Patches From the Past
Native American Weaving History

Navajo Weaving From Spider Women to Chief's Blankets

~ Navajo rug history up until the long walk of 1862 ~

THE NAVAJO SETTLE INTO THE SOUTHWEST

"The Navajo believe that the gift of weaving was taught to them by Spider Woman, one of the Navajo Holy People. Spider Woman originally showed Changing Woman (another holy person) how to weave, with the stipulation that she would in turn teach the Navajo. Spider Man showed them how to make the loom and tools out of sacred Navajo stones and shells (turquoise, jet, white shell, and abalone), as well as with the earth, sun, rain, sky themselves. This important connection to the earth and elements is characteristic of the Navajo respect and reverence for the natural world. It also demonstrates the significance of weaving within the Navajo religion." 1

Navajo woman weaving photo from All Fiber Arts Anthropologists believe that the Navajo were part of the group of nomads who crossed from Asia to what is now Alaska about 25,000 years ago. They eventually migrated to southwest America about 900 A.D. They were hunter gatherers until after they arrived in the southwest where they found the ancestors of today's pueblo people with their home built in connected units and their agricultural practices. At first the Navajo survived by hunting and raiding the Pueblo villages as well as the later Spanish settlements but eventually the Navajo settled down to growing crops and raising sheep. They never built towns and cities like the Pueblo people. Instead they lived in scattered clusters of small huts called hogans.

With the coming of the Spanish came further hostilities toward the native people. Because it was easier for the Spanish-Mexicans to attack the Pueblo villages some Pueblo people fled to live with the Navajo. Weaving was an ancient tradition with the Pueblos and they taught their skills to the Navajo. Originally some of this weaving was done with cotton but as the Navajo sheep herds expanded, partly due to raids on the Mexicans, wool became plentiful for weaving.

In spite of their more settled existence and wealth in sheep and textiles the Navajo still continued with their raiding throughout the 18th century and into the 19th. Their horses not only increased their raiding abilities but also made extensive trading of their blankets possible.

Their early blankets were limited to the colors of the sheep and a few natural dyes plus the indigo blue dye introduced by the Spanish. The yarn for these blankets was carded and spun by hand, often by the weaver who would make the rug. While the Pueblo people continued to dominate in production and artistry in pottery the Navajo became the masters in weaving.

The discovery of the earliest known fragments of Navajo weaving was the result of a massacre. About 1805 the Spanish decided they had to put an end to the Navajo raiding once and for all. The plan was an attack in Canyon de Chelly, the Navajo spiritual center. But word got out and most of the Navajo left while a few hid in a secluded cave. Unfortunately they were found and all hiding there including women and children were massacred. Because of Navajo beliefs about the dead the cave was left untouched for around 100 years. At that time Anglo's found the cave. In it they found one intact blanket and scraps of several others. These findings were mostly woven in a striped twill pattern. It is considered likely that most 18th century Navajo weaving was done in this style.

"Navajo weaving soon took on a distinctive Navajo quality and diverged from the weaving of the Pueblo Indians. Surpassing Pueblo weavers in quality and quantity, and variety of design, nineteenth-century Navajo weavers became the outstanding weavers in the Southwest." 2

THE EVOLUTION OF CLASSIC NAVAJO WEAVING

modern Burntwater style rug

By the early 1800s Navajo weavers were experimenting with many other designs. The Navajo had been making beautifully designed baskets for some time so it was only natural they would try these designs in their weaving. The designs used in Spanish serapes were another influence on Navajo weaving. As the Navajo did not have a way of making red dye they unraveled wool trade cloth to get the bright colored yarns they wanted for their weaving.

Navajo woven blankets were widely traded among other native people. The Navajo made Chief Blankets were proudly worn as status symbols by those Plains Indians who could afford them including, of course, their chiefs.

Around mid-century what had been basic striped designs with a few variations blossomed into a wonderful array of stripes, diamonds, triangles, square and rectangles woven in a myriad of intricate patterns. The colors still included the earlier natural gray, cream and black colors of the sheep but also expanded into red, yellow and some green. It was an impressive period of imagination and innovation.

Meanwhile the Navajo still made loosely woven and simply striped blankets for everyday use. Because the finer blankets were so carefully cared for many have survived to this day to be collected as well as studied by researchers.

"Owing to their special beauty, costly serapes and other finely woven wearing blankets were probably worn only on special occasions, and were worn with care at those times. Taking pride in their ownership, nineteenth century Indians treated these blankets as valuable garments, if not valuable works of art." 3

2005 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)

Go to Navajo Weaving From 1862 to the Present for the second article in this series.

References:

1 p6 A Guide to Navajo Weaving by Kent McManis & Robert Jeffries

2 p10 Woven by the Grandmothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian by Eulalie H. Bonar, National Museum of the American Indian

3 The Navajo Weaving Tradition: 1650 to the Present by Alice Kaufman, Christopher Selser

Related Websites:

Navajo Weaving: Yesterday and Today
Learn about the methods and styles used in Navajo quilting.

Story of Spider Woman
How the Navajo people learned to weave.
More on Traditional Navajo Culture

A Valuable Early Ute Chief Blanket
The amazing story of this blanket on a video.

A Navajo Rug Made by Hazel Nez
Follow the days of a Navajo Grandmother as she makes a rug.

A Brief History of Navajo Blankets and Rugs
From blankets and rugs made during different periods to present day regional styles.