“Navajo Weaving: A Study in Cultural Change and Adaptability”
Southwest Crossroads Spotlight
“Navajo Weaver on an Upright Loom,” Ford Nez (Artist)
Navajos say Spider Woman taught them to weave with directions from Spider Man. Spider Woman’s woven cross still appears in Navajo weaving today.
The early Navajos were a nomadic hunting and gathering people. Navajo weaving tells a story of their encounters and adaptations with neighboring cultures over 300 years. Archaeologists have found bits of cloth in abandoned settlements. These bits suggest that sometime during the 1600s, the Navajos cultivated and wove cotton.
During the Spanish occupation in the 1500s and 1600s, some Pueblo people fled to areas where the Navajos lived. Navajos took others, especially women and children, as captives. Some of these people became the ancestors of contemporary Navajos. In this cultural exchange, the Navajos learned Pueblo-style weaving. After the Spanish introduced churro sheep, Navajo weavers began to weave with wool.
For the next 150 years, Pueblo, Spanish, and Mexican designs influenced Navajo weaving through trade. Navajos began by weaving garments for themselves, such as the wraparound mantas worn by both women and men. They also wove shirts and breechcloths. Later, weavers wove blankets shaped like Mexican serapes with Mexican Saltillo designs. “Navajo Woman Weaving a Rug, ca. 1900s,” Unidentified (Photographer)You’ll need 3-D glasses to view this Anaglyph image. Don’t have a pair? Request 3-D glasses right away!
Navajo weaving shows the influence of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. An American trader named Josiah Gregg made many trips over the Santa Fe Trail between St. Louis and Chihuahua, Mexico. The trader wrote that Navajo blankets were “of so close and dense a texture that [they] will frequently hold water
[and are] therefore highly prized for protection against the rains.”
Weavers began to use manufactured aniline dyes along with their traditional natural plant and mineral dyes in the 1800s. They sometimes unraveled fabric woven in Saxony, Germany, and Germantown, Pennsylvania, to get yarn dyed in bright shades of red. Once manufactured clothing became available, Navajos began wearing store-bought apparel and sold what they wove. Pueblos, Plains Indians, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans alike valued Navajo cloth highly for its beauty and durability.
Weaving survived the many changes and adaptations in Navajo history. Comanches and Utes began moving onto Navajo lands during the 1800s. In response, Navajo warriors raided neighboring pueblos and Hispanic villages. In 1863 the United States Army rounded up 8,000 Navajos to stop the raiding and warfare. The army burned farms and cut down peach trees. It starved the Navajos out of their canyon lands by killing their sheep and other livestock. The Army marched the captives to Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner. During the forced imprisonment at Bosque Redondo, the army issued wool and cotton thread to the Navajos. They were able to continue weaving. “The Complete Story of a Navajo Blanket, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona,” Unidentified (Artist)
When the army finally allowed the Navajos to return to their homes in 1867, it issued 14,000 sheep to them. By 1892, these flocks numbered 1.75 million. Weaving the wool into blankets and clothing to wear and trade was an important part of the Navajos’ economy. Army posts, trading posts, and the coming of the railroad in the 1880s led to a booming trade for weavers. But overgrazing, the drought years of 1891-92, followed by a drop in the price of wool in 1894 caused an economic downswing.
Tourism introduced new interest in Navajo culture. Hotel owner Fred Harvey promoted commercial tours of the Southwest by train and automobile. Tourists, like earlier residents of the Southwest, prized Navajo rugs for their quality and beauty. Weaving remains an exciting expression of Navajo culture.