Avanyu is the water serpent deity of the Pueblo tribes of Arizona and New Mexico, often depicted on San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblo pottery. The Avanyu symbolizes the importance of water to indigenous desert cultures. This symbol is also associated with lightning as shown by the serpent’s tongue. Avanyu appears on the walls of caves located high above washes and rivers in New Mexico and Arizona. It is also believed Avanyu may be related to the feathered serpent of Mexico – Quetzalcoatl, and a companion to the Kokopelli. Overall, Avanyu is a frequent and important motif in Southwestern Native American cultures, especially through pottery.
Butterflies are the focus of Southwest American Indian song, prayer, and adornment because they embody the important concepts of “centering and balance.” For many Native American cultures, the first butterflies signal the arrival of spring and acknowledge that the people have survived another difficult winter season. For this reason, the butterflies are seen as good omens and positive beings in life. Among the Zuni, the butterfly represents the beneficence of summer, when the country abounds in flowers and in plants. The butterfly appeared as a Zuni jewelry motif in the 1920s and remains popular today in jewelry among many Native American tribes.
An important symbol and tool used by the Navajo Medicine Man (or “Hatathlie”) is the eagle feather. Healing ceremonies and all weddings require eagle feathers to be present. They create the bridge or connection from our world to the spiritual world to send the prayers for healing and to receive the blessings needed to bring harmony and balance to the people.
Four Direction Symbol
Four is a sacred number for Southwest Native American tribes. While the four direction symbol literally represents North, East, South, and West, it embodies much more. There are four sacred mountains: Blanca Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, The San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Hesperus Mountain in Colorado. There are four sacred colors of corn: White, Blue, Yellow, and Black; four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter; four life stages: Infancy (Birth), Youth, Adulthood, and Old Age (Death); four elements of nature: Fire (Sun), Air, Water, and Earth; and four sacred plants: Tobacco, Squash, Beans, and Corn.
“The Heartline is a symbol of what you’ve learned form the world that you’ve taken into your heart because that is what you are able to give back to the world.” – Ray Tracey, Navajo. The heartline running through the center of a bear signifies the spiritual breath of the animal in Zuni fetish carvings or Navajo and Hopi silver work.
Knife Wing God
The Zuni Knife-wing God (A-tchi-a la-to-pa), a sky being, has a combined human-bird form. Though an animistic spirit, he holds no religious significance when rendered in silver but is merely decorative. As described by anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who lived with the Zunis from 1879-1884: "This curious god is the hero of hundreds of folklore tales, the tutelary deity of several societies of Zuni. He is represented as possessing a human form, furnished with flint knife-feathered pinions, and tail. His dress consists of the conventional terraced cap (representative of his dwelling place among the clouds)... His weapons are the Great Flint-Knife of War, the Bow of the Skies (the Rainbow), and the Arrow of Lightning. His guardians or warriors are the Great Mountain Lion of the North and that of the upper regions. He was doubtless the original War God of the Zunis."
The migration swirl symbol is found at countless petroglyph sites in the Southwest. It represents the circled migration patterns of Native American tribes. The Hopi believe that they migrated from the south, in Southern Mexico and migrated for many years in search of where they were meant to settle. They believe they migrated West, North, and East until they circled back to discover the three mesas in Northern Arizona where they call home.
With probable Paleolithic origins, the inverted crescent form (called Naja by the Navajo) has represented the Phoenician goddess of fertility, Astarte, and is mentioned in the Book of Judges among the “ornaments on camels’ necks.” The Moors – who dominated Spain for eight centuries – adopted the crescent as a horse’s bridle ornament, to protect the horse and rider from “the evil eye”. The Spanish then brought the idea to the Americas in the late 16th century.
The Navajo, whether directly from the Spanish, or indirectly through the influence of the Plains Indians, adopted the crescent form as a horse headstall (the front-center band of the bridle). Later it became the crowning achievement of their squash-blossom necklaces, hanging symmetrically at the center of the necklace when worn. Although the Navajo claim that the Naja has no precise symbolic or spiritual significance, it is ubiquitous in their culture and held in high esteem.
Squash Blossom Necklace
The squash blossom has developed slowly and has roots deep in non-native culture and history. The principle part of the necklace is the crescent-shaped “Naja” pendant, which the Southwestern Indians first saw as iron ornaments on the horse bridles of the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Captured or traded, these ornaments soon graced the necks of the local Native populace.
The acquisition of a “Naja” was a matter of pride and the ornament, reproduced in the various metals, was proudly displayed during ceremonies. These pendants, originally brought from Spain, reflected the influence of earlier Moorish conquests and the occupation of Spain.
Once silver beads came into fashion around 1880, Navajos found a way to display these “Najas” on necklaces. The squash blossom beads were fashioned after the pomegranate-shaped buttons on the pants worn by the Spanish. These beads were possibly misnamed long ago by a trader who thought they looked like squash blossoms. The squash blossom necklace today stands as a fusion of cultures and has become synonymous with Southwest American Indian jewelry.
The Thunderbird is a legendary creature within many Native American cultures. It is considered to be an enormous bird with great powers. The name comes from the belief of a bird so large that when it flaps its wings, it causes the sound of thunder and creates storms.
Whirling Log Symbol (Swastika)
The Whirling Log symbol is not associated with the Swastika and pre-dates WWII. Long before its appearance in WWII, the Whirling Log symbol has been seen as a symbol of healing, protection, and well-being not only by the Navajo people, but also by inhabitants of ancient India, Tibet, and many cultures across Asia.The Whirling Log symbol comes from a Navajo folk tale and is considered to represent well-being and good luck. After WWII, this symbol disappeared from most Native American art, but it can be seen on vintage Navajo weavings, basketry, and jewelry.
The Whirling Log symbol has its origins in Navajo Sandpaintings. In the Navajo language it translates to, “that which revolves.” It comes from a story of an outcast who decides to climb into a log and float down the river to a distant land where he might find peace and safety. He is helped by four sacred deities to hollow out the log and floats down the river for four days until he hits a whirlpool. He is whirled in circles within his log until emissaries of the four deities rescue him. They pull him from the river and reunite him with his pet turkey who is carrying a bean and three corn kernels. These are planted and in four days abundant crops have matured. Four more days pass and the crops are harvested. The outcast is instructed on how to prepare Sandpaintings to celebrate these miracles and sent home to his people to teach them.