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Navajo Weavings—
Many Things to Many People

by Bob Brooke

 

Navajo weavings are many things to many people. These soft, woven textiles are evocative, timeless works of art that transcend time and space. Navajo weavings have captured the imagination of collectors not only because of their beauty but also because they accurately mirror the social and economic history of the Navajo people.

Anthropologists speculate the Navajos learned to weave from Pueblo people by 1650. There’s little doubt that the Spanish had already influenced Pueblo weaving through the substitution of wool for cotton, the introduction of indigo dye, and simple stripe patterning by the time they shared their weaving skills with Navajo people. Besides the manta, a wider-than-long wearing blanket, Navajo weavers also made a tunic-like dress, garters, hair ties, belts, men's shirts, breechcloths, and a serape-style wearing blanket that was longer-than-wide and patterned in brown, blue and white stripes and terraced lines.

For most of the 17th Century, the textiles produced by the Navajos were almost identical to those of Pueblo weavers, but by the end of the 18th Century, Navajo weavers began to go in different directions. While Pueblo weavers continued to create traditional designs, Navajo weavers learned they didn’t need to pass the weft through all the warps each time, but rather, by stopping at whatever point they wished they could create patterns other than horizontal bands. These pauses in Navajo weaving, diagonal lines across the horizontal wefts, are often called "lazy-lines." By the early 19th Century, Navajo weavers began using this technique to create terraced lines and unique designs, as well as adding color to their work.

In 1844, Josiah Gregg, while traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, 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."

Unfortunately, the Spanish and, later, the Mexicans had never been able to reach a lasting peace with the Navajo. When Mexico ceded a portion of the Southwest to the United States in 1848, the U.S. inherited the "Navajo Problem." From 1863 to 1864, Kit Carson led a campaign against the Navajos, destroying their food caches, herds and orchards. In the end, over 8,000 Navajo people surrendered. He and his troops marched them hundreds of miles to an arid, barren reservation, Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.

The surrendered Navajos endured incarceration, with shortages of supplies, food, and water, for five long years. Their culture changed dramatically during this period. To substitute for their lost flocks, the U.S. Government gave them cotton string, commercially-manufactured natural- and aniline-dyed yarns as well as manufactured cloth and blankets. In 1867, troops distributed 4,000 Spanish-made blankets to the Navajos as part of their annuity payment. All of this lessened the need to create their own textiles.



The combination of widespread availability of yarns and cloth and the influence of the Spanish Saltillo designs inspired a dramatic shift in Navajo weaving during the Bosque Redondo years. Weavers replaced the striped and terraced patterns of the Classic period with the serrate or diamond style of the Transitional period.

In 1868, the U.S. Government allowed the Navajo to return to their mesas and canyons in what’s now northern Arizona. In exchange for their return, they promised to cease aggressions against neighboring peoples and to settle and become farmers. However, reservation life brought further dramatic changes to Navajo culture, including a growing reliance on American civilization and its products. Over the next 30 years, selling their weavings provided a way for the Navajo to change from a barter economy to a cash-based one. Since the Government goods included yarns, wool cards, indigo dye, aniline dyes, and various kinds of factory woven cloth, skirts and blouses made of this 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 little need for them to weave their own textiles.

Eventually, the U.S. Government licensed traders to establish posts 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. Wool and sheep were important to the Navajo for weaving and meat on their Reservation, as well as off. Mills in the northeastern U.S. demanded wool 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. They purchased sheep and herded them to the nearest railhead and on to the slaughterhouses. The Navajo herds grew substantially, so it became more profitable for them to sell wool rather than use it for weaving.

By the 1880s, the railroad made travel to the West easier, thus opening the area to tourists. The savvy traders recognized this new market and began to pay higher prices for floor rugs and patterns using more muted colors which they thought would be more attractive to non-lndian buyers. Thus, the tourist trade infused new life into Navajo textiles. And by 1920, Navajo weaving developed around these trading posts, and rugs produced for them took on the trading post’s name.

From the looms of Navajo weavers came wool rugs comparable to the world’s finest weavings. Each weaver built her own upright loom. Exposure to larger markets had a significant effect on the evolution of this art form, especially on the development of regional styles and patterns. Although they are no longer accurate indicators of a Navajo rug’s geographic origin, the regional names such as Wide Ruins, Two Grey Hills, or Ganado still identify rugs of a particular style. These are general styles, not specific patterns or designs. In Navajo weaving, the weaver devises the patterns, so while two rugs may be very similar, there are no two exactly alike.

Another more modern influence to Navajo weaving was the introduction of electricity. As soon as electricity became available on the Navajo reservation, life radically changed and so did the weavings. Radio, television, telephone and magazines brought non-cultural related values, issues and sense of place. Thus, Navajo weavings can be divided into two categories: pre-electric and post-electric.

Navajo weaving has flourished throughout the 20th Century, maintaining its importance as a vital native art. Weavers still weave virtually all the 19th- and 20th-Century styles of blankets and rugs, and new styles continue to appear.

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