The Navajo and their cousins, the Apache, were known as the most accomplished mounted warriors in the Southwest. It wasn’t always that way.
Many people don’t know there were no horses in North America until the Spanish arrived in 1540 during their conquest of the American West. Imagine the Navajo, who had migrated into the area more than a hundred years before, getting their first glimpse of a group of men moving across the landscape at what had to seem like an unbelievable speed for long distances.
The Navajo were hunter-gatherer people, constantly having to be on the move to gather and hunt for food. Here was an animal that would carry you long distances, allowing you to gather food. At the same time, your family stayed in the same general area, allowing them to build structures (hogans) that would last for an extended period.
The Navajo watched from a distance as the Pueblo Tribes of the Southwest were subdued and conquered by the Spanish cavalry; they also saw that possibility.
Through raiding and trading, the Navajo were quick to obtain horses. Like the Mongolian people whose DNA the Navajo carry, they quickly adapted to raising and breeding the animals. For thousands of years, the Mongolian soldiers on their mounts, led by Genghis Khan, struck terror into the hearts of Europeans. The Navajo had the same reputation in the Southwest.
In 1835, the Mexican Government sent an expedition into what is now New Mexico to conquer the Navajo and take control of the area. They met with mounted resistance from a Navajo leader, Narbona, who routed the Mexican cavalry.
Navajo Pictorial by Laverne Barber
The other animal obtained from the Spanish was the sheep, which became an important symbol of Navajo wealth as well as an important source of food. Moving a herd of sheep to better grazing while riding a horse was much easier than being on foot.
Most of the weaving and silversmithing families I know, who live on the reservation, have access to horses. Many of them are rodeo participants in Native American Rodeo Cowboys Association. The best competitors make it to the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas every year.
One time I got a call from Roland Begay, a Navajo silversmith whose wife, Geneva, has been a championship barrel racer for years. He had some jewelry for me and asked if I could meet him at the KFC in Cortez, between his home near Crownpoint and Durango. I waited for him to arrive when he and Geneva showed up in his pickup, pulling a horse trailer with a beautiful animal inside.
“Are you headed to a Rodeo?” I asked.
Roland replied, “No, the National Finals are next week. We are taking the horse down to have a ceremony done by a Medicine Man in Kayenta.”
Well, she didn’t win the National Championship that year, but she finished in the top five, competing against riders more than half her age, and Geneva and the horse made it with no injuries!
We thought featuring some Navajo pictorial weavings with horses would be fun. I hope you enjoy them!
The top weaving with the two large horses is the oldest, dating back to the 1940s. It is interesting as the brown color has some stiff fibers that you will find in Churro Wool, which I suspect it is. There were few Churros in Navajo herds at the time it was woven. It has a few minor rough spots on the edges that can be repaired, but I think they add to the look of the weaving. This weaving somehow ended up in Wisconsin, probably collected by a tourist who came west on the Santa Fe Railroad.
The second weaving by Laverne Barber from Burnham is a new rug that I find interesting. In the sky, above the red rock buttes, are animals representing spirits. In the center is a pattern of geometric Navajo weavings and four horses below that. They all have four lines on the sides which Laverne says represent the elements of fire, water, earth, and wind. She continues to grow with every weaving she makes.
The third weaving is a simple pictorial in the “Grandma Moses” style, with no perspective. It has it all, a hogan, a contemporary home, a swing set in the yard, a Navajo woman cooking outside, curious cows, a pickup, and a man hauling hay in his horse (long horse!) drawn wagon. This is a fun example of Navajo pictorial weaving.
The last weaving pictured is by one of our favorite artists, Genita John. Genita, like her mother-in-law, Isabel, always depicts Navajo life as it was. You never see a pickup truck, television antenna, car, trailer, or traditional home in one of her weavings. This piece, woven with hand-spun wool using aniline and vegetal dyes, captures the scene of an early railroad train passing a Navajo hogan with a wagon parked beside it. Sheep, cows, and good-looking horse are all grazing on their own small piece of pasture!