CU-Boulder Student Explains Heritage Through Navajo Basketmaking Exhibit

Published: March 5, 1998

Growing up on the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona, Rita Cordalis was like most other children there who didn’t grasp the significance of their cultural traditions as they grew up in their midst.

Now a student in the University of Colorado’s Museum Studies graduate program, Cordalis has found in the Navajo tradition of basketmaking a language that tells the story of her people.

“To me, it’s important to tell the story of the baskets,” Cordalis says. “Even among the Navajo people, it’s not a story that’s told often.”

A jewelry maker, whose one-of-a-kind carved hardwood pieces have received critical attention in their own right, Cordalis is rediscovering her spiritual connection to the earth through the study of Navajo art forms.

“There’s a beauty in it,” she says, holding one of the Navajo baskets in the CU Museum collection. “And I am related to these things. I am a part of it.”

Cordalis, also the mother of two teenage boys, recently created an exhibit on the evolution of Navajo basketmaking while an intern at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores. The exhibit, which she worked on with the center’s exhibit specialist Michael Williams, won first place at the National Association for Interpretation Media Awards contest.

The exhibit documents the history of Navajo basketmaking and shows how baskets are made, the various design elements and colors used, traditional uses of baskets and the taboos associated with basketmaking. The exhibit also shows how basketmaking has evolved into a modern art form.

Cordalis, who discussed the CU Museum’s southwestern basket collection during a program at the museum in February, says Navajo baskets are “symbolic containers holding the history and philosophy of Navajo culture” in their weave.

Used in weddings and other ceremonies, baskets are regarded as sacred by the Navajo people, and their making is restricted, with young girls being regarded as the most suited to the art, she says. Various taboos also are associated with making baskets -- they are never to be buried with the dead, and one should never touch a basketmaker at work, step over basket materials, burn leftover material or use a frayed basket.

While some baskets are used for holding food and for other purposes, it is the symbolism of the ceremonial baskets that Cordalis is most interested in.

The Navajo wedding basket, for example, is distinguished by the path of white from the center of the basket to the rim. While a number of different interpretations of the symbolism exist, one common to most is the idea of emerging through this path. The center of the basket has been said to symbolize the beginning of life with the path showing the way of renewal. In ceremonies, the path is oriented toward the east, the direction of the rising sun.

Colors also are significant in Navajo basketmaking, with white symbolizing dawn, black the night and red the rays of the sun.

Cordalis said she became interested in museum studies as a way to affect the representation of American Indians outside the culture. She hopes someday to help plan and open a new museum on the Navajo reservation where she was raised.

“It has always bothered me that what I was hearing and seeing about Native Americans did not reflect the people I knew,” she says.

Fred Lange, curator of anthropology at the CU Museum, said that when Cordalis finishes her degree, she will be one of few American Indians trained in the museum field. That will make her an asset to the profession and to her people, whose treasured artifacts should be preserved for future generations.

In the meantime, she has been an asset to her colleagues at CU.

“It has been good for us to have her with us because it reinforces our sense of responsibility for our stewardship of someone else's heritage,” Lange says.