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To understand the effort and significance of these works, first one must understand its people. The Navajo are thought to be descendants from the people known as the Athabascan's, who migrated from Northwest of Canada and Alaska to the American Southwest around 1200 to 1500 CE . In the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors appeared in the Southwest and by the late 16th century began to subdue many of the native Pueblo people. It was because of this that many of the Pueblo people migrated westward into Navajo territory. Prior to this the Navajo had types of weaving. It is thought that they adopted weaving as well as some agricultural and ceremonial practices from these Pueblo people. This newly adopted craft was further changed with the introduction of sheep brought in by the Spanish .
Although weaving had caught on and become an important part of Navajo society, it was still considered something that weaver would when she had nothing else better to do with her time. This is why many of the rugs that were woven were done during the long, inactive winter, and ready for use and trade in the spring . As the Navajo women became more proficient with weaving blankets, they would use them for trade between other tribes, although they were not used specifically for this function. After a time these blankets, and more specifically the chiefs blankets became "the unit of exchange by which all other goods were measured " .
By the mid 1800's the American army had taken control of much of New Mexico and Arizona. It was during this time that the U.S. Government put the scorched earth policy into effect in response to the "increased intensity of [Navajo] raids for sheep and other things on Pueblo and Spanish and Anglo settlers" . The scorched earth policy allowed the U.S. army to begin destroying the Navajo livestock and crops as well as kill any Navajo men who resisted arrest.
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Prior to Bosque Redondo in the early 1800's a very dominant pattern in Navajo blanket weaving had evolved begun to gain popularity with both other tribes and the European settlers. This pattern became know as chiefs blankets. The patterns on these blankets were very simple. They all it consisted of were horizontal stripes that ran the length of the blanket. These stripes were generally characterized as " two zones of broad black and white stripes with wider black bands at the ends and a double- wide panel across the center. The end bands were embellished by pairs of narrower strips of indigo blue, with two pairs across the center" . This became known as the Chiefs Blankets First Phase (Fig. 1). These blankets became very popular even among other tribes and by 1833 were being used for trade between the Great Plains tribes.
These blankets continued to evolve into two more phases over the next fifty some years. The next evolution in the chiefs blankets occurred during the 1850s as well as the 1860s and was know as the Second Phase (Fig. 2). This phase stayed true to the original format of horizontal stripes of the first phase, however it now included simple geometric shapes (generally rectangles and terrace shaped triangles) on the corners and in the center of the blankets and slightly more color variation. By the mid 1860s this pattern too gave way to yet a third and final phase of chief blankets. Still including the original format of the two previous patterns, the weaver would now often use a terrace shaped diamond in place of where other geometric shapes had been (Fig. 3). Sometimes there were even two adjoining diamond in the center of the blanket.
Because of the popularity the Navajo were able to live comfortably and became very prominent in trading. From the 1840's through the 1890's the Navajo weaves were considered some of the finest in the world. These blankets were sought for several reasons, such as warmth, durability and their ability to repel water. Most importantly however was their overall beauty . The majority of the chiefs blankets that were produced for trade in the early 1800s were traded primarily to the Plains Indians as well as the Pueblo Indians, although there was some trade between the Spanish at this time as well. After the Mexican War in 1848 the American government controlled much of the Southwest. This also began to open up trade between the Navajo and the soldiers of the U.S. army, who were looking more for souvenirs than actual functioning blankets .
The changes that occurred in the patterns of these blankets was greatly influenced by several factors. One these factors were different kinds of potential traders. While the Plains and Pueblos preferred the simple patterns of the First and Second Phase chiefs blankets the Spanish traders were partial to the large central diamonds of the third phase. The Americans differed even further wanting more colors and more designs. Other factors that influenced the blanket patterns were the introduction of new materials brought by the Spanish and American traders as well as the relocation of the Navajo to the Bosque Redondo reservation. Through the 1850s to the 1860s the Navajo weavers only source of red yarn was produced by the English and the Spanish. This yarn, known as baize, was purchased in large bolts and would be cut and unraveled so that the individual threads could be re-woven into the chiefs blankets.
This of course affected the blankets pattern very minimally when compared to how life at the Bosque Redondo changed them. While on this reservation, the Navajo had much to adapt to. Before the Navajo had been able to attain anything they needed through their own means, be it food or materials for making rugs. After being placed on a reservation, they now had to rely on the U.S. Army to provide these things. However now if these native people wanted more than what the Army was willing to provide, they would have to find away to buy it themselves.
Fortunately the chiefs blankets were still considered a form of currency and they were able to get the goods that they needed through the trade and sale of said blankets. Unfortunately this now meant that the Navajo weaver now had to cater to the white mans taste in the designs of the blankets. Also because they were secluded to this reserve the Navajo now had no access to the original materials that they used to create their blankets. They now relied on using machine spun cotton and wool along with synthetic dyes that they would acquire from trading posts. This played a factor in the appearance of the Third Phase of chief blankets having more designs to appease the white patrons as well as the brighter synthetic colors. Over the years to come the Navajo continued to weave their blankets and their patterns continued to evolve. More and more the blankets became more commercialized with the chiefs blankets patterns seeming to vanish almost completely.
Today Navajo weaving is considered to by some of the finest in the world and with select artists can fetch prices of up to $20,000 . Even so, few Navajo women still weave. Around 1973 " about twenty-eight thousand [Navajo] women reported that they knew how to weave, but few of them were working at the loom on a full-time basis" . It is possible that the reason that there are so few weavers any more is because in the price that she can get for her weaving is not equal to the long hours that it takes to weave one blanket/ rug.
Although there has been a large decrease in the amount of women weaving, a Fourth Phase in the chiefs blankets came about. These blankets had long out grown their use for warmth and are now primarily used as rugs. The Fourth Phase chiefs blankets still tended to use the horizontal format of the previous three phases along with the use of the geometric shapes, such as the central diamond (Fig. 4). Other forms of this phase deviated by dividing the blanket into three separate zones of design, while still using the traditional colors of black, white and red (Fig. 5).Bibliography
Baer, Joshua. "Garments of Brightness: The Art History of the Navajo eye dazzler." The Magazine Antiques, 4 October 1991, 583.
Berlo, Janet C. and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bonar, Eulalie H. Woven by Grandmothers Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American India. New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1996.
Dockstader, Frederick J. Song of the Loom: New Traditions in Navajo Weaving.
New York: Hudson Hill Press, 1987.
M'Closkey, Kathy. Swept Under the Rug: A Hidden History of Navajo Weaving.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.