CHAPTER IX. Improving the Art of Navaho Blanket-Weaving

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER VIII. The Temporary Deterioration of the Art of Navaho Blanket Weaving Next: CHAPTER X. The Significance and Symbolism of Color in the Navaho Blanket

[page 51]

NO STUDENT of the Navaho blanket will contend for one moment that the fine old weaves are not the most eagerly sought after, and oftentimes the most perfectly woven blankets known to the connoisseur. A blanket in which native dye was used, made of finely spun and closely woven native wool, which was thoroughly cleaned and scoured before being dyed, embellished with a design that attracts and pleases the eye is as eagerly sought as ever. So is one in which the retwisted red bayeta forms the main body of the blanket. Almost equally desirable are the earlier and better qualities made of Germantown yarn, where the warps were of wool, even though the colors and designs, originally, were of barbaric splendor. In time these colors tone down to exquisite harmonies that make the blankets pictures of beauty and charm.

Such blankets as these will ever be in demand, and are eagerly sought after today at prices that are constantly increasing.

Yet it cannot be denied that as good blankets are being made now as ever. As a rule when the white man has commercialized an aboriginal art it becomes degraded and debased so that one is compelled to look for the finest specimens among the oldest examples.

While this is true of the Navaho blanket, the finest old specimens being scarce and almost priceless, it is a remarkable fact that, in spite of the period of marked deterioration, fully explained in the preceding chapter, the Navaho weaver has reasserted herself, and is now making blankets that in general and specific terms equal those of the past in everything except age and the use of native dyes.

When blanket weaving reached its lowest stage and the public had begun to realize the cheap and almost worthless character of much of the work offered to them the sales dropped off woefully, for they refused to purchase more of such unworthy goods.

This worked like an electric shock upon the traders. They saw—not all at once—but with the speediness of shrewd business men, that in their haste to develop a trade they had made a grave mistake. Yet they had self-willed Indians to deal with, who neither understood nor cared anything for the white man's method of reasoning. If they refused to accept blankets in trade, however poor, the Indians would go off in a huff

[page 52]

and do their trading elsewhere. The traders had no union or league so that they could pool their interests. They were too far apart to have the opportunity to meet with one another, save by accident; hence for a while blanket matters stood at a low ebb. Soon, however, it became apparent to the most indifferent and thoughtless that something must be done, or ruin stared them in the face. They could not continue to purchase poor quality blankets which they could not sell, no matter what the Navahos thought or did. As soon as this idea was fully developed in their minds things began to change for the better.

To four firms, more than any others, who stand in close relation to the purchasing public, is owing, undoubtedly, the rapid improvement of the art in late years. Fred Harvey, whose great Indian collections at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and at the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon, have been the delight and instruction of many thousands, and who has Indian stores at many of the leading depots along the line of the Santa Fé railway, set his face definitely and unalterably against all of the low-grade, common, and poorly made blankets. He would not handle them at any price. He demanded of his weavers throughout the reservation the best, and refused all others. Cotton warps, save in the few exceptional cases referred to, were positively debarred, and all yarn must be thoroughly cleansed, deodorized, dyed, and spun before it was woven, or it could not be disposed of to, or by, him. This naturally made the Fred Harvey blankets seem to be of a higher price than those offered by others. But it was and is only a seeming. The purchaser who is discriminating and wants only the good thing, does not always have the time or opportunity to study into the details of his purchases. He wishes to deal with a reliable house who will guarantee to him that he is purchasing the best. He is willing to pay a fair price for such expert advice, and such guaranteed protection, and from this standpoint Fred Harvey's blankets are as reasonable as those of any house in the trade. He also carries an immense stock, not only of the rare old type of blankets, but of the modern weaves, of every style and make.

In a similar manner The Benham Indian Trading Company stood between its customers and poor work. Mr. J. W. Benham, the founder of the company, and his father, Mr. A. M. Benham, were men of the most upright character, who thoroughly understood the business from beginning to end, and they built up a large trade by their integrity and conscientious treatment of their customers. The present head of the firm, by whose name the business is now known—The Burns Indian Trading Company—was practical manager of the older business for some years and is carrying on the business on the same high plane.

Messrs. Hubbell and Cotton also demanded the better work, and

Fig. 33.Acoma Squaw Dress. (Fred Harvey Collection.) [Page 42]

Fig. 34.Rare Hopi Ceremonial Squaw Dress. (Fred Harvey Collection.) The embroideries of this dress are somewhat similar to those shown in Fig. 5. [Page 42]

[page 53]

when the partnership between them was dissolved the former made arrangements with all the leading weavers of his part of the reservation, and for twenty-five years or more has kept them all busy making fine blankets that are standards of excellence throughout the trade.

About the beginning of this century Mr. J. B. Moore, who had a trading post on the reservation at a point afterwards named Crystal, New Mexico, made a further step in advance in the improvement of the art. Instead of allowing the Indians to card, scour, and dye their wool, he carefully selected the finest quality and longest staple of the wool he had purchased from the Navahos, and shipped it east in carload lots to the mills, where with modern machinery and by improved mechanical and chemical methods all the impurities, the grease, the attendant odor, were scientifically and certainly removed. Then the cleaned and purified wool was shipped back, and, under his own direction, carded, spun into yarn by the Navahos, and dyed with colors of his own choosing. Thus the dyes were more likely to be permanent, and none of the inharmonious colors were introduced.

Now the yarn was issued to those weavers who had proven their craftsmanship and artistic skill. Only enough was issued for one blanket at a time, and the size of it was to be carefully shown. The weaver was left to her own originality and creative power if she had shown her ability in the past, otherwise a blanket was placed before her and she was instructed to make her design as near to that as possible. To get her to copy a design exactly is almost impossible. Even with the least original of designers there seems to be the pride of the true artist who must originate and not copy.

This plan of Mr. Moore's worked well, for there are some weavers who have superior technical skill in the mere mechanical part of weaving but who lack the artistic and creative power to originate striking and pleasing designs. By this method they are given the suggestion for designs which they always deviate from and thus secure the touch of original personality, while at the same time the weaving is done with that superior skill that is their especial pride and boast.

By these means Mr. Moore secured blankets of superior uniformity of quality, whose points of superiority were perfect cleanliness of the wool, odorlessness, dyes of assured permanency, richness and harmoniousness of color scheme, fine and tightly spun woof threads, the same assured quality in the wool warp threads, novel and pleasing designs carefully executed, and that tightness or closeness of weave that alone assures durability.

Most of these blankets of Mr. Moore's were sold directly to the individual purchaser. He did a large mail order business, without allowing

[page 54]

his goods to go into the hands of the dealer, and gained considerable note as well as a large financial return by this method of sale.

In 1911-12, however, he sold out to Mr. J. A. Molohon, who, at the same post, is carrying on the business in the same manner and has materially added to his staff of expert weavers.

One of the finest specimens extant of the best class of blanket which the superior and honest weavers of this epoch made is shown in Fig. 38. These were generally made for shamans (medicine men), or those who were regarded as chiefs of their section of country; hence received all the care and attention that blankets for ceremonial and personal use were entitled to before the days of commercialism.

The body is in the plain straight stripes, mainly of black and blue with two relief bands, in which old-gold-green, and blue are included between two bands of red. The center of the blanket contains the conventionalized zigzag design, and the two ends are likewise finished with this conventionalized zigzag symbol.

This blanket has seen good service, and is today in good condition. Its use and old age have improved it. The weave is not too tight, although tight enough to be solid, but the blanket is soft and yielding. The one great charm of blankets of this kind is found in the subtle variations of tone that the colors take on during the lapse of time. Some of the black stripes take on a brownish tinge, while the blue varies in quality, and as one moves it and looks at it there is a play of color upon it that reminds one of the elusive though positive hues and tints that are found on the desert. This blanket possesses a rich iridescence, combined with that elusive quality. It is in the Fred Harvey collection.

It is freely conceded by all traders that the Navaho is a shrewd business man, and the women are as keen, intelligent, and self-reliant as the men. This in itself has been one of the strong reasons for the improvement in the blanket. As soon as the weaver realized that the cupidity of the trader had led him to overreach himself in urging the use of inferior material, etc., the wiser of the weavers took the matter into their own hands and began to remedy the evil. But the Navaho, being a keen trader, it was but natural, says one who knows him well, ‘‘„if he saw he could get an equally good price for an inferior and poor article, than he could for one upon which he had expended much care, time, and labor, he would do just about what his palefaced brother would do.„’’

Hence the education in some cases had to be of the trader rather than the weaver. The former had to learn that the public was growing more discriminating and would no longer be satisfied with a poor quality of work. The lesson is now pretty well learned by both Indian and

Fig. 35.Man-Woven Hopi Squaw Dress. (Author's Collection.) [Page 43]

Fig. 36.Hopi Squaw Dress. (Author's Collection.) Somewhat unique. [Page 44]

[page 55]

trader, hence the quality of blankets will continue to improve, even though the output increases and becomes four times what it now is.

The steps by which improvement has come are very simple. First, cotton warps were frowned upon, and some of the wiser traders refused to sell another pound of them. Those who dealt in aniline dyes made a careful choice of a few good colors, that experience had demonstrated were ‘‘„faster„’’ than others, and that were less glaring and fantastic when combined. Today only a few standard colors can be bought by the Navahos from their regular traders. If they wish the more startling colors they must go or send to some civilized city drug-store, for the traders have learned wisdom and refuse to carry them.

Then came the pressure put upon the Indians for the improvement of the native wools, even though they used the aniline dyes in their coloring. First the thorough cleaning and carding of the wool was demanded, with the extracting of all foreign substances and the elimination of matted and greasy clumps. Then they saw to it that the wool was thoroughly scoured and deodorized, so that none of the ‘‘„sheepy„’’ smell adhered to it. Now it was fit to be dyed, and, being clean and sweet, took the color perfectly and satisfactorily. It next became a matter of persuasion by offering larger pay to get the weavers, first, to spin their yarn, both for warp and woof, tighter and finer. In this way it was soon made equal and even superior, when thoroughly and tightly spun, to the Germantown. Second, to invent and weave more artistic, pleasing, striking, and original designs; and, third, to weave them tighter, closer, and more carefully, so that the critical eye and hand had less faults to find than formerly.

Some traders went so far as to offer prizes for the best blankets offered by their weavers. A few of the more intelligent traders, who every year had been giving the Indians of the surrounding country a ‘‘„feast,„’’ now used these gatherings for the purpose of creating rivalry in blanket weaving. All the best blankets of their stock were exhibited in a booth, and competitions thus freely and openly made soon aroused the desire for improvement—even for mastery.

The result of these efforts is seen in that the Navahos are now weaving few blankets of any kind that have a cotton warp, except the small and cheap pillow covers, which do not have the same strain of wear and tear that the larger blankets are subject to. Of the Germantown yarn blankets there are not five per cent. made of the number that were manufactured ten or fifteen years ago. Yet this is not because the Germantown yarn is not good.

It is rather that the Navahos have learned that, if they would preserve their profitable industry, they must themselves make a yarn that,

[page 56]

in every sense of the word, is equal to the Germantown. This they are now doing, as all the experts who have watched recent developments freely testify.

Of such yarn is that used in Fig. 39, which represents a modern blanket made by one of Fred Harvey's weavers at Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is a perfect illustration of the assertion that I have so often made in these pages that the weavers of today are making just as good blankets as any that have ever been made. While the yarn of this blanket is not quite as fine as that of an old bayeta, it is even more closely woven. Such a blanket as this is so stiff from the firmness of the battening down process that it cannot be used as a wrap or a cover for the body. It is almost as stiff as cardboard. This fine quality, however, renders it perfect as a rug and there is no such thing as wearing out a blanket of such texture and weave as this. The design is simple but pleasing, the main body being in native grays of different tinges and shades. The border is of native black—not dyed—wool. There are also lines of a deeper brown in the square stepped figures, and these also are of undyed wool. The color effect is exceedingly pleasant, while a touch of red adds sufficient life to attract and please the eye.

There are also other powerful factors at work which tend directly to the improvement of the art of the Navaho weaver.

In the early days the Navaho knew nothing of scientific breeding or care of his sheep. In 1851 Dr. Letherman wrote:

The males are permitted to run with the herds at all seasons, and the young, consequently, are born in the winter as well as in the spring and autumn, and many die. For this reason their flocks do not increase with the rapidity generally believed by those not much acquainted with these people. It is a great mistake to suppose there is anything peculiar about Navaho sheep, for such is not the case.

At that time he estimated the number of the sheep to be about two hundred thousand, and he declared that the ‘‘„wool is coarse and is never shorn. The sheep are in all respects similar to those raised by the Mexicans, occasionally one being seen having four horns.„’’

He also refers to the fact that conditions were very adverse to sheep raising, as, for instance, in the winter of 1855, the Navahos were compelled to abandon the country north of Fort Defiance on account of the cold and depth of the snow, which prevented their sheep from grazing.

Some of these conditions still remain, but the general improvement of the life of the Navahos has resulted in better quarters for the sheep in bad weather, and, in special cases of entire lack of grazing material, hay is purchased for their sustenance.

Another grave and serious difficulty the Navahos have had to contend

Fig. 37. A Navaho Weave of Germantown Yarn. (Vroman Collection.) A fine specimen. [Page 47]

[page 57]

with for many years has been, during the hot summer months, that they have had a poor supply of water. As Dr. G. H. Pepper once wrote:

This scarcity of water is the all-absorbing topic of whites as well as natives in the great Southwest. There are spring and autumn rains or showers, as a rule, but at times almost a year will pass without enough water falling to fill the pockets in the rocks; at such times the Indian endeavors by songs and dances to propitiate the rain-gods and cause them to let fall the precious liquid that they are withholding; when their sheep and horses are dying from thirst they will dance continuously for weeks and then, in despair, make a forced drive across the fiery, alkaline plains to the mountains, where the streams will furnish what the gods of the plains will not; but in such a drive their flocks are so decimated that it hardly pays to make the effort.

Both these neglected conditions are now being taken hold of by the Government, through the Indian Department, in a most effective manner. Its report for 1911 shows that ‘‘„at the last dipping the Indians of Pueblo Bonita, New Mexico, had one hundred and twenty-three thousand sheep and goats,„’’ and that those of the Navaho Agency own ‘‘„well in excess of five hundred thousand sheep.„’’ It was also ‘‘„roughly estimated that within one hundred miles of the Superintendency at Keams Canyon, Arizona, four hundred thousand dollarsapos; worth of Navaho blankets were sold in the year„’’ (1910).

The report then continues:

A plan has been outlined for improving the breed of sheep belonging to these Indians by the introduction from time to time of a limited number of high-grade Rambouillet and Cotswold rams into their flocks, with the hope that the improvement in the native sheep may be so apparent that the Indians of these reservations will, of their own volition, adopt methods of improving their flocks. The aim is not only to increase the size of these animals so as to make them more desirable for mutton, but to improve the quality and amount of the wool so that the present clip of three or four pounds per animal may be increased to at least double that amount.

On February 7, 8, and 9, 1912, a conference of all the officials of the Indian Department on the Navaho Agencies was held at Fort Defiance, Arizona, for the purpose of discussing and considering various subjects and problems connected with the welfare of the Navaho. It was there estimated by the men most competent to judge that there were then 1,429,821 sheep, valued at $2,924,960, and 318,955 goats, valued at $497,910, owned by the Navahos. The wool clipped from the native sheep amounted to 3,375,000 pounds, valued at $429,375, and from the graded merino sheep 293,463 pounds, valued at $35,664. Not all of this wool is woven by the Navahos into blankets. Vast quantities are bought by the traders and shipped to the white man's woolen mills, but

[page 58]

the Department estimated that in 1912, 843,750 pounds of native wool was woven into blankets. The output of blankets for the year was estimated to be, from native wool, $675,000, and from Germantown yarn, $36,000.

As far as the water supply is concerned, the situation is rapidly being changed. The Hyde Exploring Expedition, when it began its work in Arizona, relied for two years upon the surface water just as did the Navahos, but the third year, writes Dr. G. H. Pepper in 1902:

In digging a reservoir to catch the seep from an arroyo, a water-bearing stratum was reached; below this there was a layer of quicksand; a foot deeper we came to water-bearing gravel that furnished water for our stock, and also for all the Indian stock in the vicinity. The supply seems inexhaustible and on feast occasions from 200 to 300 head of stock have been watered there in a single day. Navahos travel for miles to fill their kegs from this pure source and none were more surprised than they when it was first discovered; this is not an isolated case, for another well, sunk by our party about thirty miles distant from the one mentioned, only twentyfive feet deep, supplied enough to tide over a very dry season—a simple illustration that serves to show what the government might do to help the Navahos.

This suggestion was carried out, and in the year 1910 water experts went over the major part of the reservation making careful observations and surveys, and the year following the work of putting in wells was actually begun. The result is that now (spring of 1914), as one travels through the Navaho country he sees, every now and again, the surprising spectacle of skeleton steel towers, tanks, and pumps, with watering troughs, around which horses, cattle, and sheep daily congregate, when other water supply fails.

The intention of the Government is to continue this work in all parts of the reservation until enough wells are bored to insure the Navahos against future scarcity of water.

No chapter dealing with the improvement of the art of Navaho blanket weaving would be complete without especial reference to the work of one man. This is Mr. W. T. Shelton, the founder and present superintendent of the San Juan Agency at Shiprock, New Mexico. Mr. Shelton has shown a greater grasp of the situation, it appears to me, than any other man in the whole history of the Indian Service. To him has been largely owing the furtherance of the plan for providing water for the Indians' flocks and also the improvement of the breed of their stock. He has personally purchased several high-bred rams, and has been tireless in his determination to inculcate a desire for, and interest the Indians in, improving the breed of their animals.

But far more than this, in 1909 he conceived the idea of holding a fair at the San Juan Agency at Shiprock and invited not only the Indians

FIG. 38. Rare Old Moki Pattern. (Fred Harvey Collection.) The common type of so-called Moki blankets consists usually of the black or brown and blue stripe, sometimes alternated with white stripes. [PAGE 54]

[page 59]

but also the Indian traders of the district to make as extensive exhibits as possible of every department of Navaho industry. To attract the Indians he offered general prizes for foot-races, horse-races, and a variety of other native games. He also let it be known that there would be no objections to the Indians indulging in some of their own sacred dances, and at his own expense he secured the services of several of the leading chanters, as the head medicine-men or dance-directors are known.

This fair was a great success, although it only foreshadowed what its possibilities might be. Among the exhibits there were two hundred and thirty blankets of native wool and twenty-five Germantown blankets.

In October, 1912, the fourth fair was held, and four times as many blankets were displayed and the improvement in their quality was remarkable. Thirteen Indian traders were represented, but all of these allowed the weavers in their districts to make their own exhibits, so that the Indians themselves received full credit in person as well as the prizes which were awarded for the best blankets.

Personally I was unable to be present at this fourth Navaho fair, but I arrived at the Agency a few weeks afterwards. I saw the prize blankets, and they confirmed Father Berard's statement that as fine blankets are being made today as ever in the history of the Navaho. In a large foursquare enclosure, substantial wooden booths were erected with abundant space for the hanging up of the different blankets, and he who saw such a display as this for the first time must have fully realized that under such fostering conditions there was little possibility of the further deterioration of the art.

It is impossible to estimate the beneficial effect of these fairs, and now that Mr. Shelton has demonstrated that they can be conducted successfully, it is to be hoped that they will be started in other parts of the reservation so that every weaver thereon may have the benefit of these opportunities for comparison and suggestion.

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER VIII. The Temporary Deterioration of the Art of Navaho Blanket Weaving Next: CHAPTER X. The Significance and Symbolism of Color in the Navaho Blanket

© Arizona Board of Regents