Yei rugs feature figures that represent the Navajo Yei deities.
Historians believe that the first person to depict sandpainting elements in a Navajo weaving, around 1916, was Hosteen Klah (1867-1932), a Navajo medicine man and artist. It is important to note Yei rugs and other sandpainting rugs are not sacred objects themselves. Weavings of this type, however, are still somewhat controversial within the Navajo community, and some weavers prefer not to use such imagery in their textiles.
Yei rugs vs. Yeibeichei rugs
There are two conceptually related forms of these rugs of which you should be aware:
A Navajo Yei rug features stylized, abstract figures that face the viewer. These figures have long angular bodies and have short straight legs. Yei depictions such as these represent the actual Yei holy people themselves.
A related rug, called a Yeibeichei, features human-shaped, sideways-oriented figures with bent legs as if dancing. These figures represent the Navajo Yeibeichei dancers - that is, people who are performing the role of the Yei in ceremonial dances.
The difference between Yei rugs and Yeibeichei rugs is subtle; remember that the more abstract-looking (and forward-facing) figure portrays an actual deity, whereas the more human-looking (and sideways-facing) figure portrays a human dancer representing the deity.
Other Navajo rugs with figures
Note that not all Navajo weavings with figures are necessarily Yei or Yeibeichei rugs. These other human illustrations would be characterized as pictorial Navajo weavings since they do not reference elements from sandpaintings. Instead, these figures are simply examples of textiles where the weaver displays an excellent grasp of creating representational images.
Figures you might see in pictorial weavings include Hopi kachinas with the distinctive tableta headdresses (created briefly in the 1910s) or scenes from Navajo life.