The History of an Ancient Human Symbol

The swastika design goes back thousands of years in human culture.

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Visitors to New Mexico in the late 19th century would have been pleased to purchase a souvenir rug, pot or piece of silver jewelry decorated with a swastika. "The tourists loved the motif," wrote Margery Bedinger in her popular 1973 book Indian Silver: Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers. "Between July, 1905 and 1906, 60,000 swastikas in various forms, some by Indians and others not, sold to tourists in New Mexico as genuine Indian articles."

Today's tourists, particularly those from the Western hemisphere, would be appalled. Our association of the swastika with Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party is so encompassing we would immediately assume any object so imprinted had a direct link with Nazism.

Low-fired pottery bowl

Low-fired pottery bowl from the Banshan Culture
Majiawan Village, China Neolithic Period (2165-1965 BCE)
Large central swastika probably intended
to symbolize a sun wheel.
Courtesy of Clarke & Clarke remote

Yet anyone who looks at art or architecture, no matter how casually, will eventually see the symbol. The Navajos, Tibetans and Turks incorporated the swastika into their rugs. Arizona's indigenous Pima and Maricopa people wove them into their baskets and painted them onto their pots. In Asia the emblem is found on everything from clothing to political ballots to the thresholds of houses. Swastikas are carved into the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art and many ancient Buddhist and Mayan temples. At Albuquerque's KiMo Theater, built in 1927 and recently restored, swastikas adorn the proscenium, entryway and the building's exterior. Elsewhere in New Mexico, they are evident in the architecture of the Shafer Hotel in Mountainair and the Swastika Hotel in Raton (now the International Bank).


One of the oldest symbols made by humans, the swastika dates back some 6,000 years to rock and cave paintings. Scholars generally agree it originated in India. With the emergence of the Sanskrit language came the term "swastika", a combination of "su", or good, and "asti", to be; in other words, well-being.

There's no clear answer on how the figure migrated to other parts of Asia, Europe, Africa and the New World. Early examples of swastikas on pottery and household objects in China indicate that the swastika traveled with traders and with the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. According to Jim Clarke, an ancient Asian art expert and owner of Clarke & Clarke Asian Antiques and Tribal Art in Santa Fe, early Christian inhabitants of India and Iran used the swastika as an amulet or protective device. "In the 17th century, India and Iran were exotic places to Europeans," Clarke remarks. "Things brought back from these countries were viewed as exotic. To incorporate these symbols was considered very avant."

Germantown Detail

Detail from large Germantown
pictorial Navajo rug c1890
Courtesy of
Sherwoods Spirit of America remote

Clarke is intrigued by the notion that the swastika might have made its way from China to the New World with Chinese traders lost on the seas. Remains of Chinese vessels have been excavated in coastal communities in South America, he says, and along with them the goods they carried. Another theory goes that the swastika traveled with Asians who crossed the land bridge to Alaska and migrated southward to become the indigenous people of North and South America, bringing with them the magic symbols they considered crucial to their health and well-being.

Rock Paintings

Rendering of rock paintings
dating to the fourth millenium BCE
found at Chibbar-Nala, India
Courtesy of Clarke & Clarke remote

In his book, The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles, Dennis J. Aigner cites Thomas Wilson's research in the 1890s that the earliest evidence of the swastika in America was found in excavations in Tennessee and Ohio. "That the swastika found its way to the Western Hemisphere in prehistoric times cannot be doubted . . . ." Aigner quotes Wilson's writing. One of the specimens "shows its antiquity and its manufacture by the aborigines untainted by contact with the whites."

It's also very possible that this simple variation of a cross—which was often used by early humans to represent a star—sprung up out of the "collective unconscious" among cultures all over the world. "Potters and weavers are basically the first artists," comments Josh Baer, a Santa Fe dealer of Navajo rugs and other Native American artifacts. "They probably didn't influence each other as much as resorting to patterns. In weaving if the image is not pictorial, the alternative is to use geometric forms in such a way that they represent celestial and terrestrial forms."

The swastika's meaning does seem to be similar across cultures, generally denoting abundance and prosperity and referring to the four cardinal directions. To Hindus, it is a symbol of the sun and its rotation. Buddhists consider it a diagram of the footprints of Buddha. Among the Jainas of India, the emblem is a reminder of the four possible places of rebirth: in the animal or plant world, in hell, on Earth or in the spirit world. In 1963, the well-respected Southwest author Frank Waters described the swastika's meaning to the Hopi people as a depiction of the migration routes Hopi clans took through North and South America.

In Navajo myth the swastika represents the legend of the whirling log. As told by Aigner, the tale is of a man, outcast from his tribe, who rolls down river in a hollowed-out log. With the help of sacred deities he finds a place of friendship and abundance. Until the late 1800s, when J. Lorenzo Hubbell and J.B. Moore opened their trading posts in Arizona and New Mexico, Navajos portrayed the swastika solely in their religious ceremonies in the form of sand paintings. But by 1896, with prodding by Hubbell and Moore, the symbol proliferated on Navajo rugs, sometimes lifted directly from the images in sand and depicted as a central cross with a male-female pair of standing figures ("yei" or "dreaming twins") at the end of each of the four arms of the cross.

Chinese candle-surround..

19th Century Chinese candle-surround textile
detail showing blue swastika
which by this time probably symbolized
either the Four Winds or The Wheel of Life
Courtesy of Clarke & Clarke remote

Hubbell and Moore not only encouraged Navajo weavers to use swastikas but also spread the idea among Native American artisans working in other genres. Beginning around 1889, engraved silver spoons became coveted souvenirs. Navajos were best known for their silversmithing abilities and thus the spoons came to be known as "Navajo" though they were also crafted by Pueblo people. The two most popular motifs, according to author and antique Indian jewelry dealer Cindra Kline, were Indian heads and swastikas.

Swastika Shield

Swastika Shield
Kimo Theatre remote
(1927 - restored 2000)
423 Central Avenue NW
in downtown Albuquerque
Photo by Kirk Gittings

 

Kline, who has written a book on Navajo spoons to be published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in September, 2001, notes that the first spoon she's located with both a swastika and an engraved date coincides with the opening of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, though the item was certainly made years earlier.

The Charles M. Robbins Co., a commercial spoon company, was manufacturing so-called Navajo spoons as mementos of the fair. In 1906, Moore was the first to offer swastika spoons in its catalog. By the time the spoon craze died out around 1915, Kline says, "you had so many stamps and dyes with swastikas that the symbol appears on bracelets, sides of rings, ash trays, salt cellars. Any silver-stamped item was fair game for a swastika stamp."

In Santa Fe, swastikas can be found in myriad museums and galleries. At the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, a ceramic rain god made at Tesuque Pueblo circa 1900, proudly displays one.  At Clarke & Clarke, swastikas adorn 19th century Thai garments and pre-historic Chinese bowls. Navajo spoons can be purchased at Kania Ferrin, Medicine Man and Rainbow Man galleries and Navajo rugs at Cristof's, Dewey, Packards and Sherwoods. And there are many other venues displaying Himalayan, Islamic, Asian and Native American art in which swastikas connote the natural world, good fortune or simply serve as attractive decorative elements.

Often, however, these pieces will not be on public view. "It's a horrible symbol to overcome," Kline remarks. "But the swastika can be such a beautiful design. It's a shame to see all these beautiful pieces hidden away." Given the difficulty of dating silver, Kline says, "If the viewer can look beyond Hitlerization, if you have a swastika spoon it's an assurance of age. You know it pre-dates WW II probably by a good number of years and it has a fascinating history."

How Hitler came to adopt the swastika is unclear. Various German citizens are said to have suggested it as a symbol of racial purity. Hitler was supposedly obsessed with numerology and Eastern religion and may have seen the image in Tibetan manuscripts or paintings. Regardless, the swastika's original meaning, which had endured for millennia, was diametrically altered.

In 1940, in response to Hitler's regime, the Navajo, Papago, Apache and Hopi people signed a whirling log proclamation. It read, "Because the above ornament, which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries, has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples, therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika . . . on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings and clothing."

References and Suggested Reading

The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles by Dennis J. Aigner. DAI Press, Laguna Beach, California, 2000.

Navajo Spoons by Cindra Kline. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2001.

Indian Silver: Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers by Margery Bedinger. UNM Press, 1973.


Thanks to Dottie Indyke. Dottie lives in Santa Fe and write regularly about the art and culture of this region.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 15


Related Pages

A Brief Social History of Navajo Weavings article
The Neutrogena Textile Collectionarticle
Textiles as Art article

What Does this Indian Symbol Mean? article
Navajo Sandpaintings article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article
Antique Indian Silver Jewelry article


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

Alexanian Rugs, Inc. pic 3341 Columbia Drive NE | 505-881-3333

Santa Fe

Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
Peyton Wright Gallery | 505-989-9888
Sherwoods Spirit of America | 505-988-1776
William Siegal Gallery | 505-820-3300

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED October 14, 2009

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