Animals have many different associations in Navajo culture and art. Many animals are associated with specific taboos, which are restrictions that are taken very seriously by many Navajos. An example of a taboo associated with animals is “Do not put a dead snake on a rock or you will cause a thunderstorm and it will come back to life.”
Because Navajo rugs often reflect beliefs and traditions in Navajo life, if you are a serious student of Navajo art, knowing some of the animals that most frequently recur in Navajo stories and artwork can be very helpful to gaining a greater understanding of the art.
Animals and Taboos
Coyote is one of the biggest figures in Navajo mythology–he is contradictory and tricky, which means he cannot be killed. He can be both humorous and frightening.
In Navajo mythology, owls, crows, mice, and coyotes were thought to have spied for witches and evil spirits, and they therefore cannot be trusted.
Snakes are frequently seen in Navajo artwork, but they were feared on both a mythological and practical level. Poisonous snakes posed a real threat to Navajos and their livestock, but they also represent the lightning people and have a whole host of taboos associated with them.
Bears are important in the traditional Mountain Way ceremony, but they are also associated with many taboos. There is some speculation that this is because of how eerily they can resemble a man standing on two legs.
Eagle feathers are very important to the Navajo–all other feathers are prohibited.
Now that you know some of the associations that Navajos have with wild animals, you can see if you can spot how the depictions of these animals in art reflect these meanings.