Design Elements

Rapheal Begay (Diné), Emergence (Mexican Water, AZ), 2018. Digital photograph. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

Each element of a woven textile is carefully planned, designed, and executed. By examining  these choices, we are able to learn a great deal about a textile’s date of production, place of origin, and intended use. Particular designs may also act as a weaver’s personal signature as well as convey family histories and kinship connections. Others represent the shared stories and histories of the Diné people. This thematic section explores the design and use of several items, including a “Chief” blanket, a woman’s dress, and a ceremonial basket. The artwork of Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné), which repurposes historic textile designs using digital tools, envisions the relationship between the distinctive patterns and iconography of Diné weaving and the landscapes of Dinétah.

In Focus

Woman’s “chief” blanket, Second Phase Diné artist
Woman’s “chief” blanket, Second Phase

Diné artist
ca. 1880
Dyed and undyed wool, tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by Uriah S. Hollister, before 1910, 50.1 / 4419

Blankets with this striped pattern have long been known as “Chief” blankets, but the term is a misnomer. Although the design was not intended to indicate rank or refer exclusively to a male wearer, these patterns are challenging and costly to make, indicating a certain status.1 In the nineteenth century, Chief blankets were traded widely—with Euro-American settlers as well as Plains tribes—and the word “Chief” became associated with this pattern because settlers saw Plains chiefs wearing them.2 In fact, the word for Diné people in Lakota and Apsáalooke languages translates to “those who make striped blankets,” alluding to the blankets’ important role in vital networks of intertribal trade.3

Chief blankets were customarily worn folded and draped over the shoulders and often fastened across the chest with a pin as seen in the image below.4 However, as opposed to the wider bands typical of men’s blankets, the thin, alternating brown-and-black lines indicate that this blanket was intended for a woman. The blanket’s straight lines are extremely challenging to execute, signaling that this piece was made by a master weaver. The brown and black wool is handspun from sheep of those hues, while the blue and red yarns are dyed with indigo and aniline red. There are many design variations on the Chief blanket type, including zigzags, diamonds, and figural imagery.5

Smiling Singer (also known as Laughing Chanter, Diné), wearing a men’s “Chief” blanket, ca. 1880–94. Photograph. Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Washington Matthews Collection.

This blanket, along with many others in the American Museum of Natural History’s historic collection, was collected by Uriah S. Hollister and purchased by the museum in 1910–11. While he was not an anthropologist, Hollister’s “salvage ethnography” style of collecting was prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.6 However, this item reflects both the tenacity of historical, intertribal practices of self-fashioning and the rich survivance of Diné culture and weaving today.

—Ashley Williams

  • 1

    Joe Ben Wheat, Blanket Weaving in the Southwest, ed. Ann Lane Hedlund (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), 136; see also Wheat, Blanket Weaving, plate 73.

  • 2

    Wheat, Blanket Weaving, 136. Even settler anthropologists in the early twentieth century realized that the “Chief” term applied to the blanket had more to do with commodification than Diné (Navajo) culture; see H. P. Mera, The So-Called “Chief Blanket”, Laboratory of Anthropology Bulletin 2 (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 1938).

  • 3

    Roshii Montano and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, “Blanketing the Plains: Hanoolchaadi in Indian Country,” First American Art Magazine 14 (Spring 2017): 20–25.

  • 4

    Because Chief blankets became trade commodities with Plains tribes and Euro-American settlers, there are few photographs of Diné people wearing them and even fewer photographs of Diné women wearing the narrow-banded Chief blanket design.

  • 5

    Wheat, Blanket Weaving, 137.

  • 6

    Hollister fought for the Union during the Civil War and was president of the Continental Oil Company for thirty years. See “Hollister Rites Arranged Today,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1929, page 34. Hollister wrote, “it will not be long until [Native Americans] live only in history; and therefore . . . we are collecting and recording all information we can.” Uriah S. Hollister, The Navajo and His Blanket (Denver: United States Color Type Co., 1903), 1.

Biil éé’ (woman’s rug dress) Diné artist
Biil éé’ (woman’s rug dress)

Diné artist
Before 1910
Dyed wool, weft-faced plain weave with interlocking tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Dr. Pliny E. Goddard, ca. 1910, 50 / 9238

This Diné biil éé’, or woman’s rug dress, was woven in two identical panels, typically sewn together with openings for the neck and arms. Each panel has a solid midsection of black, blue, and brown, bordered top and bottom by symmetrical regions of vivid red in which stepped-terrace motifs, Spider Woman crosses, and stripes are woven. The warp and weft are wool, perhaps sourced from raveled flannel, which was carded and handspun by the dressmaker or her family members.

Rug dresses represent sacred womanhood and protect their wearers as they move through the world. The overall dress represents the universe, with lines that may be rainbows, rays of sunlight, or our sacred mountains that surround our homeland. The edge cords that have been left as tassels on each corner are representations of female rain, or to some families they are umbilical cords.

Our rug dresses are meant to be worn for many years, protecting us from the elements and from spiritual dangers. In my many years of assisting with curatorial work, I have been horrified to see many dresses with their two halves separated, each to be sold as one panel. In some instances, miraculously, both panels have been reunited. I think the weaver of that dress prayed and sang about it, and the universe answered with its reunion.

—Lynda Teller Pete (Diné), fifth-generation textile artist

According to correspondence in the American Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology archives, this dress (biil) may have been owned by Asdzáá Tł’ógi, also known as Juanita (Diné, ca. 1845–1910).1 During their lifetimes, Juanita and her husband, Chief Manuelito, were fierce advocates for Diné (Navajo) sovereignty and land rights. She was imprisoned with her husband in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, from 1866 to 1868, and the Diné people revered her as a strong woman and a gifted orator. In 1874 she traveled with a delegation to Washington, DC, in an attempt to negotiate land rights with President Ulysses S. Grant.2 Although the details of Juanita’s biography remain sparse, her Diné name means “Lady Weaver,” suggesting that she was an accomplished weaver herself.3 If she did own this dress, it most likely came from another weaver’s loom. In Diné tradition, a woman’s dress must be made by another woman, demonstrating the significance of intergenerational female relationships.

Charles Bell, Portrait of Juanita (Asdzáá Tł’ógi), Chief Muelito’s Wife, wearing a similar dress, with silver concho belt, ornaments, and blankets, Washington, DC, 1874. Cabinet card. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, NAA INV.02274400 NAA MS.4877 OPPS NEG.BAE 2391.

The importance of such female affinity is reflected in the patterning of the dress. It honors Na’ashjéii Asdzáá (Spider Woman), the original weaving woman who taught the Diné how to weave.4 Each panel is constructed with an interlocking tapestry weave, with eight Spider Woman’s crosses woven in blue against a red background. The red and blue threads are spun from hand-dyed wool, while the black center block of each panel is made from natural-colored wool. To form the dress, a weaver stitched the two panels along the sides. Some of these threads remain visible along the black midsection—a reminder of the panels’ intended use as clothing. Today, Diné women continue the traditional styling of such two-panel rug dresses by wearing a sash or concho belt around the waist.

—Ashley Williams

  • 1

    For an insightful history of Juanita, see the book written by her descendant: Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007). For potential ties between this dress and Juanita, see correspondence in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, Division of Anthropology.

  • 2

    Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 146–50.

  • 3

    Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History, 142.

  • 4

    Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, How to Weave a Navajo Rug and Other Lessons from Spider Woman (Loveland, CO: Thrums Books, 2020), 8.

Wedding/ceremonial basket Diné artist
Wedding/ceremonial basket

Diné artist
Before 1923
Plant fiber and twigs
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Mrs. Edith Wallace Knowles, ca. 1923, 50.2 / 2469

Diné (Navajo) baskets share many design elements with woven textiles, including zigzags, steppes, and Spider Woman’s crosses. The overall configuration of this wedding/ceremonial basket (ts’aa’) is one of the most common, and it carries multiple symbolic meanings in Diné culture. According to some Indigenous scholars, it functions as a map to connect Diné women to Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé (Changing Woman), who was created from the union of Mother Earth and Father Sky.1 Some Diné elders and weavers say that the center spiral shape emulates a human fingerprint.2 Other Diné elders share that the stepped shapes mirror the mountains of their homelands.3 The four colors of the basket—white, yellow, blue, and black—are sacred hues that represent the four cardinal directions.

As with woven textiles, these baskets are made from local materials that are deeply tied to the land. Most Diné baskets are made from sumac harvested along riverbanks in the fall. The strips of sumac (known as laces) are meticulously split, dyed, and wrapped around bundles of pliable wooden rods, which give the coiled basket its support structure.4 The baskets have a variety of ritual purposes and are sometimes used as ceremonial drums. At a wedding, the bride uses it to present corn mush to her in-laws, who keep the basket to symbolize the conjoined families.5 When in use, the pathway that leads out from the center points to the east, an entry way for spiritual energy and an exit route for creative energy, so that it can be used again.6

Today, many Diné basket weavers also make pictorial, narrative designs that include an expanded range of colors. Some even use computer programs to plan highly complex compositions. Like the basket’s spiral, which moves ever-outward, Diné makers continue to innovate with new designs and techniques.

—Ashley Williams

  • 1

    heather ahtone, “Making Our World: Thoughts of Native Feminine Aesthetics,” in Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, ed. Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2019), 38; and “Navajo Wedding Basket with Traditional Motif,” Utah State University Digital Collections,

  • 2

    From the Inside Out, directed by April Chabries (2003; Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources [DER], 2003),

  • 3

    Wally Brown, “Navajo Wedding Basket,” Navajo Traditional Teachings, October 8, 2018, YouTube,

  • 4

     From the Inside Out.

  • 5

    “Navajo Wedding Basket”; and Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, interview with author, February 26, 2021.

  • 6

    Susan Brown McGreevy, “Embellishing the Spiral: Design Development in Navajo Baskets,” American Indian Art Magazine 24, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 44–53. See also Susan Brown McGreevey, Indian Basketry Arts of the Southwest: Deep Roots, New Growth (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2001).

The Passage and Woven Landscapes Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné)
The Passage and Woven Landscapes


The Passage
Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné)
Scanned Navajo textiles, canvas print, pine, and wool
32 × 45 × 2 in. (81.3 × 114.3 × 5.1 cm)
Courtesy the artist

I use woven patterns in my portraits as a way of both reclaiming and celebrating our visual cultural aesthetic. Prompted by rampant cultural appropriation by corporate industries, I find it an apt response to show who these designs come from and for whom they were made. The works also serve as an homage to weavers and the practice of weaving. Inherent to our culture and integral to our identity as Diné, weaving has always been a major facet in the success and longevity of our people.1

—Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné), digital artist and printmaker


Darby Raymond-Overstreet is a contemporary Diné artist who works in printmaking, mixed media, and digital art. The Passage (2019) demonstrates her practice of repurposing historical Navajo weaving patterns and designs to comment on her own experiences of Indigeneity. In this work, she transformed a photograph of her mother by digitally painting the image and then overlaying it with scanned historic rug designs. An eye-dazzler pattern gives her mother’s calm facial expression added dimension and vibrancy. Next, the artist stitched the image, printed on canvas, into the warp strings of a loom, which she constructed by hand from locally sourced wood near her home in Chimayo, New Mexico. Raymond-Overstreet’s technique—a kind of digital weaving—honors the generations of female weavers that came before, such as her great-grandmother. Including a loom frame in the work also calls attention to the labor of weaving, suggesting an ongoing process that is never quite finished.

Raymond-Overstreet (re)appropriates and reclaims historical Navajo patterns found in museum collections and catalogues, a commentary on the long history of settler salvage ethnography, collection, and display. Combining textiles, photography, and digital media, Raymond-Overstreet threads her loved ones into centuries of thriving Diné traditions and cultural practices—creating a powerful connection between past, present, and future.

—Ashley Williams

Artist Bio

Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné)

Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné, b. 1994) is an award-winning digital artist and printmaker. Born in Tuba City, Arizona, and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona, she is a proud member of the Navajo Nation. She received her BA in psychology and studio art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, in 2016. She currently resides in Chimayó, New Mexico, and through her work she studies, works with, and creates Navajo pattern designs that materialize through portraits, landscapes, and abstract forms. Her work is heavily inspired by and derived from traditional Navajo textiles, with particular interest in pieces woven in the late 1800s to the 1950s.

For Shaped by the Loom: Weaving Worlds in the American Southwest, Raymond-Overstreet produced a series of digital landscapes. These images are an important element within the Navajo Nation Map Interactive. To learn more about the Woven Landscapes series, see her artist statement and the final selection of works included below.

Artist Statement: Woven Landscapes

The Woven Landscapes are a series of digital collages that depict views of the Navajo Nation in the visual language of our weaving tradition. These compositions are rendered using digital photography and historic textiles woven at the turn of the twentieth century. On their own, the weavings that I work with reflect the environment in a multitude of ways that make them uniquely Diné (Navajo). This extension of the land takes form in the process, the materials used, and in the values and philosophies imbued in each piece. As Diné, our relationship to the places we call home has been cultivated over generations, and we are inextricably interwoven with these places through continued stewardship and thriving traditions. This series of digital collage serves as a visual representation of the relationship between land, art and cultural identity. 

—Darby Raymond-Overstreet