Snail's Postcard Post

The Navajo Know


At a bookstore last night, I came across this beautiful postcard book of Navajo textiles from the 1840s through the 1970s. The pieces are from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the oldest museum in Los Angeles, forefather to the Gene Autry Museum. As a Southwest buff, I’ve always loved the Autry, but I’ve never been to the Southwest Museum because it’s been almost completely closed for renovation in the years Papa Snail has lived right up the hill! So with the discovery of this postcard book, I’ve finally gotten a peek. The book consists of 30 stunning postcards. I was tempted to photograph each one for you, but here are 10 to show the diversity of the series, including my personal favorites. 


Germantown, Third Phase Chief’s Style Woman’s Wearing Blanket, 1875-1885

Principally a sheep-herding society, it is no wonder that Navajo (or Diné, as they call themselves) women developed a rich art form in weaving the wool. Setting a new standard in design and technical quality–the weaving is so tight it’s nearly waterproof–Navajo blankets became a valued commodity among lower Plains tribes for whom weighty buffalo hides were the norm. Spanish merchants called the  Navajo textiles chief’s blankets, because only the wealthiest Sioux, Cheyenne and Utes had the means to buy or trade for them.

The art form went through three phases to reach such acclaim. Like the Apache, the Navajo were nomadic hunters in what is now Canada and Alaska until their migration to the American Southwest around the mid-17th century. There, the Navajo picked up weaving from the local Pueblo tribes. Thus, the simply striped Navajo blankets looked the same as Pueblo ones. The Navajo (often through Spanish merchants) began trading these with the Ute around the 1820’s, continuing through the 1860’s. And so horizontally striped brown, blue and white blankets are called Ute Style, and mark the First Phase of Navajo weaving. Less than fifty First Phase blankets still exist and so they are extremely valuable.

tucson_200601A55_02First Phase chief’s blanket. image from 

From about 1850-80, Navajo weavers incorporated red rectangles in their designs. Twelve rectangles grouped in twos became the marker of a Second Phase chief’s blanket. 

tucson_200601A55_04Second Phase chief’s blanket. image from 

In the 1860’s, blankets became bigger as Navajo weavers took on a greater variety of shapes in their designs. Nine-diamond patterns became particularly popular, as did stacked compositions, and crosses as in the postcard above. This Third Phase ended with the Second around 1880, when railroads expanded into the Southwest, bringing competition in the wool trade, particularly machine-manufactured Navajo-style blankets. 

To compete, Navajo weavers entered into rug-making, and adopted pre-spun wool. “Germantown” means the yarn is commercially produced and aniline dyed (an early synthetic dye revolutionized in Germany).  

Another Germantown, Third Phase Chief’s Style Woman’s Wearing Blanket (1875-1885) I really like:



Pictorial Yeibichai Tapestry, 1935-1945 

Yei are deities believed to mediate between the Navajo people and the godsIMG_5589Ganado, Hubbell Revival Style Tapestry, 1970

In 1878–ten years after the American government released the Navajo from internment at the Bosque Redondo reservation near Fort Sumner, allowing them to return to their native land–an enterprising Hispanic-American named  Juan/John Lorenzo Hubbell founded a trading post in Ganado, Arizona. Along with selling food staples and hardware like any general store, Hubbell and his sons built up great demand among Americans for Navajo weaving and silversmithing. The Hubbells expanded to around thrity trading posts over time, with stage and freight lines and other commercial properties in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Although there’s certainly an imperialist shadow, Hubbell was like a good gallery director, bringing significant wealth to the Navajo artisans he represented, respected for his fairness. The Hubbell family continued to run the business in this manner, until the National Park Service purchased the Hubbell Trading Post in 1967.  Now a National Historic Site,  Hubbell Trading Post is the longest running shop in the Navajo Nation.  


Zigzag Pattern, Pulled Warp Blanket, 1880 Collector: George Wharton James 

If I understand it right, pulled warp is a piecework weaving technique. I haven’t been able to find a real explanation, but what I’m getting is that instead of weaving a tapestry as a whole piece, line by line, top to bottom, it can be helpful to create parts separately in designs where different colors frequently fall on the same axis. Then, when the parts are complete, the weaver pulls the warp (the set of vertical yarns, the longitudes, if you will) to bring it all together like matching up quilt pieces. (Please correct me if you’re a weaver!) I suspect it’s very difficult to make even edges this way.  

This blanket’s original owner, George Wharton James, was something of a rival of the Southwest Museum founder Charles Fletcher Lummis. Like Lummis, George Wharton James was a journalist and photographer of the Southwest who romanticized indigenous cultures in typical early 20th century fashion. Being a romantic, I’m sure he would not like me mentioning that as a Methodist minister, he was defrocked for repeated adultery, real estate fraud and fake credentials. 


Pictorial Tapestry Representing U.S. Flag, c. 1900

Surely a design for tourists, the contrast I imagine of weaver and product makes me a little sad, and also strikes me as slightly creepy. The turn of the century through the 1920’s saw the nadir of indigenous poverty and all its ills. And the Navajo generally did not begin to identify as Americans until World War II when the U.S. Navy recruited several hundred Navajo as radiomen in the South Pacific. And not until the 1960’s when the program was declassified would the Navajo Nation and the world learn that those men had been recruited because of their native language! At Iwo Jima, speaking Navajo, which was unwritten at the time and which only two dozen non-Diné in the world knew, six “code talkers” sent over eight-hundred secure messages without a single mistake.


Sandpainting Tapestry, Nightway Chant, c. 1940

Navajo spirituality is all about interpersonal relations and a universal equilibrium, and so illness is considered being out of harmony with the world. Therefore, when someone is sick or the tribal world out of balance, a Medicine Man leads a Nightway or Night Chant, the most sacred Navajo ceremony. Over many hours and nights, the Medicine Man leads hundreds of hypnotic chants to the sounds of percussion and dancing feet. The Medicine Man also draws or directs the drawing of a sandpainting that illustrates the allegorical lesson of that night’s chant.

This postcard depicts a sandpainting from the Whirling Logs epic, which takes nine nights to chant! The Whirling Logs tells of a man who plans to make a dangerous journey down the river at the gods’ behest. Many try to dissuade him, but he proceeds to hollow out a log for a canoe, and sets sail. Over the course of his journey, he learns all about religious ceremony. It seems the figures in this tapestry are Talking God, Calling God, seed planters and crop gatherers. 

Because sandpaintings are wiped out at the end of a ceremony, and with Navajo traditions threatened by American society, some Navajo began weaving the designs so they would be preserved for tribal reference. Others reproduced the designs for commercial purposes. Even in the former case, many consider sandpainting tapestries a religious violation and in fact a furthering of ritual deterioration because of the European type of thinking behind it (ie. non-oral record keeping).  

IMG_5594Germantown, Saltillo Pattern on Chief’s Style Blanket, 1875-1885

Always in bold colors, the Saltillo pattern features this sort of serrated diamond, inspired by those on Mexican serapes. The name Saltillo comes from the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila.       IMG_5597

Third Phase Chief’s Style Blanket, 1880


Classic Style Poncho, 1840-1860 Collector: Charles F. Lummis
(You can tell it’s a poncho by the slit for the wearer’s head in the middle.)

Keep warm until next time!

This entry was published on May 9, 2013 at 10:51 pm. It’s filed under Art, Historical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “The Navajo Know

  1. Pingback: African Textiles | Snail's Postcard Post

  2. Pingback: Paul Jacoulet | Snail's Postcard Post

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