Navajo Rug History
Prior to the coming of the Spaniards to the Desert Southwest, the American Indian tribes in this area (or soon to come into this area) were roughly divided into two types: the farmers, and the raider-huntsmen.
The Pueblos, whose misfortune it would be to play host to the cruel Conquistadors, were farmers. The Navajos (along with their cousins, the Apaches) were raider-huntsmen, forever on the prowl.
As farmers, the Pueblos, among other things, raised cotton, thus contributing directly to their highly developed art of textile weaving. Indeed, the Conquistadors are uncharacteristically generous with praise of the clothing worn by these Indians.
It is significant to the purpose of this book to note that when Coronado's army left Compostela in 1540, bound for the conquest of the Seven Cities of Cibola, his entourage included 5000 sheep. These sheep were the churro the kind used by the peasant people of Spain. The Merino, introduced later to the New World, was then reserved for royalty. These churro were scrawny, long-legged and had straight, long wool. This wool needed little preparation for weaving and the sheep needed little care. The wool was practically greaseless and was often a brown color. Sometimes these sheep had four horns, perhaps this was due to inbreeding. :Even today we find an occasional four-horned sheep in the northwest section of the reservation..
While the lives of the Indians in New Mexico and northern Arizona would eventually come to be profoundly altered by this lowly beast, the. transformation was not an overnight thing. Indian Agents bad the idea of importing new kinds of sheep to improve the breed. In 1883 Merino were bought and lent to the Navajo. In 1903 the French Merino, called Rambouillet, were brought in, mainly for meat and marketable wool. Unfortunately, it turned out that the lambs born were too large for the churro ewes; Eventually the sheep grew bigger, but the wool was shorter, kinkier and greasier. Navajo women found it hard to clean and almost impossible to spin.. Many different types of sheep have been used as experiments, but all seemed to have some faults. The Rambouillet is the principal type of sheep used today on the Navajo Reservation.
Now, while the tide of Europeans was moving northward out of Mexico to engulf the Pueblos in the 16th and 17th centuries, another simultaneous invasion was moving southward out of the Plateau country the Navajos were on the move. While it is almost a certainty that Coronado and his sheep met no Navajos in the forays of the 1540s, there can be little doubt that a century later the descendants of both the Conquistadores and their livestock began fraternizing with the Navajos.
By the beginning of the 18th century, and after a few bloody protests, the Pueblos had pretty much settled into the Spanish yoke. The Pueblo people acquired sheep from the Spanish and wool, in addition to cotton, occupied the Pueblo looms. But the atmosphere of peace was interrupted ever so often by new invasion forces. The Navajo raiding parties broke into the Pueblos.
It should be emphasized that the Navajo was not merely a stealer of livestock and other material things, he was also as dynamic and adaptable as he was a stealer of ideas. And so, when the settlement of America snuffed out the raider's way of life, the Navajo had little trouble turning to a new way of life-that of a pastoral nomad-thanks to the Spaniard's horses and sheep. His flocks increased, his contact with the Pueblos gained. him the weaver's art, and the natural consequence was the wide-spread production of textiles throughout what was to become his Reservation. For the Navajos, the production of textiles meant the production of a commodity that could be traded or sold.
The first mention of weaving in Spanish records was made in 1706, based on observations of the year previous. The chronicler is Francisco Cuervo y Valdez, Governor of New Mexico, who campaigned against the Navajo in 1705. He wrote: "They (the Navajos) make their clothes of wool and cotton, sowing the latter and obtaining the former from the flocks which they raise.
There is a possible explanation for this. Since the Pueblo refugees who made their way into Navajoland had not been in that country for too long a period at that time, it is probable that they continued to plant cotton-and the Navajos quickly imitated them.
The next reference is in testimony taken in Santa Fe in 1743 by Governor Codallos y Rabal to aid the Spanish in determining the policy with relation to proposed missions to the Navajos. The people giving the testimony were Spaniards who had been in the Navajo country on campaigns or exploring expeditions (some in the very early 1700s'). Most of these people mention the weaving of wool-particularly black wool-by the Navajos.
By the end of that century (1791) the Governor of New Mexico was able to write to the Viceroy that the Navajos dress somewhat better than those of the Pueblos. A few months later, the same writer made mention of the Navajo trade in fabrics. And in 1795, Governor Concha reported that the Navajos work their wool with more delicacy and taste than the Spaniards.
The period of what we may call the Period of First Weavers lasted about a century and a half, or to 1850. By the time this era came to an end, the simple craft of the Navajo had advanced to the position of a significant craft industry.
The earliest pieces of Navajo weaving which can be definitely dated, and that are still in existence today, come to us from Massacre Cave in Canon del Muerto. Fragments of Navajo weaving dating to 1804-05 when the punitive slaughter took place in the Canon, were found about 1900 on the skeletal remains of the victims. These fragments show a plain stripe pattern in the blanket's designs-a Navajo adaptation of the Pueblo-teacher's style. Therefore, this would lead us to believe that the outstanding qualities of Navajo weaving to 1850 were not so much represented by design variation, but rather by a growth in both quality and quantity.
RUG TYPES AND AREAS
No two Navajo rugs are exactly alike; however, even the budding expert can trace (usually at a glance) many rugs to their place of origin. This is possible because certain trading post centers produce rugs of distinctive style, pattern and color. You need not be an architect to know that a shingled white frame house with shuttered windows and a sharp-pitched roof belongs to Cape Cod, not in a Los Angeles suburb. By the same token, you need not be a Navajo textile expert to know that black, white, grey and brown geometrically-designed rugs are woven in the Two Grey Hills area (and in the rug fancier's jargon, are known simply as "Two Grey Hills") .
The Reservation can be divided into 13 weaving regions, each producing a characteristic rug. But, before you embark on this Short Course in Navajo Rug Types, constantly bear in mind, the disconcerting fact that sometimes-though, blessedly, rarely-someone will put up a Cape Cod style house in Southern California.
Red Rocks Area Beginning in the northeast corner of the reservation, the first rug to be studied here is the Shiprock-Red Rocks type. Shiprock, that massive volcanic plug around which this weaving type centers, is one of the Southwest's most famous landmarks. The San Juan River-, a migrant desert stream, cuts through this valley on its west-bound course to the Colorado River. In the early part of this century, the so-called Yei Blanket was commercially developed by Will Evans, one-time trader owner of the Shiprock Trading Company. The Yei is a religious figure taken from the highly stylized sandpaintings, and is their actual representation of these supernatural beings. But, while this blanket's central design is depicted in healing rites and designs reverently made by medicine men, the typical Yei Blanket itself has no religious significance.
This is not to say that the old Navajos did not at first object to the weaving of sacred figures into these blankets-they protested violently and vehemently. But Will Evans' insistence quickly buried the opposition along with the taboo. Never was there an attempt by the Navajos to pass off these blankets as sacred, and because such rugs were never a part of Navajo ceremonials, the conflict died aborting. The Yei should not be confused with the so-called Ceremonial prayer rugs, which are strictly a product of the white-man's aver-trained commercial mind with the Sandpainting rug. There is no. such thing as a prayer rug in Navajo textile arts. The Navajos do not pray on a special rug in the style of the Mohammedans. Actually, "prayer rug:' and "ceremonial rug" are misnomers sometimes used as a sales pitch to the uninitiated.
The Shiprock-Red Rocks Yei usually carries a white background. The Yei figures are quite colorful. I have seen Yeis adorned in as pain as 15 shades and hues. In addition to. their brightly cast turned slender figures on white backgrounds, the typical Yei blanket has a third characteristic: a stylized rainbow figure woven down its two sides and across the bottom.
A Yei usually tends to. be an the small size. In fact, a 3x5 Yei is considered a big rug. I think the subject matter, which lends itself to. a wall-hanging type of tapestry, dictates, in turn, the relatively small size of this rug. Rarely will the average home take an oil painting larger than 3x5 feet in size, and in the
best sense of the ward, a good Yei is a fine painting.
West of the Lukachukai Mountains lies the triangle of trading posts-Upper Greasewaad, Round Rock and Lukachukai that deal with a unique rug type bearing the latter post's name.
Yei tapestry is a fine portrait suitable for wall display, the Lukachukai Yei is quite content to take its place on the floor.
The usual size for a Lukachukai Yei is from 3 x 5 to. 4 x 6 feet. Occasionally a weaver will try for some sort of local record,and a large rug will emerge. I have seen Lukachukai Yeis 8 x 10 feet in size, which means the Yei figures are tall as men. The weavers in this area also. make good aniline dye rugs in the regular patterns in red, grey, black and white.
Teec Nos Pos Area
West of Shiprock, near the common boundary point of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, is Teec Nos Pos (Circle of Cottonwood Trees) . Today, a paved road links this post with the outside world, but it has been only a matter of months since the dusty, bumpy journey to Teec Nos Pas has an adventure meriting the most serious preparation. Actually there are two main posts in the weaving area at the north end of the Carrizo Mountains: Teec Nos Pos itself, and Beclabito (Water Under a Ledge) .
The Teec 'Nos Pos rug is at once the most distinctive and least "Navajo of all the Reservation's specialized textile types. It is also the hardest rug to place in a home-not because of its non-Indian characteristic, but because of its complexity of design and abundance and variety of color are hard to fit into the average home's decoration scheme. The Teec Nos Pos reserves its greatest appeal far the serious collector.