The fascinating designs, patterns and swirls of Navajo jewelry are not just for aesthetics. These shapes have meaning and much like prehistoric cave drawings were used for communication and admiration for higher-beings or earthly powers. While some designs are purely artistic expression, many other Native American designs and symbols have a history behind them. To Native Americans, everything seen or unseen is considered to have a spirit and each spirit is expressed through Navajo symbols and meanings.
Navajo symbols and meanings were developed to articulate cultural ideas and expressions to both communicate within the tribe and worship higher beings. Navajo symbols and meanings usually consist of one of nine categories: natural forces, spirits, clowns, feathers, animals, tracks and arrows, insects, plants and patterns.
The Navajo have many symbols for nature including clouds, rain, lightning, sun and moon. Three large circles typically express clouds; rain and lightning added to the circles are represented by lines “raining” down from the bottom and an arrow coming out the top of the circles. The storm cloud is usually used to express change, renewal and fertility. Another important symbol is the sun. The sun is depicted in several ways but most symbols have rays pointing in the four cardinal directions signifying its power over all of the earth. The Navajo sun symbol is used to record war stories or heroic events. It’s also used in direct conjunction with the creation story.
Another important Navajo symbol is the Navajo Yeii Spirit. The Navao Yeiis control natural forces and are considered to be the mediators between man and creator. The Yei’bi’chai yeii , which looks like a tall man whose arms are in the shape of a “W”, is considered the grandparent spirit or “talking god” who speaks to man teaching him how to live in harmony with all living things. The twins symbol is used in creation stories. They are typically short men side-by-side illustrating the duality in life: man and woman, dark and light, good and evil. They can also depict the duality of nature such as “father-sky” and “mother-earth.”
Prayer sticks or Pahos are cedar or cottonwood sticks that are painted, notched and adorned with feathers to catch the wind. They are used at religious sites to carry personal prayers and are used in many Navajo designs.
Plants are the Navajo primary food and medicinal source and are therefore extremely significant to the Navajo culture. Plant symbols are used to decorate tools, baskets and even jewelry. Corn for example is a symbol of life. Squash, beans, sprouts and seeds are commonly used in Indian pottery. The popular “squash blossom” necklace does not, however, derive from a squash but instead from a pomegranate brought over by the wealthy Spanish and are used to symbolize the new prosperity the Spanish introduced.
These and other Navajo symbols and meanings are used in jewelry, weavings, basketry and other forms of art and culture. Learning the different symbols and designs is paramount in understanding not only the Navajo but also their wonderful art and culture.