The development of the designs and colors found in historic Navajo weavings is a part of the tale of the people themselves. To understand why certain designs took hold, and what colors and patterns developed and where, one must look to the changes which took place when the proud Navajo became the wards of the United States government. Their way of life was altered, their traditions and culture impounded by the whims and vagaries of government agents. Confined to their traditional lands and no longer considered a problem by the government that sought only to keep them on those lands, the Navajo would find themselves learning to interact with the world around them in a new way. Their adaptability as a people would find itself tested in this era.
The land the Navajo live on is sacred to them, but living there is not an easy proposition. In the years before World War II, herding their livestock along with subsistence farming were the main sources of income for most families on the reservation.N9 Early forms of weavings were what is today referred to as Chief’s blankets, done largely in bands of white and black, with blue added some of the time. Later the weavers would add other elements in a nine-point pattern within those traditional bands. Their creativity and artistic talent expressed itself further in what is called the Third Phase Chief’s blankets. These weavings had designs in all four corners of the blanket and a central design with the bands in the background.
Changes were on the horizon. While the Navajo were weaving their blankets, an English weaver named Thomas Kay was making his way to Oregon, where he opened his own woolen mill.S2 His grandchildren would later move to Pendleton, Oregon, where they opened another mill which would produce the now famous Pendleton blankets. While Kay and his family were creating another source for wool blankets, the US government was adding another link in their interactions with the Navajo: Anglo traders.
The historic relationship between the Navajo and the Anglo traders is an interesting one. Those who established trading posts to bring goods for purchase from back East changed the trajectory of the Navajo in a way some see as beneficial, and others see as controversial. These posts were located in some of the most isolated areas of the country. Traders and their families lived lives nearly as solitary as the Navajo.N10
Traders had to be licensed by the US government in order to operate their business on the reservation. The first permanent post was established at Bosque Redondo in 1865. These establishments brought to the Navajo goods they could not otherwise acquire. They operated off the barter system, an exchange method familiar to the Navajo, extending credit for goods in one season and taking payment for those goods with other items at a later date. As trader Walter Gibson, from the Nakai Toh post in Mexican Water, puts it, “…we traded goods, food stuffs, clothing, etc. for wool, lambs, hides, rugs and furs, during the winters”.N10
In the beginning, traders sent the wool the Navajo paid them with back East, to the factories there. When the Pendleton blankets cut into their need to weave as many of their own blankets, the traders suggested weaving rugs to their local weavers. Rugs, they said, could be sold back East. The traders had the connections to make these sales and the weavers had the skill to create the rugs. A symbiotic relationship was born.
According to Farmington Museum director Bart Wilsey, each trader “had his own perception or bias on what they thought would sell”.N11 Many of the designs that have become so familiar in Navajo weaving came out of those perceptions, along with the trader’s desire to have distinctive designs that would be associated with their areas. Hemp Noel from the post at Teec Nos Pos showed the local weavers Oriental rugs, encouraging them to incorporate the ideas from these weavings into their own. As a result of this, rugs from the Teec Nos Pos area “evolved with a more varied use of color” according to Wilsey. Traders George Bloomfield and Ed Davies from the post at Toadlena encouraged the use of natural dyes, which became the attribute of rugs from that area. Other traders encouraged the use of certain colors, particular designs or other ways of distinguishing rugs from their area. As the market for Navajo rugs grew, the designs came to be seen as traditionally associated with a certain area.
The interdependent relationship between the Anglo traders and the Navajo extended further than weaving. Over time, the traders became the economic liaisons between the isolated tribe and the world around them. In particular, traders were intertwined with the various government agents who oversaw the peoples’ lives. As the years passed, traders became not only a source of goods or barter, but also the postmaster and the bank in some areas. This had the unfortunate consequence of allowing for unscrupulous traders to control the economy on their part of the reservation.
Traders would be the receiving point for government checks as well as the means to cash the check. Some feel this allowed for less than ethical dealings, pointing out that such a system “locked Navajo people into a debt-relationship with the trader”.N10 In spite of the fact that these types of dealings may have occurred at times, the relationship between the traders and the local Navajo were for the most part harmonious. Whether or not the relationship was economically beneficial can be debated.
The coming of WWII would alter life on the reservation yet again. Navajo men who had gone off to fight a war on the other side of the world found their eyes opened to a number of possibilities. Tribes like the Navajo gained more independence. Cars and interstate highways brought people from back East out to the reservation. The world had come to the doorstep of the Navajo and there was no going back.