaintings or “sandpaintings” in healing and other ceremonies, whose designs depicted stories of the eight Holy People of the Navajo or abstract images of their sacred powers. While “sandpainting” has become the popular term for representing these creations, it is really a misnomer because sand wasn’t involved at all. In most cases, a piece of buckskin laid on the ground was used as the canvas and various natural vegetable materials such as pollen, meal, or crushed flowers were distributed to form the colorful design. In the healing ceremonies, use was made also of charcoal and various pulverized minerals. Sandpaintings depicting various myths were created by the medicine man and tribal elders in advance of a spiritual ceremony. They involve remarkable detail, much as is the case with the mandalas used in Tibetan Buddhism. When the ceremony was over, the sandpainting was destroyed. In Navajo mythology, as part of the Nightway (Night Chant) ceremony, one of the sandpaintings used contains an image which resembles the swastika. It is called the “whirling log.”

Exhibit 3. Floor rug with Hubbell crosses  and whirling logs, ca. 1910, 104 x 66"

A stylized rendering of the whirling log sandpainting, in the form of an excellent weaving, is shown in Exhibit 1. The interior female yéi figures are wearing earrings and necklaces made of turquoise and coral, and hold spruce or juniper branches in their hands. Four dark male figures are present as well, with full headdresses, which is not common in such renderings. Each is holding a spruce or juniper branch in one hand and a gourd rattle in the other. The white figure at the top is Talking God and he is holding a squirrel bag. The dark figure at the bottom is Calling God. The all-encompassing female “rainbow” deity (Rainbow Guardian) is holding a rattle. As a sandpainting, the opening (which here appears at the top of the weaving as displayed) would be pointing east. Visually, with the darkly shaded crossed logs and a dark male deity perched on each end, the form of a swastika is outlined. But to call this a swastika would be incorrect, even though some writers have done so. In the Navajo language the whirling log is referred to as “that which revolves” (tsil no oli). It designates direction and motion.

Chronologically, although the whirling log existed in the Navajo culture long before the appearance of the swastika in Navajo weavings, the reason it was not used by weavers is twofold: First, and most importantly, the whirling log was (and still is) a sacred symbol, not to be seen outside the hooghan and certainly not to be seen by the white man. To weave it into a blanket was taboo until the 1920s, when Hosteen Klah (a male) began weaving sandpainting rugs. Until that time, the predicted fate of anyone weaving a sandpainting rug was blindness. Secondly, unless a woman had attended a presentation of the Nightway—and that would occur only when she or one of her family members was ill, she would be unaware of the whirling log.

Exhibit 4. Large Hubbell “classic” swastika rug, ca. 1900, 91 x 92"

According to George Wharton James, in his classic 1914 book on Indian blankets, the whirling log and what he calls the “swastika cross” are unrelated. James says that the actual Navajo word for the swastika is nahokhos, meaning “long objects in horizontal rotation.”

Only with the arrival of J. Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado, Arizona in 1878 and John B. Moore at the trading post located in Washington Pass, New Mexico, in 1896 does the swastika really blossom as a primary element in Navajo blankets and, more importantly, in rugs, as the so-called Rug Period was ushered in between 1890 and 1900. This evolution was the result not only of pressure brought by the traders seeking commercial outlets for Navajo crafts, but by the Navajos themselves, who began favoring machine-made wearing blankets with Indian designs that included the swastika, most notably from the Pendleton Woolen Mills. Several other manufacturers of wearing blankets in the early 1900s used the symbol too.

Hubbell and Moore
A trader who respected the traditional Navajo culture and encouraged the weaving of classical blanket patterns into rugs, Hubbell marketed his weavings primarily through the Fred Harvey Company. As a location of human settlement, the Ganado site dates from the 8th century. The name “Ganado” was given to the place by Hubbell to honor a friend, the Navajo headman Ganado Mucho (idiomatically, “many cattle” in Spanish). Its original name was Pueblo Colorado (“red village”).Exhibit 5. J. B. Moore Plate IX storm pattern rug, ca. 1903, 91 x 56"

Hubbell’s strategy was to have his weavers copy paintings of classical blankets and traditional rugs he admired from collections across the country. These small watercolor paintings were done by E. A. Burbank and are still on display at the Hubbell Trading Post, now operated by the U.S. National Park Service. Several of them contain the swastika symbol. The weaving displayed in Exhibit 2 is very close to one of these paintings.

Not all of Hubbell’s designs were copies of classical blankets. Hubbell’s primary design contribution was the “Hubbell cross,” a bordered Greek cross with arms of equal length, as exemplified in the weaving shown in Exhibit 3. Hubbell favored rugs of natural white, black or brown, and carded gray yarns, along with a striking scarlet red made either from Navajo wool colored with a synthetic aniline dye or synthetically dyed yarns raveled from commercial wool cloth. The depth of color achieved and its widespread use in Hubbell’s weavings caused it to be known as “Ganado red.”

Exhibit 6. J. B. Moore Plate XXIV rug, ca. 1911, 76 x 42"

The weaving shown in Exhibit 4, another classic Hubbell design, is made of very sturdy, rug-quality wool, and is quite large. The stratification in the gray field is beautifully rendered. The red swastika is bordered by aniline purple yarn and tipped with small extensions depicting a spider’s legs—after Spider Woman, the mythical figure that brought weaving to the Navajos. The serrated border is common in Ganado rugs.

Hubbell’s designs were also influenced directly by the tastes of the tourists to whom the Fred Harvey Company catered. Added in 1901 to the Harvey Company’s many restaurants and hotels along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line from Chicago to Los Angeles was the Indian Department. As the trains headed west, tourists stopped along the way to eat, sleep and buy “authentic” Indian souvenirs in special showrooms loaded with Southwestern rugs, baskets and pottery, and even artifacts from Africa, Oceania and Alaska. In a series of letters written to Hubbell by Herman Schweizer, manager of the Indian Department, Schweizer variously speaks of color combinations, designs and sizes that were preferred by Harvey customers and which he wished Hubbell to supply.  The swastika design was one of these.

Exhibit 7. Crystal style floor rug with swastikas, ca. 1920, 72 x 49"

At his death in 1930, Hubbell had 30 trading posts and numerous warehouses in Arizona and New Mexico. His sons, Lorenzo Jr. and Roman, carried on, but by 1949 the Hubbell enterprises were bankrupt.

Soon after his arrival in 1896, John B. Moore renamed the trading post near Washington Pass (now Narbona Pass) “Crystal” for the pure and sparkling mountain spring that ran by it. While the population of Navajo people in the area justified the establishment of a permanent trading post, the harsh winter and relative isolation of the location had resulted in a succession of seasonal trading posts beginning in 1873. Having invested in a more permanent log structure, it was clear to Moore and his wife that an innovative marketing strategy would be required if the post were to survive as a business. And so Moore embarked on an approach that had been pioneered by Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co., namely the illustrated mail-order catalog.

The illustrations in Moore’s first catalog from 1903, and the individual leaflets he issued subsequently as a way to extend the menu of designs available therein, were mainly based on existing Navajo patterns but often with borders added, which apparently appealed to the Anglo buyers he was attempting to influence.  By 1911, when the second catalog was issued, Moore had successfully introduced design ideas common in oriental rugs to his weavers as a further attempt to appeal to existing and prospective buyers. While Moore was a businessman and not a philanthropist, he clearly took satisfaction in bringing a better standard of living to the weavers and their families by creating a demand for their craft.

Swastikas figured prominently on Moore’s rugs. One of the most famous is Plate IX, the “storm pattern,” which was superseded by Plate XXVIII in the 1911 catalog. In the storm pattern, the center box-like element is the “center of the world” or the “storm house.” The smaller boxes at the corners are either houses of the wind or the four sacred mountains of the Navajo. These are connected by zigzag lines representing lightning. Between these lines are water bugs or piñon beetles and the “swastika cross,” as Moore referred to it. An example of Plate IX is shown in Exhibit 5.

Exhibit 6 displays another of Moore’s plate rugs, XXIV, executed in the finest grade of wool Moore supplied, known as “ER-20.”  In this case, the wool was sent east for processing and dying, resulting in a product with great color consistency and sheen.

Another example of Crystal weavings is the rug shown in Exhibit 7, a striking example of artistic flourish building on the storm pattern. The weaver embellished it with numerous references to the sacred number four and filled the space with pointed arrows and box-like figures containing diamonds and arrowheads.

While Moore abruptly left the Crystal post sometime in late 1911, his successor continued the business for several years along the lines already established. Thus, the catalogue rugs were woven even after Moore departed from Crystal.

While Crystal and Hubbell’s Trading Post at Ganado were arguably the most influential trading posts with respect to incorporation of the swastika into Navajo rug designs, the weavers at a number of other posts used the symbol as well, even as they were evolving their own distinctive styles, in particular, Klagetoh, Red Mesa, Teec Nos Pos and Two Grey Hills. For the most part, and not surprisingly, the design and color characteristics of these styles show certain commonalities according to their proximity to the earliest established trading post in the area.

The swastika in human history enjoys a long and positive tradition. At one level, its use was as a symbol denoting the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west) and the winds issuing from them, or as a depiction of solar movement. But the swastika really is much more than that, being among the world’s most important archetypal symbols, symbols that come from the mundus imaginalis, the language of the subtle world—of human consciousness.

How long it may take for the swastika to regain its universal positive nature is unclear. In parts of the world that were mainly unaffected by WWII, it is still used without apology. For example, in the Hindu religion they celebrate the famous Diwali Festival annually, in which is featured the Hindu version of the swastika formed by lines of candles or lamps. Buddhist temples are still replete with swastikas. But in other cultural traditions, the swastika’s venerable place as a positive, even cosmic, symbol is currently being held hostage to the taint of recent history. 

Dennis J. Aigner is the author of The Swastika Motif: Its Use in Navajo and Oriental Weaving, published by DAI Press.