History of Navajo Rugs & Blankets

Published on August 24, 2013 by Amy

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History of Navajo Rugs & Blankets
History of Navajo Rugs & Blankets

The history of Navajo weaving is in many ways the history of the Navajo people. The Navajo textile in its design, materials, and purpose is like a mirror reflecting not only the weaver, but her whole people, in a specific time and place in their history. However it is not for this reason alone that the Navajo weaving now and throughout history has been perhaps the most valued and sought after textile product of the American Southwest. The artistic beauty and sensible function of Navajo woven textiles combine to make them sublime.

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For the Navajo, weaving began when Spider Boy brought the first loom to the Navajo, creating its frame from the power of the sun, the lashing cords of lightning and the warp strings of rain. This special gift served as a prototype and the Diné were shown how those three elements, the source of life, had provided for them the materials from which they could create their own looms. Spiderwoman then came to show the Diné how to weave upon the loom and create items of unique beauty and utility. These Holy Elders proved themselves wise for it is weaving, perhaps more than any other factor, that have allowed the Navajo to survive and to prosper in a world of fickle allies and powerful enemies.

For the anthropologist the Navajo learned the weaving craft from the Puebloans, many of whom were harboured by Navajo families as refugees from the tyranny of Spain when that country began its conquest of the New World in the mid 1500’s. In fact, many anthropologists theorize that the Navajo arrived in the New World not long before this time, late-comers from across the Bering Straight. Recent facts may challenge these ideas. That the Navajo share genetic traits with the Mongols of Asia is probably a fact, the date of their arrival in the New World is not so clear cut. Being a semi-nomadic people in the heart of the Southwest, anthropological evidence of the Navajo prior to historic times is scant. However there have been intriguing finds of homesteads that are remarkably similar to those of the recent Navajo and one of these has turned up a structure that quite possible was a loom. This find is dated to around 1300 A.D. The Navajo themselves say that when they arrived in this, the fourth world, the Kisani or Puebloans were already here and were in the process of building the great Pueblos of Chaco Canyon. The Navajo and Pueblo looms are practically identical, but the Navajo would have that the knowledge of weaving was already theirs when they first came in contact with the Puebloans.

Navajo Rugs
Navajo Rugs

The origin of Navajo weaving may never be known, so we begin with what we do know. From the time Francisco Vasquez De Coronado entered the Southwest in his search for riches in 1540, the Spanish were at war with the Navajo. From the records of these Conquistadores we have references to the Navajo and their weaving. The earliest fragments of Navajo weaving to survive the ravages of time are those found in “Massacre Cave” in Cañon Del Muerte, the canyon of the dead. The story is pieced together from Spanish records and second hand accounts. A Spanish punitive expedition was dispatched to the Navajo stronghold of Canyon De Chelly. Many of the Navajo, hearing of the formidable force, fled the canyon but a band of Navajo remained. They hid the women, children, and elderly men in a cave high above the Canyon floor accessible only by a precipitous climb from the top of the canyon while the men melted into the vast canyon to wait until the Spanish detachment passed. It is said that one of the women, secure of her safety in the inaccessible cave could not contain herself when the detachment was passing unaware of the Navajo hidden above. She called out from the cave in her best Spanish, “Aquí vienen los hombres sin ojos!” (“Here come the men without eyes!”). The Navajo’s position thereby betrayed, the Spanish opened fire with their rifles, the bullets ricocheting off the roof to kill many inside. The rest were finished off by the Spanish troops who found their way into the cave. The site remained untouched for a hundred years. One complete blanket and fragments of clothing and blankets were found inside along with skeletons of the inhabitants, some of the skulls crushed by the butts of Spanish rifles. The marks of the bullets left on the cave ceiling can still be seen today.

The fragments found in Massacre Cave along with verbal accounts and paintings tell us that the earliest Navajo weavings were blankets, woven wider than long, and designed with simple stripes of white and brown. One fragment also exhibited some blue striping. It is known that a blue dye was available and used by the Navajo. This was called indigo and was available as early as 1600 to the Navajo through trade from Mexico. This dye was traded in cakes made from the extract of the leaves and stems of the indigofera shrub, a relative of the pea native to India, the Near East, and South East Asia. The dye was used by the Navajo by being dissolved in a container of fermented urine, the more the white wool being dipped in the dye the deeper the blue colour obtained.

Navajo Blankets, notably “Chief’s Blankets, were of he finest quality produced by the Navajo. Supple, warm, and naturally water resistant, these blankets were valued and sought after trade items found often as far as the Great Plains where the families of chiefs and headmen were the only people wealthy enough to obtain them. This fact gave the Chief’s Blanket its somewhat misleading name, as the Navajo themselves had no chiefs. One of this kinown as the First Phase Ute Blanket was particularly popular among the Ute and the Lakota. This blanket was designed of bold alternating stripes in natural white and dark brown with thinner blue stripes at the top and bottom edges and through the middle. Recorded examples of this design appear in literature prior to the 1800’s. An early rendering of a Piegan Blackfeet Indian was painted by Karl Bodmer, the official artist commissioned to record the Native Americans encountered by the German prince, Maximillian during his trek across the American West. In the 1833 portrait the man is wearing a first phase chief’s blanket. Another record appears in a Yanktonai Sioux winter count by Lone Dog in which the representation of the year 1853 is of a man dressed in “white man’s clothing” holding what is most certainly a Navajo woven Ute chief’s blanket.

The Navajo used no native dyestuffs that can be verified prior to 1850. The use of a native yellow derived from rabbit brush can be seen after that time, sometimes in combination with indigo to create a green colour and may have been used before. But the sparse use of colour in early Navajo weaving was certainly not due to Navajo dislike. Reds have always been a favourite choice of Navajo weavers. The first reds obtained by the Navajo were from imported cloth that reached them via trade routes from Europe, to Spain, then Mexico and into the Southwestern colonies. The Navajo would unravel the cloth into threads sometimes recarding and respinning it to use in their blankets. This type of raveled wool yarn is called bayeta The first entrada by Coronado included commercial cloth, but the first recorded use by the Navajo of bayeta was in the late 1700s. To use the reds and other colours in their weavings,. The design of the Second Phase chief’s blanket incorporates narrow red stripes to form blocks in the center, corners, and middle edges of the blanket. The influence of the colonists from Spain and Mexico saw this block design evolve into diamonds and therefore a new classification of Third Phase for Chief’s Blankets.

Although we are fond of our classifications, the Navajo themselves had no predilection for the concept and so inconveniently wove many variations on the above mentioned themes and also wove concurrently with their Chief’s Blankets other variations and designs. One type borrowed heavily from Spanish weaving. These blankets, called serapes, were a combination of stripes, diamonds, and other geometrics and were another well-sought-after trade item. From the beginning of the Spanish invasion, the Spanish took not only Navajo, but Pueblo and Apache prisoners as slaves. This practice continued until the late 1800’s with Mexican colonists in the Southwest obtaining many household slaves from raids. This forced cultural contact, as well as naturally occurring contact through trade was a great influence on Navajo weaving designs. An unusual and rare blanket called a “Slave Blanket” appears in some collections. These were Navajo textiles woven by Navajo slaves using the Navajo loom but often weaving materials and dyes almost exclusively available in Spanish and Mexican households. This is surely a classification that no Navajo would have chosen to make.

With the end of the Mexican – American War in 1848, the Americans began to play a more active role in Southwestern history in general and Navajo history in particular.

If I have painted the Navajo thus far as being a passive people leading their semi-nomadic life only when not being victimized by the Mexican colonists then I have been unfair. The Navajo were often the victims but also often the victors. The Navajo were excellent horseman and with this aid also excellent warriors and raiders taking their own share of colonial captives and livestock. The history of the Navajo and the Americans is one of Navajo raids against American settlers and their new charges, the Mexican colonies, and retaliatory punitive assaults on the Navajo by the same. Treaties were made and just as quickly broken by either side. The Navajo, having no “chiefs” that would or could speak for the entire tribe were a people consisting of bands lead by strong headmen. One band may agree to a treaty as another would break it almost simultaneously. The Americans, with their history of democracy and leadership did not understand this behaviour. Many on both sides wanted only a peaceful solution. Many more wanted war, annihilation of the enemy, and profit. It was the “Navajo question” and there was only one answer. There could be no peace until one side emerged in utter victory over the other. Although fierce and able warriors, the Navajo were at a great disadvantage over the American army with its precise training, chain of command, and murderously superior weaponry.

The American settlers demanded more land in their territory newly won from Mexico, but never completely wrested from the Navajo. Raids and counter-raids were exploited by the Mexican colonists who would raid for slaves, wait for the inevitable Navajo reprisal, then join the American army to raid for more. The Navajo were formidable and slippery, always able to fall back and disappear into their stronghold of Canyon De Chelly. Treachery and greed pervaded all sides of the conflict and none so far had found a solution.

In 1862, when the Civil War raged, Washington’s attention to its new territory was necessarily diverted. Many of the regular army was off to fight in the war and the Navajos and Apaches were taking full advantage of the situation in a series of merciless livestock raids, the Indians becoming so bold as to enter the towns and drive off cattle, leaving murdered citizens in their wake. Suddenly and unexpectedly Washington did turn its focus on the Arizona and New Mexico territories. It placed a General James H. Carleton in charge. He began with the Apaches. His policy: “All men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them. The women and children will not be harmed, but you will take them as prisoners. The Indians are to be soundly whipped, without councils or parleys.” The Apaches and the Navajos were not only to be “whipped” but removed altogether, taken far away from the Mexican colonists and from the American settlers hungry for land. The place chosen was Bosque Redondo, far in the Southeast corner of New Mexico, a barren patch of the Staked Plains on the Little Pecos river. Here the Indians would be taught to become good Christian farmers under the tutelage of the U.S. Army. Here also the captive Indians would provide a buffer between the Comanche and the Texas settlers, the Comanche being enemies of the Navajo and the Apache and finding the livestock and women and children captives more easily taken here than from armed Texas settlers. Whether this was another intention of General Carleton’s history does not conclusively record.

Carleton, with the regular army engaged in the civil war, was faced with mostly volunteers for a fighting force. Many of these volunteers were more interested in captured slaves and livestock than real combat and could not be trusted to fight when the going got tough. Carleton therefore turned to Colonel Kit Carson as a natural leader and experienced Indian fighter. Carleton’s plan was a scorched earth policy, so recently proven effective by General Sherman in Atlanta. Burn every Navajo or Apache crop found, drive them to starvation, then let them come to the army and surrender. It was a simple plan that worked. The Mescalero Apache were the first to succumb and thereafter Carson’s attention could be turned to the Navajo. Carson’s campaign began in the Fall of 1864 and coincided with one of the worst Winters in the recent memory of the area. While Carson destroyed the Navajo’s sheep and cattle and burned the crops and hogans abandoned before him, the Navajo were withdrawing to their old stronghold in Canyon De Chelley. Carson took full advantage of the colonist’s hatred of the Navajo and employed them as well as warriors from the age-old enemy tribes of the Ute and Hopi. He needed no American army. The action of Kit Carson’s to finally break the Navajo’s spirit was his entrance into Canyon De Chelly. With the Navajo starving, their great wealth in raided cattle all but gone, their homes and fields destroyed, Carson was able to enter the Canyon with no resistance. He was seen by the Navajo from above on the far side and his presence there meant to the Navajo that there was no place else to hide. They began to surrender, in small, straggling, hungry bands.

The captured Navajos were sent to Fort Defiance and dispatched from there in large groups to be force marched to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo. This is the sad event in Navajo history known as the “long walk”. Those Navajos that did not die on the trail from malnutrition or were not murdered by the American soldiers under whom they were charged or were not captured by the Mexican colonists who took full advantage of the situation arrived at the Bosque to begin their lives as farmers. It is important to note that although the Navajo were provided by the government with farming implements, nothing here could grow but sagebrush. The soil was alkaline and poor and the meager crops year after year suffered and died from drought, disease, or insect plague. The government provided food, but this was only sustenance deemed inedible for the regular army. The Indian agents did try to help and descried the situation, but their entreaties fell on disinterested ears. The Navajo Question had been answered as far as Washington and the military was concerned. Although there were still wild bands of Navajo and Apache that refused surrender, most of these starving peoples were eventually to accept their fate and the Bosque.

The arrival of the first Navajo to Fort Sumner marked the end of the weaving era known as the “classic period” and begins the “late classic” era. During this time the Navajo were still weaving and making jewelry. Government supplies of commercial cloth and yarn were being issued at Bosque Redondo and the weaving of this time displays a vast array of raveled and plied materials of many different colours. But it was also a hopeless time for the Navajo. The nadir of their recorded history. Raids continued by the Mexican colonists and the Comanche, reducing what stock was left to the Navajo and reducing the numbers of Navajo themselves as they were taken as slaves. Some Navajo deserted, slipping off into the night to an unknown fate. But finally politics had opened the ears of Washington. The cries of the agents and sympathetic Easterners, as well as the political enemies of General Carleton were beginning to be heard. After four years in the hell of Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo, in 1868, the Navajo were finally allowed to return to their Dinetah, their homeland with the promise that they would raid and war no more.

But it was a difficult new beginning. The Navajo returned to their homeland overjoyed, but so poor as to be destitute. The government continued to supply the Navajo with cloth, yarn, sheep, and foodstuffs, but these annuities were intermittent at best and there were some corrupt agents and others that would steal even from a people so poor. Government annuities dwindled after the Civil War with congress concerned over the post war expenses. Here was a government with little understanding of its Native populace, but an equal determination that they be “assimilated” into “white” culture. This was an impossible goal, although congress magnanimously allowed 10 years for the process, it would continue and still continues today. But at the time the Navajo were keeping their promise of peace with the Whites and some kind of balance had to be achieved. There were many factors in the Navajo coming finally to live at relative peace side by side with the Americans, time being the greatest. But one major help was the Trader.

A relationship between these two cultures developed and both cultures changed because of it. By the end of the 1800’s, while the Navajo were slowly beginning to recover, the need for their weaving was decreasing. Demand for commercially manufactured blankets was replacing the need for the hand-woven product. But there was a new outlet for the Navajo weaver, the Eastern tourist. The advent of the railroad in the Southwest in the 1880s opened a new vista to the area; easy transport of goods to and from the Southwest and easy transport of tourist to and fro as well. A new type of yarn was being distributed by the government and also by the traders at this time. It was an aniline dyed, commercially spun wool yarn from Germantown, Pennsylvania. Germantown yarn increased colour palette available to the Navajo and eliminated need for shearing, spinning, and dying. Many of the best local weavers produced beautiful blankets, rugs, and “samplers” of vivid and varied design and hue from this yarn to be traded at the posts and sold to the railway stop tourists.

This new era, however, saw other changes in weaving that threatened the art form with extinction. A new breed of sheep was introduced by the government with regard to its meat and complete disregard to its wool product. Also newly available were chemical aniline dyes in a great array of colours. Aniline dyed cloth had been raveled and used by the Navajo since the Bosque, and Germantown yarns were still being used, but these new packet dyes were readily available in a great variety of colour and depending on the weaver who acquired them, would often aid in the production of blanket experiments that were garish and wild in colour and design. The “late classic” era in Navajo weaving thus ended and the “transitional period” was begun. These “transitional” blankets varied widely in their artistry and quality. Some traders bought the blankets by the pound, causing the entrepreneurial Navajo to fail to wash the grease from the wool and to make additions of sand and lard to add to the weight.

Other traders were more insightful. Juan Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado, C. N. Cotton in Gallup, and John B. Moore at Crystal could foresee the end of a unique and beautiful art form and the loss of a profitable commodity if weaving continued in its decline. These traders and others began to discourage their local weavers from weaving an inferior product. J.L. Hubbell provided his weavers with watercolour images of early blanket designs and encouraged his weavers to “revive” these old patterns. J.B. Moore and C.N. Cotton did the same, even going so far as to create a mail order catalogue for their Eastern customers.

Demand and popularity for oriental carpets by Easterners influenced J.B. Moore to create his own design concepts incorporating the Oriental designs with older Navajo ones to create unique designs which he also displayed at his trading post for his local weavers. This catalogue was such a popular success that these Eastern design elements would eventually be incorporated in Navajo weaving across the reservation and forever change the look of the Navajo textile. Borders began to appear during this “transitional” period and the product encouraged by these traders and others was a shift in function from the woven blanket for wearing to the woven rug for display.

As time passed, the Navajo reservation was recreated as its own sovereign entity with its own president and government, though still under the leadership of the Department of the Interior. This had the effect of concurrently moving the Navajo toward a more “White” culture and also isolating them from it. With this new government came new rules and changes in law that once more found the trader indispensable as liaison between the two cultures. Rather than the Trading Post being associated with the community, communities became associated with their Trading Post. Chapters of the new Navajo government arose in these locations. The advent of the motor car and its popularity in the United States made little difference in the rough terrain of the Navajo reservation and these communities remained rather isolated from one another. Access to the reservation was still primarily by horse and wagon, but the railroad towns of Grants, Gallup, Kingman, and Flagstaff became flourishing trade centers where traders from the remote posts would bring their wares. Designs influenced by a particular trader were different enough from other locations as to be named by their region. Storm patterns from Cameron and Grey Mountain, Wide Ruins, Crystals, Ganados, and Two Gray Hills became names associated with the identification of rug designs as well as their region.

The Navajo had rebounded from the disaster of the Bosque to become the largest and most wealthy Indian Nation in the United States. Coal and Uranium deposits resulted in contracts with independent companies and agencies of the government. The Navajo prospered. Roads were built and maintained throughout the reservation and tourism by the 1930’s and 1940’s was a booming industry. Vegetal dyes with their pleasing pastels were discovered and encouraged to meet the demand of the Eastern market. The vegetal dye process became the focus of weaving at Crystal Trading Post after World War II. Wide Ruins, Burntwater, and Chinle all developed a weaving emphasizing the vegetal dye. Two Gray Hills became known for its exceptional weavers and textiles that utilize no dye at all, only the varying shades of whites, blacks, browns, and greys achieved from the colour of natural wools. Three generations since Bosque Redondo and the end of the “Indian Wars” a renewed interest in the Native American culture began to flourish among the Americans. Working with weavers, people such as Cozy McSparron, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, Nonobah G. Bryan, and Stella Young to name only a few have had great influence on the improvement of Navajo weaving, wool and the documenting and use of vegetal dyes. Credit for the weaver as well as the weaving began to be recognized in earnest in the late sixties and so now we know the weaver’s name in association with her (and his!) art.

Today the Navajo textile is recognized world wide for its intrinsic value as the product of an artist, a heritage, a culture, and a history. Older Navajo rugs and blankets are actively sought for collection by private individuals and museums. Being made of biodegradable materials the rarity and hence the value of Navajo textiles increase dramatically with age. New records are being set with the purchase of antique Navajo textiles through important curations and auctions. The value and artistry of contemporary Navajo weaving is also appreciated today more than at any other time. New and important research and collaborations, such as those being conducted at the Gloria F. Ross foundation, continue to explore, document, and aid contemporary Navajo weavers.

To close then, I draw the reader’s attention to the Navajo rug, not to view its final product as the admirable work of art and beauty that it is as a whole, but rather to consider the intricacy of its parts. The design, its colours and complexity, are wholly the creation of the weaver herself. No pattern is or ever has been used to create it aside from that in the weaver’s own conception influenced by her current world and from the worlds of her mother and her mother’s mothers before her. Here in this design, this yarn, this weft and warp can be unraveled thread by thread a history of a human people, a culture that has survived all that we can know from history and surely much that we will never know. Each element can be seen as aspect, a moment in time, unraveling the years to reveal a people firmly rooted in the history of the United States, the New World before that, and the ancient world before that. What other modern art form can bring us to a simultaneous destination of so many generations past so that the object itself must melt away in the journey leaving us only with the whisper of the heddle as it is passed between the warps and the soft sound of the comb against the yarn; a sound so ancient when heard by living ears as to be timeless.

Source: camerontradingpost

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