There are many recognizable symbols in Navajo rug design, but one often pulls people up short when they first see it: a swastika. But in fact it is called a whirling log and upon closer review, is a an altered swastika – it is backwards. This symbol was commonly used in the Navajo rug design, prior to the 1930’s.
This rug was created somewhere between 1909 and 1920, so well before the Nazis had appropriated the swastika as a symbol of their ideology. It is important to remember that the swastika, which comes from the Sanskrit for “well-being,” was formerly seen as an entirely positive symbol. It was associated with the four directions or the four winds. It was popular during the Art Deco era for use on buildings, household items, and clothing. And it was also seen frequently on items owned by cowboys in the Old West as a symbol for good luck. Going even further back, it is frequently seen in Hindu and Buddhist imagery, and has been found on Mesopotamian pottery dating all the way back to 3500-4500 BCE.
The Swastika as a Navajo Symbol
In Navajo culture, the “whirling log” was originally used in sand paintings that designates direction and motion. During the early days of the Navajo rug trade, J. B. Moore and J. Lorenzo Hubbell both encouraged the use of the whirling log symbol in rugs they commissioned. Of course, after the atrocities of World War II, Navajo weavers discontinued using the whirling log pattern.
It is a shame that an ancient and positive symbol has become synonymous in Western culture with the short but brutal ascendancy of the Nazis. Hopefully in time this association will lessen. In the meantime, we can appreciate the historical pieces that utilize the whirling log for how they maintain a connection to the symbol’s positive meaning.
Source for information about swastika use in Navajo rugs: The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles by Dennis J. Aigner.