Navajo History, Woven in Wool

THE NAVAJO were not believed to be weavers until some of them migrated into the area of the Pueblo peoples, who wove in cotton. Pueblo mythology recounts the coming of a Spider-man and a Spider-woman who brought seeds of the cotton plant and taught them how to prepare the thread and construct the loom giving mythic names to the parts: the cross poles were sky and earth cords; the warp sticks, the sun rays; the heddles, crystal and sheet lightning. And, when a baby girl was born, the sticky silk of spiders' webs was rubbed on her hands and arms. This was to make her a weaver whose fingers and arms never tired. On a visit to the Textile Museum in Washington, where magnificent examples of Navajo weaving are displayed, I was fortunate to encounter Joe Ben Wheat, the Curator Emeritus of the Museum of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an expert on Southwestern textiles. He said the Navajo quickly adopted sheep herding from the Spaniards and wove in wool.

What is now called the Classic period of Navajo weaving extended from the mid-17th century until 1863. The early textiles of that era were utilitarian, providing dresses, belts, and the supremely useful blanket, which was used as a cloak. The ``chief's blanket'' - woven in simple stripe patterns in a horizontal rectangle - are beautiful as abstract paintings when hung on museum walls. The designs speak of the limitless plains and the infinite space of the Southwest.

The word ``chief'' is misleading. D.Y. Begay, a contemporary Navajo weaver, explained to me that as the Navajo were many in number and spread out over the Southwest, they had no single chief. There were, of course, people in charge of groups or of enterprises who would be referred to as a leader. The fine Navajo weaving was prized by chiefs of the other tribes with whom they traded, hence they were called ``chief's blankets.''

I asked Joe Ben Wheat about the dyes. The creamy whites and browns were the natural colors of the wool. Black came from black sheep, with the dark tone enhanced by dye. Blue came from the indigo plant, which was abundant, and the dye colorfast. Cochineal gave red but the strong reds which we associate with Navajo weaving came from Spanish bayeta cloth. The women weavers were so eager to add this vivid color to their work that they painstakingly unraveled the cloth thread by thread and then re-spun it to a thickness equal to their native yarns. Pink was the raveled red combined with handspun white.

The women knelt before their looms. When the work reached a height that they could not comfortably reach, the whole loom was reversed and the other half of the work was woven. When the loom was full, the weaver joined the two halves together. Joe Ben Wheat pointed out to me what would ordinarily look like an inch or so of mis-weave in some of the blankets, indicating where the halves joined.

In 1863, a time of unrest on the plains, United States government troops were sent to round up Navajos from all over Arizona and New Mexico and incarcerate them at Bosque Redondo, in eastern New Mexico. They were allowed to take only what they could carry on their backs. Their captivity lasted until 1868.

When the Navajo were allowed to return home, they were quite changed. Their sheep herds had been destroyed or scattered and they had learned to wear Western-style clothing in Bosque Redondo. The weavers would never return to the simple designs and the exclusive use of natural wools. Commercial yarns, ready for the loom and chemically dyed found their way to the reservation. The women were glad to be relieved of the tedious work of shearing, carding, spinning, and dyeing their own wools.

There was also a striking change in the designs from the earlier calm stripes to zigzags in a vertical format, which earned the name ``eye dazzler,'' from the flashing motifs and brilliant colors. Some of the designs were borrowed from the serapes of Mexican neighbors in Bosque Redondo.

By the 1880s, the expanded market for Navajo weaving and the increased contact with non-Indian cultures resulted in the blankets called pictorials. These were apt to be large, heavy, loosely woven textiles. Stylized horses or cows marching in bands across a white background became fairly common. The railroad found its way into a design, complete with smoke and engineers. Other motifs came from letters of the alphabet, insects, American flags, soap wrappers, and canned food labels - whatever attracted the weaver's interest.

The Navajo rug was an even later development. Toward the end of the 19th century, the US government licensed trading posts to provide goods and services to the Indians. The appeal of Navajo textiles and other Indian crafts was so great that the Santa Fe Railroad had the Fred Harvey Company operate their main salesroom in Albuquerque, immediately adjacent to the railroad tracks to attract more tourist rail travel. Tourists were encouraged to step off the train, make their purchases and reboard with a minimum delay. William Randolph Hearst was one of those who took advantage of this service.

In fact, Hearst collected over 200 examples of brilliant Navajo weaving. While that doughty newspaper tycoon is sometimes thought of as more a grabber than a collector, he had a real appreciation for Navajo weavings. His instructions to his agents included phrases like ``your best blankets,'' ``interesting stuff.'' As his collection grew he wanted ``the finest and rarest pieces.''

There's a strong resurgence of interest in weaving by the Navajo women. The weaving produced today is considered as fine or finer than that of the decade of the 1850s which has been considered the high point of the Classic period. Contemporary weavers still use the traditional Navajo loom, usually with wool although not necessarily handspun. They create their own interpretations of traditional motifs, or create completely new designs.

It is heartening to know that these Navajo artists are weaving the past with the present, and preserving a rare cultural identity. The exhibit `Art from the Navajo Loom: The William Randolph Hearst Collection' continues until Dec. 30, 1990, at the Textile Museum, 2320 S Street, NW, Washington, D.C. The museum also is hosting the Festival of Indonesia's `Trailing the Tiger to Golden Cloths of Sumatra's Minangkabau' through June 9, 1991. And from Jan. 26 to April 28, 1991, a contemporary quilting show, `New Quilts.'

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