One of the most popular regional styles of Navajo weaving has always been the Yei and Yeibichai. These weavings emerged from the Shiprock, New Mexico area after the turn of the 1900s when weavers began putting the figures of Deities from the traditional sand painting ceremonies in their rugs.
The weavings were immediately popular among tourists who were discovering the West. The Fred Harvey Company ran hotels with excellent dining facilities along the Santa Fe Railroad and there was always a gift shop that travelers had to walk through when they got on or off the train.
The Yei weavings looked “Indian” and were a hot souvenir item.
Over the years, these weavings became more and more detailed and interesting. Many overly enthusiastic dealers sold them as “Indian Prayer Rugs” which they are not. Others told stories about the sacredness of the designs and how they were ceremonial in nature. They are not.
Three or four times a year, I get an email or call from someone who inherited a Yei weaving who tells me they have a very special ceremonial weaving that was never supposed to be sold. Usually, they inherited the piece from a relative who picked it up on a trip to the West back in the day along with a story to share!
I like to explain that the Yei weavings are depictions of the “Holy People” or Deities from Navajo religion. It would be similar a painting of Buddha or a Saint on your wall.
The Yeibichai weavings are different in that they depict dancers who are participating in a nine-day ceremony that takes place after the first frost in the fall. It is a healing or blessing ceremony that is also a cultural event. The figures in these rugs are usually facing sideways and show movement, whereas the Yei figures face the front and are in a static position.
If you are driving across the Navajo reservation, at that time of year, it is not unusual to see a sign that says, “Yeibichai tonight” with an arrow pointing down a dirt road. The more people that attend the ceremony, the more power there is in it. People bring food and drink to share.
Yeibichai ceremonies are expensive for the patient and their family. The Medicine Man must be paid and given a basket with which to perform the ceremony. All the people who attend have to be fed and several sheep are usually butchered.
One weaver we work with told me that she was at a Yeibichai when Barbara Mandrell and some other country stars showed up at the ceremony carrying bags of beans and other food. They knew the patient and had been invited and, following tradition, brought food to share.
I asked one weaver who does pictorials depicting Yeibichai dances how the patient goes about finding the dancers.
She said, “There are men who are known to do the dances and you just go to their house and ask them. They usually come.”
“What if they don’t show up?” I asked.“They don’t get the sheep,” she replied.
That is the payment they receive for participating.If you are interested in seeing a Yeibichai, there is one performed every year at the Northern Navajo Fair in Shiprock in September. Everyone is welcome but it does last most of the night. You don’t have to stay for the whole ceremony.
I find the differences in these patterns to be really fascinating. It’s little like asking twenty watercolor artists to paint a picture of a barn. All twenty are going to be different. There are as many different styles of Yei and Yeibichai weavings as there are weavers who do them.