A Brief Social History of Navajo Weaving

A bit of historical context for a popular contemporary collectible

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There is an ageless beauty to Navajo weaving. Navajo weavings are many things to people. Above all else, Navajo weavings are masterworks, regardless of whose criteria of art is used to judge them. They are evocative, timeless portraits which, like all good art, transcend time and space. Navajo weaving has captured the imagination of many not only because they are beautiful, well-woven textiles but also because they so accurately mirror the social and economic history of Navajo people. Succinctly, Navajo women wove their life experiences into the pieces.

Navajo people tell us they learned to weave from Spider Woman and that the first loom was of sky and earth cords, with weaving tools of sunlight, lightning, white shell, and crystal. Anthropologists speculate Navajos learned to weave from Pueblo people by 1650. There is little doubt Pueblo weaving was already influenced by the Spanish by the time they shared their weaving skills with Navajo people. Spanish influence includes the substitution of wool for cotton, the introduction of indigo (blue) dye, and simple stripe patterning. Besides the "manta" (a wider-than-long wearing blanket), Navajo weavers also made a tunic-like dress, belts, garters, hair ties, men's shirts, breechcloths, and a "serape-style" wearing blanket. These blankets were longer-than-wide and were patterned in brown, blue and white stripes and terraced lines.

For more than a century, the products of Navajo looms were probably identical to those of their Pueblo teachers, but by the end of the 1700s Navajo weaving began its divergence. While Pueblo weavers remained conservative, Navajo weavers learned that wefts did not need to be passed through all the warps each time, but rather, by stopping at whatever point they wished they could create patterning other than horizontal bands. These "pauses" in Navajo weaving are often seen as "lazy-lines" (diagonal lines across the horizontal wefts) in finished pieces. By 1800, weavers were using this technique to create terraced lines and discrete design elements. Navajo weavers also demonstrated more willingness to use color than their Pueblo teachers.

Spanish documents describing the Southwest in the early 18th century mention Navajo weaving skills. By the 1700s Navajo weaving was an important trade item to the Pueblos and Plains Indian people. In 1844, Santa Fe Trail traveler Josiah Gregg reported, "a singular species of blanket, known as the Serape Navajo which is of so close and dense a texture that it will frequently hold water almost equal to gum-elastic cloth. It is therefore highly prized for protection against the rains. Some of the finer qualities are often sold among the Mexicans as high as fifty or sixty dollars each."

Blankets were traded great distances as evidenced by their appearance in Karl Bodmer's 1833 painting of a Piegan Blackfoot man (Montana) wearing what appears to be a first-phase Chief's blanket or an 1845 sketch of Cheyenne at Bent's Fort (Colorado) wearing striped blankets. Historic photographs illustrate that the desirability of blankets increased with the 19th century. Closer and more frequent trading partners included the Utes, Apaches, Comanches, and Pueblos.

Navajo Textiles: Serape

Artist Unknown (Navajo) c1850
Saddle or Child's Wearing Blanket
51" x 33"
Designs from
Chief's Blanket and serape styles
adorn this all-wool textile, woven of
indigo blue and green,cochineal
red and hand-carded white
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture remote
Laboratory of Anthropology #46103/12
Photo: Blaire Clark

The Spanish or Mexicans had never been able to reach a lasting peace with the Navajo. When Mexico ceded the Southwest to the United States in 1848, the "Navajo Problem" was also inherited. With a pronounced resolve, Kit Carson led a "Scorched Earth" campaign in 1863–4, destroying food caches, herds and orchards, ending in 8000 Navajo people surrendering. They were marched hundreds of miles to an arid, barren reservation, Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumner in eastern NM.

For five years the people endured incarceration with shortages of supplies, food, and water. Their culture changed dramatically during this period, not least in weaving. To substitute for their lost flocks, annuities were paid which included cotton string, commercially-manufactured natural- and aniline-dyed yarns as well as manufactured cloth and blankets. These lessened the Navajo people's reliance on their own loom products. In 1867, four thousand Spanish-made blankets were distributed to the Navajos as part of their annuity payment. The combination of widespread availability of yarns and cloth and the influence of the Spanish Saltillo designs were probably a direct inspiration in the dramatic shift in weaving during the Bosque Redondo years, from the stripes and terraced patterns of the Classic period to the serrate or diamond style of the Transitional period. It is testimony to the resiliency of Navajo culture that a period of internment could produce a robust period of change and continuity in weaving.

Navajo Textiles: Two Gray Hills

Daisy Tagelchee (Navajo) c1935
Floor Rug / 64.5" x 48.5"
Tagelchee's work — as well as her fine wool
preparation and weaving — is the embodiment
of the Two Gray Hills style.
Wefts and warps, natural and carded colors.
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture remote
Laboratory of Anthropology #45278/12
Photo: Blaire Clark

In 1868, the Navajo were allowed to return to their beloved mesas and canyons. In exchange for their return they promised to cease aggressions against neighboring peoples, and to settle and become farmers. Reservation life brought further dramatic changes to Navajo culture, including a growing reliance on American civilization and its products. The sale of weavings in the next thirty years would provide an essential vehicle for economic change from barter to cash. Annuity goods included yarns, wool cards, indigo dye, aniline dyes, and various kinds of factory woven cloth. Skirts and blouses made of manufactured cloth replaced the woven two-piece blanket dress. Manufactured Pendleton blankets displaced hand-woven mantas and shoulder blankets so that by the 1890s, there was relatively little need for loom products in Navajo society.

US government-licensed traders began to establish themselves on the new Navajo Reservation. Whatever their motivation, adventure or commerce, the traders became the chief link between the Navajo and the non-Indian world.

Trading posts exchanged goods for Navajo products such as piñon nuts, wool, sheep, jewelry, baskets, and rugs. While wool and sheep were important to Navajo people for weaving and meat, they were also important to the economy beyond the Reservation. Wool was in great demand in the industrialized eastern US for coats, upholstery, and other products. Traders bought wool by the pound and sold it to wool brokers in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, New Mexico. The sheep purchased by traders were herded to the nearest railhead and on to the slaughterhouses. The herds grew substantially and it became more profitable for Navajo people to sell wool rather than utilize it in weaving.

The railroad reached Gallup, NM in 1882, establishing a tangible connection between the Navajos and the wider market, with the traders acting as middlemen. The completion of the railroad signaled the closing of the American Frontier which, in turn, stimulated a nationwide interest in collecting American Indian art. The railroad made travel to the vast reaches of the west easier and thus opened the area for tourists. The traders recognized these new markets and began to influence weaving by paying better prices for weavings they thought more attractive to non-lndian buyers. This new market, coupled with the Navajo's decline in use of their hand woven products, infused new life into Navajo textile arts.

By the 1880s, trading posts were well established on the Navajo Reservation, and traders encouraged weaving of floor rugs and patterns using more muted colors which they thought would appeal to the non-Indian market. By 1920, many regional styles of Navajo weaving developed around trading posts. These rugs are often known by the area's trading post's name.

The history of Navajo weaving continues; over the past century, Navajo weaving has flourished, maintaining its importance as a vital native art to the present day. Virtually all the nineteenth and twentieth-century styles of blankets and rugs are still woven, and new styles continue to appear.


Thanks to Bruce Bernstein, former director, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture,
Museum of New Mexico remote, Santa Fe

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 11

This article has been translated into Romanian and is available here.


Related Pages

A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article
Collecting Contemporary Navajo Weavings article
Contemporary Navajo Folk Art article
History of an Ancient Human Symbols article
Hopi Katsina Figures article
Indian Trade Blankets article

Textiles as Art article
The Thread of New Mexico article
700AD-1989: Chronology of Fiber Art& Textiles article
Navajo Sandpaintings article
Who are the Pueblo Indians? A Primer article
Women's Work: Creating Beauty article


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

Agape Southwest Pueblo Pottery rem 414 Romero Rd NW | 505-243-2366
Alexanian Rugs, Inc. pic 3341 Columbia Drive NE | 505-881-3333
Cowboys & Indians Antiques pic 4000 Central SE | 505-255-4054
Hanging Tree Gallery pic 416 Romero NW | 505-842-1420
House of the Shalako rem By Appointment in Peralta | 505-242-4579
The Navajo Rug, LLC pic 535 Los Ranchos Road NW | 505-897-5005
Kayla Paul pic By Appointment Only | 505-228-3568
Textival Rug & Textile Workshop LLC rem 2300 Buena Vista SE, Suite 122 | 505-242-9889

Santa Fe

Joan Caballero Appraisals pic PO Box 822, Santa Fe, NM | 505-982-8148
Case Trading Post rem 704 Camino Lejo | 505-982-4636 x102
Chimayo Trading and Mercantile rem State Road 76, Chimayo, NM | 505-351-4566
Steve Elmore Indian Art rem 839 Paseo de Peralta | 505-995-9677
GrimmerRoche rem 422 West San Francisco | 982-8669
Laura Center Navajo Rug Restoration pic PO Box 8455 | 505-982-5663
Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Inc rem 602A Canyon Road | 800-422-9382
Morning Star Gallery rem 513 Canyon Road | 505-982-8187
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture rem 710 Camino Lejo | 505-476-1250
Museum of New Mexico Foundation Shops pic At four museums in Santa Fe | 505-982-3016
The Rainbow Man pic 107 East Palace Ave | 505-982-8706
Sherwoods Spirit of America rem 1005 Paseo de Peralta | 505-988-1776
Textile Arts (Tai Gallery) rem 1601B Paseo de Peralta | 505-983-9780
Traders' Collection pic 219 Galisteo | 505-992-0441
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian rem 704 Camino Lejo | 505-982-4636

Taos

Kimosabe rem 108 Teresina Lane | 575-758-8826
Bryans Gallery 121 Kit Carson Road | 575-758-9407
Millicent Rogers Museum rem Four miles north of Taos Plaza | 575-758-2462

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED October 28, 2011

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