CHAPTER II. The Birth and Growth of the Art of Navaho Blanket-Waving
WHAT would civilized mankind do without its textile fabrics—goods woven from wool, cotton, flax, and other fibers? Imagine the world of today without its cottons and calicoes for dresses, shirts, waists, sheets, and the thousand and one things for which they are used; its linens; its woollens; its silks; its carpets; its manillas, and its scores of other materials woven into specific shapes, or in the piece for cutting out and making into the objects required. Destroy the art of weaving and in one month civilized mankind would send up such a wail of deprivation and distress as would resound from pole to pole and completely encircle the earth.
Whence, then, came this useful, this necessary art? To whom do we owe its introduction? Necessarily, it is one of those arts which only the highest civilization could have evolved; it must have come from the French, the Germans, the English, or, if slightly less modern, from the Greeks and Romans!
It goes back to the primitive little brown woman, the aboriginal mother, who sought for something more than mere skins to clothe her helpless babe and herself when the rigorous storms of winter quickened her intellect through her maternal affection—or instinct, if her affectionate nature had not yet evolved.
There is much evidence to prove that long, long before the art of making pottery was discovered, weaving had attained a fair degree of perfection. Ropes twisted, braided, and knotted were used; nets had long been in use for carrying small objects; mats, sandals, doorway coverings, etc., were made of yucca fiber, cedar bark, and other fibers, and prior to the coming of the Spaniards the Amerind had found out all about cotton, had learned how to grow it, to card, spin, and weave it, and many of our museums have specimens of cotton cloth in many weaves secured from graves that were ancient and the objects of tradition before the Spaniards arrived.
FIG. 5. Hopi Ceremonial Blanket. (Collection of J. L. Hubbell.) Showing lightning, rain cloud, and descendng rain in the two outside diamonds. [PAGE 21]
Too often have we imagined that human progress began with us. Human conceit does not lessen as we grow in years. This is a pity, for it shuts us out from closer knowledge and sympathy with the peoples of the past, fosters our own ignorance, which needs no fostering to reveal it as colossal, and, worst of all, it brings upon us the inevitable and evil results that always follow in the train of pride, conceit, and ignorance, whether these traits be manifested in a race, a nation, a state, or an individual. There are but few of the beneficial inventions that pertain to the home and personal life of mankind, the first steps of which—by far the most important—were not discovered by these patient, pathetic pioneers among the facts of human existence—the aborigines. In one phase of its author's thought this book is a humble and tardy, though none the less sincere, tribute to the worth and work of the aboriginal woman. Too long has the debt been unrecognized. The sooner we send out our song of thanks to her—no matter how many centuries may have elapsed since she passed on—the better for us. Unpaid obligations always weigh down those who have not paid, whether through ignorance, carelessness, indifference, or pride. In the case of ignorance its punishment is itself—more ignorance. In that of carelessness, indifference, and pride, the law of life is that „with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.„ And ingratitude ever brings its own special train of evils upon the ungrateful.
It will be evident, therefore, that I propose that the weaving art of the Amerind shall speak for itself to the culture of the civilized races of today. It needs no apology; it stands upon its own worth. It came, a full-fledged art from their hands to us, and as recipients we shall do well to understand, as far as we may, the various steps through which it arduously climbed to its present stage of perfection.
It seems reasonable to assume that blanketry was an outcome of basketry. The latter approximates more nearly to natural processes, as in the weaving of twigs together to form the birds' nests, or the simple interlacing and intertwining of vines, etc., in their wild state. This art once commenced, and pliable and flexible twigs once used for the weaving of baskets, it could scarcely be called another art that the making of textile fabrics followed. It was simply the merging of the use of the less flexible and coarse into the more flexible and fine.
When all these processes actually began we do not know. The most ancient literature of all peoples took it for granted that readers were familiar with weaving and the varied products of the loom, as the art long antedated written language. When Moses was instructed to call upon the children of Israel for materials for the tabernacle he asked for fine linen and other spun objects, and we are told (Exodus 35:25),
The Spider Man drew some cotton from his side and instructed the Navaho to make a loom. The cotton-warp was made of spider-web. The upper cross-pole was called the sky-cord, the lower cross-pole the earth-cord. The warp-sticks were made of sun rays; the upper strings, fastening the warp to the pole, of lightning; the lower strings of sun-halo; the heald was a rock-crystal; the cord-heald stick was made of sheet-lightning, and was secured to the warp strands by means of rain-ray-cords.
The batten-stick was also made of sun-halo, while the comb was of white shell. Four spindles or distaffs were added to this, the disks of which were of cannel-coal, turquoise, abalone, and white bead, respectively, and the spindle-sticks of zigzag lightning, flash lightning, sheet lightning, and rain-ray, respectively.
The dark blue, yellow, and white winds quickened the spindles according to their color, and enabled them to travel around the world.1
Sheep perhaps were the first animals to be domesticated, and in the most ancient literature we find constant references to them, both as flocks and as individual animals. The patriarchs of the Old Testament owned sheep by the thousands, and lived very much like the Navahos of today, moving their homes from place to place as their sheep required fresh pasture and water. They used the flesh of the sheep for food, and their skins for clothing and to sleep upon. Later, when the art of weaving was invented the fleeces were spun and woven, even as the Navahos spin and weave them today. A fascinating chapter could be made up in this book of references to sheep, shepherds, sheep-folds, the habits of sheep, the shearing of sheep, weaving, dyeing, etc., from the Hebrew scriptures, nearly all of which could be applied with truth and force to the Navaho shepherd as he is today. And such a chapter would help to give to the reader a clearer comprehension of the life of the Navaho shepherd than any brief and cursory account could do.
Few biblical students think of the Navaho when reading the exquisite twenty-third psalm, yet few shepherds surpass these New Mexican aborigines in their care to see that their flocks are made ‘‘„to lie down in green pastures,„’’ or led ‘‘„beside the still waters.„’’
In their sacred songs there are many references to sheep and their care, and a Navaho shaman might have been the original author of such passages as: ‘‘„Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds.„’’ (Proverbs, 27:23.)
Fig. 6. Bayeta ‘‘„Chief's„’’ Blanket. (In American Museum of Natural History.) [Page 32]
Dogs help them protect their charge from the attacks of coyotes, mountain lions, and other beasts of prey, and there are few of the shepherds who are not expert in the use of the shotgun. They also become astute interpreters of weather signs; they learn to read the changing face of the heavens, as one fierce and unprepared-for storm might rob them of their whole herd. Hence these youngsters, perforce, are weather-wise to a remarkable degree, and they know when the time has come for them to move from the open plains to the foothills, and thence to the higher ranges, where grass lingers, and when browse can be found in the chaparral long after the grass has been buried by winter's snows. For Navaho sheep soon learn that they must not be too choice and particular as to their diet. They must eat what they can get, rather than what they prefer.
Lambing time, too, requires no small knowledge and skill, and while the fathers and mothers aid at this and at all other needed times, it behooves the young shepherds to be ready for everything that may happen.
Their knowledge of the individual members of their flocks seems like magic, for, to a casual observer, it is impossible to tell one sheep from another in a flock of say five hundred, seven hundred and fifty, or a thousand animals. Yet many a time when I have wanted to buy a sheep, the juvenile shepherd has first gained his mother's consent to the sale, and then partaken in a discussion as to which animal should be delivered over to the slaughter. Then, with sure and certain movements, he proceeded to search out, find, and steal upon the selected creature, with a knowledge as certain as that of a mother in designating her children.
But however interesting sheep and shepherds may be to us, we must now return to a consideration of the art of weaving. That it was known to the Amerind long prior to the time of Columbus is as clearly established as any fact in history.
The fabrics woven and used in the making and decoration of pottery, according to Holmes, consisted generally of the fibre of bark, flax, hemp, nettles, and grasses, which were spun into thread of various sizes; or of splints of wood, twigs, roots, vines, porcupine quills, feathers, and a variety of animal tissues, either plaited or used in an untwisted state. The articles produced were mats, baskets, nets, bags, plain cloths, and entire garments, such as capes, hats, belts, and sandals.2
When cotton made its appearance in America is not known, yet it must have been quite early, for in the ruined and prehistoric Cliff Dwellings many cotton fabrics have been found. Holmes, Bandelier, Nordenskiold, Fewkes, and others have described the cottons thus found. At Awatobi, one of the ruined pueblos of the Hopi, fragments of cloth of cotton and agave fibre, and of cotton alone were gathered.
When the European first discovered the American Indians of the Southwest he found them wearing blankets and other garments of their own weaving, mostly made of cotton, which they grew, cleaned, carded, spun, and dyed themselves. Cabez de Vaca, in his Relacion, states that he found the natives wearing linen and woolen cloths, and at one place fine cotton shawls, all of their own weaving.
Fray Marcos de Nizza, when he made his memorable reconnoissance into New Mexico in 1538, says that the natives were dressed in cotton-cloth, and that the men of Cibola wore long cotton gowns which reached to their feet.
When Coronado reached the seven cities of Cibola (Zuni) in 1540, he found the people wearing cotton blankets. Castañeda says: ‘‘„The women wear blankets, which they tie or knot over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm out. These serve to cover the body.„’’ This is an exact description of the Pueblo Indian woman's dress of today.
Later, when Don Pedro de Tobar went to explore the Province of Tusayan—the home of the Hopi—and the Indians barred his pathway, he fell upon them and vanquished them. Then they brought gifts, among which were cotton cloth of their own manufacture.
FIG. 7. Bayeta ‘‘„Chief's„’’ Blanket. (Fred Harvey Collection.) A very old Navaho. The color of the bayeta, from years of usage and from the action of water and the sun, has toned down to a most beautiful rose color.[PAGE 32]3
Sheep were first brought into New Mexico by Coronado in 1540, but his flocks were killed after his return to Mexico. Then when Juan de Oñate came he brought a fresh supply in which were some fine Spanish merinos, and since then sheep have never failed in New Mexico, in spite of the rebellion which drove out the Spaniards, nomad and thieving Indians, drought, and famine. Indeed, for many years New Mexico's chief dependence was upon its sheep. We are told that „in 1822 Francisco Xavier Chavez, then governor, better known as El Guero (The Blond), owned over a million sheep. These were let out on shares to men all over the territory. A later governor, Bartolomé Baca, had nearly as many. An old Mexican was living in 1899, who used to be one of Baca's majordomos, and had had charge of 500,000 sheep, with seven hundred shepherds under him. All the shepherds were armed with flintlock muskets, and frequently had to use them against the savages, as well as in keeping down the bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, and other animals.
It is interesting in this connection to enquire whence gained the Navaho his flocks and herds of sheep and goats. This question opens up a very interesting phase of early Spanish and Pueblo history. When the Spaniards came and the Franciscans began their work of Christianizing and civilizing the Indian, the roving Navaho never came much under their influence. But the sedentary Pueblo was material ready to hand, as it were, and the priests made the most of him. The result was churches were built in many of the Pueblos of New Mexico (including what is now Arizona), such as San Ildefonso, Zuni, Acoma, Awatobi, Oraibi. and other of the Hopi pueblos. This was not done without arousing the fiercest hostility, and in time, deadly hatred of the native shamans, medicine-men, or priests. Again and again the Hopis rose in rebellion against the ‘‘„long gowns„’’—as they called the Franciscan friars—and the bearded warriors of Spain. On Inscription Rock, in New Mexico, we read the rude record, made on the yielding but retaining rock, of the expedition of Don Feliz Martinez, Governor and Captain General of New Mexico, for ‘‘„the reduction of the Zunis.„’’ Padre Letrado was slain in Zuni at4
Added to the fury of religious superstition was the anger of free peoples made subservient to the domination of outsiders. The Spaniards were not always kind and politic in their dealings with the peoples they subjugated, and in their treatment of the Pueblo Indians they were especially unwise.
They took the calm and unresisting demeanor of these Quaker-like people for poor-spiritedness and cowardice. Never were they more mistaken, as they found in the great Pueblo rebellion in 1680. At this time, largely instigated by a Santa Clara patriot named Popé—a true aboriginal Patrick Henry and George Washington rolled into one—the whole of the Pueblo population of New Mexico and Arizona arose against the hated invader, with his long-gowned priests, and drove all whom they did not slay out of the country. Then, fearful of the vengeance they soon began to expect at the hands of the Spaniards, the ‘‘„rebellious people„’’—nay, nay, let us call them by their proper name—these true-hearted patriots who had arisen in defense of their hearths, their homes, the graveyards of their ancestors, their cornfields, their hunting-grounds, their religion, their ceremonies, their honor, their families, and the preservation of their national existence—hid themselves on fortified mesas in the old inaccessible cliff-dwellings and elsewhere until the storm should have passed. But the Spaniards were long in coming; therefore the fear of vengeance was long continued. One evil result of these constant conflicts and of this waiting for the avenging blow of the Spaniards to fall was that the Pueblo Indians were unable to care for the sheep and goats which the Spaniards had brought to them very early in their relationship. The Navahos had already secured some of these new animals. Now were chances many for materially adding to their four-footed possessions.
For centuries they had been at war with the Pueblo, and naturally everything owned by him was regarded as legitimate prey. Doubtless soon after sheep were brought to the country they learned the flavor of mutton, and thenceforth found it easier to steal sheep than to go out on long, wearisome deer, antelope, and coyote hunts for their food. Then, too, sheep were surer of capture than wild animals.
FIG. 8. Fine „Chief's„ Blanket of Bayeta. (Vroman Collection.) [PAGE 33]
It is an interesting fact to note in passing that the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians from whom the Navahos stole their first bands of sheep now freely acknowledge that, had it not been for these thefts, they themselves would have had no sheep later on. Here is their explanation. Soon after their subjugation by the Spaniards, who brought the sheep to them, the fierce Utes of the North and East used to swoop down upon them in relentless raids and steal everything upon which they could lay their hands. The semi-nomad Navahos, who did not accumulate household and other goods as did the Hopis, though they lived in the raided region, were less troubled by the rapacious marauders. Hence they never entered into any compact with the harassed Pueblo Indians for purposes of joint defense, although now and again they suffered severely. They held their land and defied their foes, and along the valleys of the South of the San Juan the edges of the numerous mesas are lined with stone-wall breastworks, and the remains are still to be seen of many rude but well-chosen defenses, erected by them to repel Ute attacks. Being better fighters than the Pueblos, they succeeded in guarding their flocks and herds from the enemy, whereas the Pueblos lost every sheep and horse they possessed. Hence, while the Navaho sheep were originally stolen from the Pueblos, or captured in their fighting affrays with them, it was the fact that they had guarded the stolen herds so successfully that enabled the Pueblos later on to obtain sheep again.
In seeking to find out from whence the Navaho learned the art of weaving the questioning mind naturally halts at this point and asks whether there is any relation between the stealing of Spanish and Pueblo sheep by the Navahos and their induction into the art of weaving.
American archæologists and ethnologists have all assumed that the art of weaving on the loom was learned by the Navahos from their Pueblo neighbors. All the facts in the case seem to bear out this supposition. Yet, as is well known, the Navahos are a part of the great Athabascan family, which has scattered, by separate migrations, from Alaska into California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Many of the Alaskans are good weavers, and, according to Navaho traditions, their ancestors, when they came into the country, wore blankets that were made of cedar bark and yucca fibre. Even in the Alaska (Thlinket) blankets, made today of the wool of the white mountain goat, cedar bark is twisted in with the wool
According to the Rev. Father A. G. Morice, O.M.I., for many years a missionary among the Dénés of British Columbia, doubtless a branch of the Navaho family, the loom used by these western Indians is much more crude than that of our Navahos. It consists simply of a foursquare heavy frame, the warp strings being attached to the top and bottom beams, with no method for tightening the warp. He states that the only weaving they did was of rabbit-skin blankets. The skins were twisted—corresponding to the spinning of yarn—by first soaking them in water and then twisting the strips by rolling them upon the naked thigh. Each skin was made to yield a single band, and each band was knotted end to end so as to form a continuous cord. This cord was then used both as warp and woof, and was of the simplest and crudest kind of weaving, no batten of any kind being used.
This is an important contribution to the literature of the Navaho blanket, for these western Dénés are the original stock of the so-called Athabascan tribes of our American Southwest. Hence it is reasonable to assume that if they now have a loom superior to those of their own people, it was gained elsewhere. As yet the Dénés of the West have not evolved it. The Navahos were familiar with the crude rabbit-skin blanket loom, for it is still to be found today in active operation among the Mohaves, Pimas, and Apaches. Fig. 3 is of a Mohave Indian wearing one of these rabbit-skin blankets, and they are by no means uncommon. This blanket and this loom, crude though they were, prepared them, however, for the ready and immediate adoption of a superior loom. Hence, just as they stole the sheep of the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Pueblo Indians, it is not unreasonable to suppose they stole the loom of the latter, and possibly compelled a captive of the tribe to instruct them in its more complex manipulation.
Whether the Navahos learned the art from the Pueblo or not, it is freely conceded that they are by far the better weavers of the two today. In quality of work and excellence of design all other aboriginal weavers
FIG. 9. Rare Type Old Bayeta Double Saddle Blanket. (Fred Harvey Collection.) Saddle blankets are the commonest type of Navaho weaving, though specimens like the above are rarer than larger blankets of tile same type, and were usually made for some chief or person of distinction. [PAGE 33]
While to those who know the Navaho and Pueblo Indian weavers it is a commonplace too well known even to repeat, it should not be overlooked by the general reader that in speaking of the Navaho as a weaver it is his womankind who do the actual work. The Navaho man is seldom a weaver. Now and again one is found who is accomplished in the art, but this is a rare occurrence. It is the Navaho woman who chooses the poles and sticks for the loom, who superintends the daily life of the sheep that provide the wool, who shears the sheep, washes, cards, and spins the wool, who prepares the dyes—whether the almost forgotten native dyes or the easily made anilines—who conceives the design, prepares the warp, actually weaves the blanket and generally disposes of it to the trader, or once in a while to the casual tourist who ‘‘„happens along„’’ at the time it is ready for sale.
With the Pueblo Indian it is generally the man who weaves, as the photographs of Pueblo weaving show. And it is a remarkable evidence of tribal habit that in one group of Amerinds the woman is the weaver, while in that of another, who live in practically the same region, the man does the work.
In the olden time there were several traditions in regard to weaving. One was that it must not be indulged in extravagantly, overdone, but only engaged in in moderation. A ceremony for the amelioration of the ill effects of overwork at the loom was provided for in a sacrificial offering to the spindle. The prayer of the gods was recited, and a prayer-stick was used made of yucca, precious stones (turquoise, etc.), bird and turkey feathers, tassels of grass, and pollen.
The deterioration of the art of weaving among the Pueblos and its improvement with the Navahos, is a proof of the unconscious exercise of the law of following the line of least resistance and of the power of native tastes and talents. It is quite reasonable to assume that at the
Naturally in such a country as this, material for basketry was scant, and what was found was of a poor quality. This in itself was a deterrent to the art of basketry, and rendered the Navahos indifferent towards it. On the other hand, the Paiutis of southern Nevada and Utah, living near flowing streams, where willows and other basketry material abounded, all of the finest quality, and the Havasupais of Cataract or Havasu (Blue Water) Canyon—living in a region so favorable to the growth of willows that Lieut. Frank H. Cushing, who visited them from Zuni in the early eighties, described them as the ‘‘„Nation of the Willows„’’—became experts in the art the materials of which were so close to their hands. Being neighbors to the Navahos, the latter were able to trade with them for basket-work and thus secure by barter all they needed.
Pottery is never much in favor with a nomad people, especially the crude, fragile pottery of the aborigine. It is hard to transport, and is in constant danger of being broken; hence the Navaho never cultivated to any great extent the art of pottery, while the sedentary and home-loving Pueblos found it a far easier task to make pottery for the purpose of storing water, corn, flour, seeds, and other foods than basketry, and the same instinct for decoration that had led to the beautifying of the basket asserted itself in the heart of the Pueblo potter, and she began to make geometrical designs, scrolls, figures, symbols of such great diversity as to be ‘‘„the wonder of the world of design,„’’ whenever and wherever studied. Let those who deem this statement exaggerated secure Part II of the Seventeenth Report of the United States Bureau of American Ethnology, and see therein Dr. J. Walter Fewkes's reproductions of the signs, symbols, designs, and patterns from the pottery of the ancient Hopi ruins of Sikyatki in northern Arizona, some of which are given in a later chapter of this book. In these designs, and those found on the basketry of the more progressive of the basket-making tribes, it is probable that the Navahos gained the suggestion, at least, of the
FIG. 10. Typical Navaho Squaw Dress of the Oldest Style. (Collection of J. L. Hubbell.) [PAGE 33]
It will be apparent therefore from the foregoing considerations that as the Navaho could barter or trade for the baskets and pottery he needed, and his country and habits afforded him better advantages for the breeding of sheep and horses than his neighbors, he gradually abandoned the basketry and pottery-making arts and devoted his attentions to sheep and horse-raising, and also to the making of blankets.
His nomad life was eminently suited to lead him, naturally, to the work of the weaver. With a portable loom to weave the wool from the backs of the sheep into blankets, which were eagerly sought for in trade by other tribes, it was the most natural thing in the world for the Navaho woman to develop into the great weaver she has become.
In studying the development and growth of the art, however, other factors than mere usefulness—highly important and fundamental as it is—have to be considered. Usefulness was perfectly attained as soon as the weave of the blanket was made perfect, without any regard to variety in stitch, color of the material, variety in color, the introduction of a design, or the attaching of a symbolic meaning to the design. Whence came these important factors in the Navaho's art development?
Even the most barbaric people cannot fail to be sensible, more or less, to the beauties Nature presents to them on every hand. The love of beauty primarily comes from contact with beautiful things, and as soon as this love is once aroused the desire to produce its object seems to be almost an instinct. Hence the dawn and the development of aboriginal art. In basketry this showed itself in the coloring of certain splints and later in the use of designs, worked into the general texture by means of these different colored splints. The Hopi, near neighbors to the Navaho, in all their villages made baskets, on the two nearest mesas using yucca splints and on the third mesa contenting themselves with willows. They became experts in the use of certain dyes, and produced geometrical figures and designs of symbolic significance in great variety in their yucca-fiber placques. At Oraibi the willow splints were colored and made into designs copying the masks of the Kachinas, or lesser divinities, and the Navahos, with their wide inclusiveness as to the gods of other peoples, trading for the baskets of the Hopi, introduced what they knew or imagined of the ceremonialism connected with the Hopi divinities into their own ritual, and thus accorded to these baskets an honored place in their ceremonial life. It can well be seen, therefore, that in time the Navaho cared little for his own home-made baskets but attached especial significance to the basketry of other peoples, especially that which appealed to him in the manner I have suggested.
1. From An Ethnologic Dictionary.
2. W. H. Holmes, in Third Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology.
3. Cosmos Mindeleff, Pueblo Architecture, p. 182, in Eighth Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology.
4. This interesting story is fully told in my Old Franciscan Missions of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.