CHAPTER XIX. Imitation Navaho Blankets


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THERE is an impression abroad, quite widespread, that there are many so-called Navaho blankets which are machine-made. To those who are familiar with the subject this impression is absurd. He would be credulous, indeed, who, knowing a real Navaho blanket, could ever imagine one made on a machine. The thing is impossible. A so-called machine-made Navaho blanket can be discerned by the knowing a hundred feet away. And writers who ought to know better—or else they should not be allowed to publish what they write in high-class papers and magazines—often assert the most foolish things. For instance, in The Saturday Evening Post for June 25, 1911, a contributor thus writes under the title, ‘‘„Faking the Antiques.„’’ About some of the things of which the article speaks I am not competent to offer an opinion, but in regard to Navaho blankets I know whereof I speak, with the knowledge gained by thirty-two years of personal and intimate experience and study.He says:

In the curio dealer of the western part of the United States the fellah who sells fake scarabs has no mean rival. Ninety per cent of the Indian moccasins, blankets, and baskets sold in western souvenir shops are the machine-made output of a thriving factory that employs not only ‘‘„squaws,„’’ who are nimble-fingered girls, but a dozen salesmen, who travel from Seattle to Key West, from Los Angeles to Bangor. Real Indian craftsmanship finds it so hard to compete that beading and blanket weaving of the old kind will soon be a lost art. In the very heart of the Indian country—at Flagstaff, Cheyenne, Albuquerque, and Bismarck—the curio stores are packed with Indian wares that no Indian ever touched. Even if you distrust the shops and decide to buy only from an Indian, you may be bitten. A crafty buck struts along the street in Albuquerque with a gorgeous blanket carelessly flung over his shoulders.

‘‘„How much?„’’ you ask, fingering the thing with greedy digits.

‘‘„Thirty dollars,„’’ he answers, with an appraising glance at your scarfpin, your shoes, and other indices of your prosperity.

You pay. It is more than you expected; but, at least, the blanket is genuine. Six months later you learn that your blanket was made in a factory and that your Indian warrior probably divided his gains with a white employer.

In the main this charge is not in accordance with facts. It may be true that ninety per cent of the ‘‘„Indian moccasins that are sold in western souvenir shops are the machine-made output of a thriving factory that employs ‘squaws„ who are nimble-fingered girls,„’’ but there is not


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the slightest particle of truth in the statement that ninety per cent of the Indian blankets and baskets so sold are the product of anything but Indian fingers. I am personally familiar with every Indian trader on the Navaho Reservation; I know all the wholesale dealers in Indian blankets that are secured from the Navahos, and I personally know ninety per cent of the Indian curio dealers of the Southwest and all those of Los Angeles, Flagstaff, and Albuquerque. Of Cheyenne and Bismarck I am unable to speak. I venture the assertion that it is not possible to find in all the stores in all the centers I have named one basket, professedly made by an Indian, which is made by a white person, and the same can be said of the blankets. But it must be remembered that some blankets are sold as Indian blankets which are made by Mexicans, and it requires knowledge to differentiate between an Indian blanket and a Mexican blanket, though both are hand-made on primitive looms.

As far as the purchase of the blanket from the back of an Indian is concerned, for which the author claims to have paid thirty dollars, the deception in that case was self-deception or ignorance rather than any intent to deceive on the part of the Indian. Indians seldom, if ever, wear blankets of their own manufacture. They make no pretense of wearing them. Their blankets are too thick, rough, and stiff for use as personal wraps. They are fit only for rugs, portieres, or buggy robes.

I have just returned from a prolonged trip to the Navaho Reservation, and it was a daily occurrence when I was in the stores of the Indian traders to see Navaho weavers bring their blankets and sell them for amounts varying from ten to sixty dollars, part of the proceeds of which they immediately invested in the purchase of a machine-made blanket. This latter style of blanket, while it possesses Indian designs and is made in striking colors, is no more intended to be an imitation of the Indian blanket than a chromo is intended to be a deceptive imitation of a painting by Raphael or Corot, and he is a self-conceited ignoramus who could possibly be deceived by such a blanket.

The fact of the matter is that when the Navaho found she could sell her blanket for enough to purchase a dozen American blankets she promptly did so, for the reason before stated, viz., that most of her own blankets are too stiff to give warmth and comfort when wrapped around her. A good three-dollar comforter is worth half a dozen fifty-dollar blankets as far as comfort when lying down and sleeping is concerned. The closely-woven Navaho will shed the rain and keep out the wind, and the thick, fuzzy type is good as a mattress, but none familiar with Navaho blankets ever buys them for bed-covers or wraps. As soon as this fact dawned clearly upon Messrs. Hubbell and Cotton, and the C. H. Algert Company they immediately began to negotiate with the blanket weavers

FIG. 217. Standard Blanket. (Courtesy of J. A. Molohon & Co.) Woven by Be-leen Al-pi Be-gay Eh-son. [PAGE 150]


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of the East and Northwest for the manufacture of blankets, especially designed for the Navaho trade, containing those designs and colors which they knew would be pleasing to their Indian customers. They themselves provided the designs—these men, be it especially noted and remembered, whose greatest income is from the sale of genuine Navaho blankets, and whose business would suffer materially if the notion ever became broadcast that the real Navaho could be successfully imitated. They now purchase these blankets by the carload, and there is not a trader on or off the whole reservation who does not carry a quantity of them in stock; but the idea has never entered their minds that anyone could purchase them for genuine Navaho blankets. No man has a right to slander and vilify an honorable body of business men, nor is he justified in awakening the suspicions of the purchasing public in regard to a staple article of goods about which only those who have had no opportunity to be informed can be imposed upon. Such is my confidence in the reliable blanket dealers of the Southwest that I will undertake to buy back at the full price, with interest, every blanket purchased from a dealer of repute in his own community who knows Indian goods, and who has knowingly and wilfully deceived an ignorant purchaser into buying a machine-made blanket.

On this subject even so careful an authority as General U. S. Hollister, in his The Navaho and His Blanket, gives out misleading ideas. He says (the italics are mine):

It is frequently said that many of the so-called Navaho blankets are now made in eastern factories, but this is not true to any great extent. Some garish things in attempts at Navaho designs are so made, but the likeness is too poor to be called even an imitation; and no dealer with the slightest sense of honor would offer one of the horrid things as a Navaho blanket. Tourists have only themselves to blame if they are sometimes thus deceived.

The error and unconscious mischief of this statement is its implication that to some extent so-called Navaho blankets are made. They are not made to any extent. There is not one that for a moment can deceive anyone reasonably familiar with the hand-woven Navaho product. That tourists sometimes have themselves to blame for their own deception is true, as General Hollister thus remarks, though, as a rule, the only blankets used by the Navahos today are those especially woven for them.

The Navahos often prefer to wear blankets made in the East, for two reasons: one is that they are lighter; and the other, that they can sell a good blanket of their own make for a sum sufficient to purchase a ‘‘„Mackinaw.„’’ Not long ago a lady visitor saw one of these Mackinaw blankets on the back of a Navaho buck at Gallup, New Mexico. She immediately began negotiations, and finally got the blanket for about three times what it cost ‘‘„poor Lo,„’’ and went away rejoicing, believing


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she had a genuine Navaho blanket. Why? Because she had bought it from a Navaho Indian! Incidents of this kind having been repeated frequently have, no doubt, given rise to the story and belief that a large proportion of what are said to be Navaho blankets are not made by the Navahos, but are the products of eastern looms. Nothing, however, can be further from the truth. A visit to the establishments of all the Indian traders in or about the Navaho reservation, or to those in any of the cities of the East or West in which Navaho blankets are offered for sale, will fail to find a single blanket represented as of Navaho origin that was not made by the Navahos themselves or in similar style on primitive looms by imitative Mexicans.

There is another reason, however, which ought forever to satisfy the intelligent reader that Navaho blankets can never be imitated. As is shown in nearly all of the colored plates in this book, the colors of a certain line of weave are not alike all the way across the blanket. There may be two, or three, six, a dozen, even twenty colors on one line or row of cross weave. And the colors are alike on both sides. This is possible only in hand work, where a weaver may take her color as far as she chooses, and then substitute another. The following letter quoted by General Hollister explains the limitations of machine-weaving and satisfactorily demonstrates that it can never successfully imitate the hand-weaving of any people:

PENDLETON WOOLEN MILLS

Fleece Wool Blankets, Indian Robes and Shawls

PENDLETON, OREGON, June 23, 1902.

Dear Sir—We have your letter of the 17th and also the sample of the Navaho. We note what you say about blanket people saying this has never been successfully imitated. It is for a good reason. It is impossible with any machine yet made to get this effect. On our looms there are but two shuttle boxes on a side. Running a different shuttle in each box only allows for four colors at a time. In this robe a certain color appears and then is cut out. On a machine when a color once starts across the beam, it must be carried clear to the other side, either on one side or the other. If you lose it from the upper side, it must appear somewhere on the bottom. It is necessary for it to go clear across to be able to return. In weaving by hand, one can simply take the shuttle out any place desired and lay it aside until wanted again, covering the end between the filling threads and warp.

We can get this diamond pattern, however, if you think it would do, but cannot get the effect nor the weave as it appears in this robe. The Racine people are making a shawl something after this pattern, but can use only a limited number of colors, for the reasons explained above.

We could do this. We could get something like this pattern and then work with two colors for a certain width, and then change to two others, giving a striped effect. For instance, we could work with black and yellow, the diamond pattern appearing

FIG. 218. ‘‘„Extra„’’ Blanket of Good Design. (Courtesy of the C. C. Manning Co.) Occasionally found in ‘‘„Standard„’’ quality. Woven by Meh-li-to Be-day-zhie. [PAGE 151]


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in yellow and the background in black, and then change to green and red, for a certain width, and so on. This, however, would not produce the effect you are after.

On this kind of a proposition we can quickly tell you we cannot do anything except go ahead and try to get up something that is impossible. If you think a robe something like we have described would sell, let us know and we can get out some, but they will be far, far from the Navaho effect.

Yours very truly,

PENDLETON WOOLEN MILLS.

Further, to confirm my assertions, I again quote General Hollister, and assure the reader that this is the universal testimony of all who know:

I have traveled extensively throughout our Southwestern country, and have examined the stocks of nearly every Indian trader and dealer in Navaho fabrics; and in no instance has a spurious blanket or rug been offered me as of Navaho make. I have not always agreed with the dealers' statements regarding the age, composition, or coloring of their blankets, but I am, however, pretty well satisfied that in the main they are sincere in their representations, and place their goods before their customers with the best knowledge they possess. Some of them have been so long in the business that they are authorities upon the subject.


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