CHAPTER XIV. The Designs on Modern Navaho Blankets


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IN CHAPTER XII the studious reader will find sufficient material for thought as to the origin and symbolism of designs in those days of the art when creative impulses were strong, men and women were contented with simple, natural, and beautiful things, and the feverish desire for the mere accumulation of wealth had not demoralized the simpler primitive instincts.

But in speaking of the designs woven into the modern products of the Navahos' loom we are upon different ground. In the main we can agree with Father Berard when he says: As for designs in modern blankets which by some are interpreted as replete with religious symbolism, such interpretations merely attach an undue idealism and importance to the design which it does not contain. A glance at the names for some of the designs will bear out this point and show that these names designate figures found on paper, cloth or anything else. Then, too, it will be remembered that Navaho women are devout and faithful clients of their religion, possibly more so than the men, and would scarcely trifle with religious symbols, many of which may be viewed in effigy in the course of certain rites, and at certain seasons of the year only. This conservatism is presumably responsible for the taboo placed upon the following and similar designs: thunder, zigzag lightning, the water, ox, the water horse, a horned monster, a monster eagle, a monster fish, a tortoise, the turtle, the coyote, the dog, the frog, the horned toad, the bull or blow snake, the track snake and snakes in general, in a word, anything harmful.

On the other hand, designs of the rainbow, big stars, sheet lightning, the arrow, evening twilight, celestial blue, darkness, or of the sacred mountains, or anything of a beneficial character, may be designed with impunity.

It cannot be too often affirmed or too clearly understood that, while the exigencies of modern commercialism have led to the making of blankets of special designs to order, the natural impulse of the Navaho weaver is never to copy and never to repeat herself in her designs. The result is a wealth of designs, a bewilderment of figures, and combinations of figures that, could they be all massed together in one great exhibit, would be regarded as one of the wonders of the world. Hence, had I photographed a thousand blankets for reproduction in the pages of this book, they would have served but as suggestions to many other thousands that might, with equal reason and acceptability, have been chosen for that purpose.


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Unless she intends to weave a design from one of the traders' diagrams, the Navaho woman begins her work without any outward representation, either upon paper, buckskin, or in the sand, of what she intends to produce. The plan may be carefully mapped out in her own busy brain—main figures, their sizes, with all the connecting details. But, as I shall show later, this is not always the case.

It will be noted by the careful observer that there are no circles, arches, or round corners in Navaho weaving. The reason for this may be traced to the development of the art from basketry, where the splints are less flexible and pliable and all the corners must be sharp-pointed, and the lines straight, oblique, zigzag, serrated, etc.

There are practically no set or tribal designs—that is, blankets that are all woven alike. The figures, mainly geometrical, are common to all, but the method of their introduction into individual blankets is the concern of the weaver alone, unless she be weaving a chosen design at the request of the trader.

There are many weavers, however, that no amount of pressure or persuasion can induce to weave any other than a blanket of her own designing, and some of these will never duplicate a design. Mr. Hubbell has several such weavers, and so has Fred Harvey. These are women of remarkable ability; the geniuses of their tribe, who rank as artists of the first class. Such an one is Elle, of Ganado, who has been steadily engaged at weaving by Fred Harvey for over a dozen years. Scores of thousands have seen her, seated at the loom, in the Fred Harvey Indian rooms at Albuquerque, New Mexico, at various fairs, and in the Land Shows and other exhibits at Chicago, etc. (See Fig. 141.) Her little daughter, when but five years old, began to weave, and now, though still a mere child, executes the most striking designs of her own creation. Here is one of the wonderful evidences of inheritance of creative ability and artistic skill. Before she could possibly know anything of her remarkable power, she was an artist in her own right. Another child, Tuli, and her partially woven blanket are represented in Fig. 142. This is another child wonder in the weaving world, found by Fred Harvey, and now regularly engaged at his blanket rooms at Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Of this same type of weaver is Bileen Alpi Bizhaahd, discovered by Mr. J. B. Moore, of Crystal, New Mexico, and now in the regular employ of his successors, the J. A. Molohon Company. She has never been known to copy the design of another weaver, and though often delighted beyond measure at the charm and beauty of some design she has just made, she positively refuses to weave a second blanket from the same pattern. Hence, if it is to be duplicated, some other weaver must be found who is more complaisant. Such idiosyncrasies as this reveal that the


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‘‘„artistic temperament„’’ is to be found among the aborigines as well as in the most ‘‘„advanced„’’ civilization.

There is a great deal of human nature displayed in the diversity of designs found in Navaho blankets, and also in their similarities. Human nature, as is tritely said, is very much the same whether found in civilized, uncivilized, black, white, bond, free, or in dogs. In the conventional, ordinary, commonplace designs one finds the timid, the conservative, the satisfied, the mentally contented, the orthodox. Why change these patterns? They have been good enough in the past; why try to alter or improve them?

But there are those who are not satisfied. Their minds are mentally alert for the new, the original. They seek new paths. They disregard the conventional bounds. Life is life, and life is to be known only in the living, and every avenue that opens is a new avenue of experience, knowledge, and possible improvement. So the iconoclastic designer makes ‘‘„something different.„’’ She prefers living figures to geometric designs: she even dares to reproduce the Yei of the sacred sand-paintings, as I shall show in a chapter devoted to that feature of the art; and of late years there have developed the unbelieving, the irreligious, the scoffer, the atheist, who have dared to violate the taboos and picture everything their vagrant fancy dictates.

Occasionally a weaver thinks out a design and proceeds to incorporate it into a woven blanket. When completed it is so different from what she expected, or conveys to her mind some strange or peculiar impression, or arouses some superstitious fear, that she either destroys it or gets rid of it as speedily as possible. Of this character is the zigzagdesign blanket shown in Fig. 143. This was given, many years ago, to Mr. Hamilton Noel, whose trading post is at Tees-nas-paz, or, as it is sometimes spelt, Teas-nos-pos, Arizona, which is Navaho for ‘‘„the circle of cottonwoods.„’’ This blanket was woven by a man, and while it was still on the loom, after he had completed it, there came a day when the heavens were clouded and a severe lightning and thunder-storm arose. Suddenly the sun shone through the clouds and lit up the blanket in such a fashion that the zigzag design of the lightning seemed actually to live. This so scared the superstitious weaver that he brought it to Mr. Noel, with the request that he take and hide it, or much evil might come to them both. The trader gladly accepted the responsibility and always managed to secrete the dangerous blanket when its weaver came around, but when I desired to purchase it I found that no offer I was able to make could shake, in the slightest, Mr. Noel's determination not to part with it. The remarkable thing is that, even to the non-superstitious, there is a peculiar flash of the pattern, when it is seen under certain conditions of light and


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shade that give one an uncomfortable sensation. The reproduction fails to give any suggestion of this, as the color is lacking. The colors are red, green, and white. Apparently there are two zigzags of white running through the center, from top to bottom, but in reality there is a break in the white, and green is substituted. But at these substituted points the white is introduced on the sides, and thus, mayhap, the peculiar effect may be accounted for, in that the white, representing the more brilliant lightning, darts to right and left here, and is then caught lower down and brought back into line with the point from which it started. Anyhow, the effect is peculiar and most startling.

This zigzag design is by no means uncommon. Indeed, it is the motif of many thousands of blankets, some simple as in Figs. 144 and 145, and in others, like Fig. 195, in which the zigzags are converted into diamonds.

Figs. 144 and 145 are the blankets referred to on page 108 as demonstrating the individuality of the weaver's method, in that the weft threads are not taken directly across the face of the warp, but obliquely to conform to the slope of the design. In Fig. 144 this is done in a fairly successful fashion, interfering only a little with the general ‘‘„square-ness„’’ of the blanket, but in Fig. 145 the difficulty of mastering this ‘‘„oblique stitch„’’ is apparent, for it clearly got beyond the control of the weaver, so that the blanket is much wider at one end than the other.

One of the most imaginative weavers of the tribe lives near Canyon Gallegos, New Mexico. She is especially inventive in her designs. Were this woman of a civilized race she would become another Rosa Bonheur, for her love of animals is such that she constantly depicts them in her blankets, and always with considerable artistic skill. Her work is eagerly sought for, and no sooner is one of her blankets on the loom than, regardless of what the pattern is to be, there are several purchasers ready to buy it when completed.

With some weavers, even as with some authors of ‘‘„best-sellers,„’’ this promptness of sale, or eagerness of purchasers, leads to a deterioration of the work, but with this weaver it seems to have had the opposite and beneficially stimulating effect. The more her blankets are desired the more desirable she determines to make them. In other words, she is a true artist and finds great delight in her weaving. The result is her latest blankets are her best. She never begins to weave until a design has taken full possession of her and demands outward expression, and then she sets up her loom and goes to work with an almost feverish eagerness, as anxious to see in objective form what her brain has conceived as is a mother to see her new-born child.

One of her blankets is that pictured in Fig. 200 and described


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Chapter XVII, but, unfortunately, I am unable to show any of her ‘‘„animal designs,„’’ for the blankets were sold to strangers, and no photographs were made of them.

That weavers are influenced in their choice of design by their environment I have illustrated a score or more of times, but never more forcefully than by the weaver from whom I purchased the fantastic blanket pictured in colors in Fig. 146.

This weaver's summer hogan was not far from a siding on the main line of the Santa Fé Railway, some fifty miles west of Gallup, New Mexico, over the state line in Arizona. She was a skilful weaver, and I had bought several of her blankets at different times, all of them containing the usual type of design. On this occasion, however, she brought forth something of a different character. I was interested enough to seek to penetrate fully into the mystery of the change, and as I stayed at the hogan for several days, and she and her husband were most friendly and chatty, I succeeded in gathering the following, which, pieced together, is the story of how she came to depart so far from the usual.

One day after she had set up her loom, and while she was thinking over several designs that had suggested themselves, she was aroused from her thought by the arrival of a train going west. That immediately suggested to her that she attempt to reproduce the engine and train of cars in her blanket. The sun was glistening on the rails, and this effect she reproduced by alternations of white and blue. The wheels are diamond-shaped lozenges, while the cow-catcher, headlight and tender, the cab with its two windows, the smokestack belching smoke, and the steam-chest with its escaping white steam are all well represented. The train was of passenger coaches, and there was room on her loom for only two cars, and these of rather compressed dimensions. To denote that they were passenger cars she introduced two human figures in each. While this work was progressing certain birds appeared on the scene, together with two women, one walking east and one west. A ‘‘„light„’’ engine also came traveling east, and as the sun happened to be shining upon it as it passed it had a bright, glistening appearance, so she represented it by weaving it in white, while the windows of the cab are picked out in dark blue. A large and small rain-cloud also appeared on the horizon and these are duly represented.

Having thus begun with the railway, she determined to continue, and when she was ready for the next portion of the design a cattle-train came along, which she duly incorporated in the next horizontal panel. Her cattle are of a species known only to the ‘‘„rarebit fiend.„’’ They are of a wilder type than even Gelett Burgess's ‘‘„purple cow.„’’ After getting ready for the next panel and no train appearing, she pictured six flying


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birds alighting on the track and five walking female figures. A rain-cloud is at each end of the group of walkers. This panel is followed by one showing two engines together, going west, with flying birds and rain-clouds above them.

The next panel shows a sleeping-car, and the weaver's curiosity having been aroused since her endeavor to picture these strange objects of the white man's travel, she had mustered up courage enough to go to Gallup and ask to be allowed to enter a sleeping-car after the berths were made up in order that she might understand how men and women could sleep on a railroad train. After this personal observation she was able to produce the double-deck effect of the upper and lower berths, though she laughed heartily when I pointed out that people lie down when they sleep, even though it be in a railroad berth. This she had not got clearly through her mind, for to sleep in such a confined space as that tiny berth seemed to her almost impossible, hence she had represented, to the best of her ability, these strange white people sitting up in the tiny cubby-holes where a malign fate compelled them to remain over night while they were hurled across the great, free, open land. Pointing to the two cars above I asked why she had placed these above the sleeping-car. Her reply was to the effect that it was not enough to have only one car, but that when she began to put on the other cars it was day-time and the people were not sleeping, hence she had to represent them as up and moving about.

The result of her personal observation is also manifested in the representation of the side doors and ventilators in the car—things she had not known before, having observed the cars only from a distance. The remainder of this panel is made up of fleecy clouds, flying birds, and rain clouds, while the last panel is her very effective representation of a poultry train going west.

In his office at Ganado, Arizona, John Lorenzo Hubbell has scores of blanket designs, painted in oil, hung upon the walls, and they present a most surprising and wonderful combination. These are designs that have been found to be pleasing to purchasers, and when a special order for a blanket of a certain design comes in, the weaver is shown the picture of the one desired. She studies it a while, takes the wool provided, or herself prepares it, and then, with such slight variations as she is sure to introduce, goes ahead and makes her blanket.

In blanketry, as well as in basketry, there are fantastic and degraded designs, which clearly denote mental vacuity on the part of the weaver, or a vain and foolish desire to copy something, or to do what the trader desires, regardless of its appearance. Foolish lettering, imitations of the American eagle, and subjects entirely foreign to the native weaver's natural tastes are found. The intelligent purchaser and the collector will


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alike frown upon these specimens of degradation of the art, and do all that can be done to discourage their perpetuation.

The following is the list of the principal designs, with the Navaho names, given by Berard:

Fig. 147—Dakha nahalin (card-like), a square.

Fig. 148—Beeditli nahalin (slingshot-like), a diamond, also called so tso, big star.

Fig. 149—Beeditlihi (slingshot), an elongated diamond.

Fig. 150—Tsin alnaozid (sticks crossing each other), Roman cross.

Fig. 151—So (star), St. Andrew's cross.

Fig. 152—Tqago deza (three points), a triangle.

Fig. 153—So deshzha (pointed star), four lines crossed so as to form a figure with eight points, or a St. Andrewaposs cross drawn through a Roman cross. If made somewhat larger than ordinarily, it is also, called so tso deshzha, big pointy star.

Fig. 154—Tsiyel nahalin (like a queue), two triangles touching each other with their apices.

Fig. 155—Tqago deza be digo desa (four points with three points), four triangles touching with apices, a Maltese cross.


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Fig. 156—Nahokhos, said of large, long objects in horizontal rotation, a swastica cross.

Fig. 157—Dakha nahalingo nahokhos binisaa (a nahokhos within a card-like figure), a swastica surrounded by a square.

Fig. 158—Dakha nahalinigi bealqiaza (card-like figures within each other), square inside of another square.

Fig. 159—Beeditli nahalinigi bealqiaza (slingshot-like figures within each other), diamond within diamond.

Fig. 160—Noltlizh, a zigzag line.

Fig. 161—Be' ndastlago noltlizh (cornered zigzag), irregular zigzag.

Fig. 162—Danaazkhago noltlizh (a row of empty places in zigzag order), a line resembling the crown of a battlement.

Fig. 163—Yistlin (freckled), small dots.

Fig. 164—Dokhish (spotted), dots larger than the yistlin.

Fig. 165—Dadestso, spots somewhat longer than dokhish.

Fig. 166—Beeditli baba dolaghas (slingshot with serrated edge), diamond with serrated edge.

Fig. 167—Dolaghas, a serrated line; besdolaghas (ancient knife of chipped flint).

Fig. 168—Kos yishchin (cloud image), a terraced figure on side of blanket.


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Fig. 169—Hokha (a large empty place or receptacle), a large terrace-edged diamond, usually in the center of a blanket.

Fig. 170—Hokha bealkheaznil, two hokha following each other.

Fig. 171—Honakha, a hokha with a half hokha on either end.

Fig. 172—Noltlizh alniaznil, a figure with zigzag edge in the center.

Fig. 173—Dolaghas bealkheaznil, two figures with serrated edges following each other.

Fig. 174—Alkhe ndazha (pointed ones follwing each other), a row of small figures with points, for instance V-shaped figures not too near together.

Fig. 175—Anikhe (tracks), a double row of alkhe ndazha.

Fig. 176—Aqidelnago ndazha (sticking in opposite direction), same as anikhe only that the figures of one row are reversed.

Fig. 177—Alkidot'ezh (touching each other), a row of small figures, one touching the other, for instance a row of small flat-based triangles, set on edge, so that the apex of the one touches the preceding one at the center of the base.


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Fig. 178—Alkheyit'ezh (following and touching each other), a row of small figures connected by short lines.

Fig. 179—Alkheyit'ezh dakha nahalingo, a row of small squares connected by lines between them.

Fig. 180—Delzha, battlement-like elevations, especially along the border.

Fig. 181—If another color is woven next to delzha, and the intervening spaces are left a distinct color, they are called inil, enclosed, encased.

Fig. 182—Alqihadot'ezh (touching, following within each other), said of a succession of small figures, usually along the border, of such a form that the space between them is a reverted reproduction of same.

Fig. 183—So aqadenil (two stars together), two large diamonds in center of blanket.

Fig. 184—Hoshdudi, the name of the whip-poor-will, strewn with spots.

Fig. 185—Alni azi (standing in the middle), said of any central figure of extraordinary shape.

Fig. 186—Aqidinlnago dana'azkha (spaces opposite), a succession of small figures whose intervening spaces show the same figure inverted or opposite.

Fig. 187—Aqedzeba means a gray stripe or border all around. This is used with other colors: dzegai, white; jichi, red; dzetso, yellow; jijin, black; jidaetlizh, blue.

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