|Navajo weavers at Hubbell Trading Post. |
U.S. National Archives, Public Domain.
When many of us Americans of immigrant descent think of traditional Native American clothing, we think of deerskin, beading, and blankets. For the Navajo, or Dine', people of the southwestern regions of this country, however—in present day New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah—this image is not quite correct. Instead, think flounced skirts, velvet blouses, and turquoise and silver jewelry. After living in New Mexico for several years during my teens, most of my novels have been inspired by the history and culture of the Navajo people, and I have found learning about their distinctive and beautiful traditional clothing to be quite fascinating.
While most Dine' men and women dress in contemporary clothing today, their traditional historical clothing still frequently is worn at ceremonies and during special occasions, and it forms an integral part of their cultural identity and heritage.
Before European Contact
|The wife of the great Chief Manuelito, wearing a blanket dress. |
By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.) 1861-1946 Public Domain.
Before the mid-19th century, Navajo clothing held more similarity to that of many other First Nations tribes on this continent. Both men and women wore deerskin clothes, such as skirts, shirts, and leggings.
Women also wore the “blanket dress,” a simple woven garment made similarly to a poncho. Weaving remains a central piece of Navajo culture to this day, though the craft shifted in the 19th century from making clothing to weaving the famous Navajo rugs.
After the Long Walk
After the tragic period of the “Long Walk” in the 1860s, when the U.S. government forced the Navajo from their homeland and marched them hundreds of miles to be held at Fort Sumner (read more about the Long Walk here), Navajo clothing, as well as other aspects of their culture, underwent a dramatic change.
The Dine' have always been an adaptable people, taking elements from other cultures and weaving them into their own in a style distinctly Navajo. It is easy to see the influence of European settlers, as well as the impact of Mexican culture, on the style of Navajo dress that emerged from this period. Still, traditional Navajo clothing is also completely unique.
|Navajo girl, 1941. By Ansel Adams, Public Domain.|
A traditional outfit for a Navajo woman evolved to include a skirt and blouse, perhaps inspired by contact with the wives of European-American traders. From these trading posts, the Navajo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries purchased cloth like calico and velveteen in exchange for their high-quality wool and rugs. The full skirt is usually pleated and often tiered, made from calico, velvet, or satin, and the blouse is usually velveteen and decorated with silver buttons. Often in the past, the buttons were actually coins and might comprise a good portion of the woman’s wealth.
|Navajo Squash Blossom necklace|
By Barbarabarrington - Own work, Wikimedia Commons
Navajo jewelry is known throughout the world and is still a significant household industry in the Dinetah (land of the Navajo) today. Silver and turquoise form the classic elements, and the jewelry is shaped by skilled silversmiths into beautiful and elaborate bracelets, rings, and necklaces such as the famous squash blossom necklace. The jewelry is not only sold to tourists but also forms a significant part of the Navajo traditional clothing or regalia. Coral is a popular traditional element in jewelry as well.
Deerskin moccasins, either ankle or knee-height, also remained an important part of Navajo clothing both before and after contact with Europeans.
|Edward S. Curtis, from The North American Indian.|
Northwestern University Library,
sponsored by U.S. Library of Congress. Public Domain.
Navajo men also traditionally wear a velvet shirt, as well as jewelry such as necklaces. Today, jeans are a common accompaniment to the traditional shirts, though breeches from thin material and deerskin leggings would have taken their place historically.
Both genders will also often wear a concha belt, with large silver conchas strung on a belt. Originally the conchas would be made from silver dollars, with scalloped edges, leather backing, and holes punched through.
For headgear, traditionally a Navajo man would wear a headband, but hats similar to cowboy hats have also become incorporated as a common piece of traditional clothing, often with a bit of embellishment around the brim.
Traditionally, both Navajo men and women wear their hair long and twisted in a distinctive bun, or tsiiyéél, on the back of the head, tied with white sheep’s wool yarn. The hair binding was typically a bonding family ritual, done between brothers and sisters or parents and children, and with the aid of a traditional hair brush called a be’ezo, a bundle of dried grass bound tightly together, and remains an important part of Navajo culture today.
|Navajo Woman Baking Bread, By Unknown|
Carli Digital Collections, Illinois University, Public Domain.
So, which aspect of traditional Dine' clothing do you find most interesting or attractive? Were you familiar with any traditional Navajo clothing already? What cultural connections or differences do you see? Please comment and share!
Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at . She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.