Tracing the history of Navajo chief blankets is about tracing the history of Navajo weaving. There are several different ways to address the origins of Navajo weaving both from a Navajo cultural perspective as well as historic documentation of their weaving tradition. This discussion of Navajo chief blankets will focus on the historic origins.
While archaeologists and anthropologists argue over the earliest arrival date of Athabaskan speaking people in the Southwest, it is without a doubt that weaving was adopted from their Pueblo neighbors and documented from at least the mid-1600’s. Weaving on a vertical loom using native cotton dates back to at least 700 A.D. (anthropologist Kate Peck Kent believes as far back as the time of Christ), a technique which migrated through Mexico to the Rio Grande Pueblos and Hopi Mesas.
Churro sheep were introduced by Spanish expeditions led by Coronado in 1540 and again in 1598 by Don Juan de Onate and continued to be the primary source of wool until the Long Walk period in the early 1860’s.
Blankets produced prior to 1865 are categorized as the Classic Period of Navajo weaving. Weavings were wider than long and woven for use by Navajo and other native peoples for wrapping around the shoulders. They are subdivided into three or four categories starting with the First Phase Chief Blanket.
Before delineating the specifics of each style, the term Chief Blanket needs to be addressed. The Navajo people do not have “chiefs”, per se. Although any Navajo could weave and wear this style of weaving, they were often recorded being worn not only by important Navajo leaders, but other tribes’ leaders as well. The Navajo people became highly adept in their weaving skills and their blankets were sought after by Pueblo, Ute, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Sioux and other surrounding tribes.
Once freight wagons, western settlers and later trains started moving across the Southwest, Anglo collectors became enamored of Navajo blankets. The Classic Period for Navajo weaving lasted until about 1865, the time when the majority of Navajo people were rounded up and force marched to Fort Sumner in New Mexico.
While different styles of wearing mantas were woven during this period, the Navajo chief blanket style became the most famous. The First Phase Chief Blanket predominated up until about 1850. The pattern consists of wide black or brown and white stripes. Indigo blue dye and red cloth were introduced by the Spanish resulting in thinner stripes of blue and occasionally narrow lines of raveled red appearing in this early style of blanket. Approximately 50 First Phase Chief Blankets are known to exist from this time period.
Second Phase Chief Blankets followed the same stripe pattern as the First Phase with the addition of small red bars or rectangles in the indigo blue stripes. Indigo dyed stripes typically appeared as the center and end stripes of the blanket with the remaining stripes being black or brown and white. This resulted in twelve red bars of color decorating the center and corners of this blanket style. The Second Phase chief blanket was evolving from the early 1800’s especially as red cloth and yarns became more available to Navajo weavers and this style continued into the 1870’s.
The Long Walk was a true watershed on many levels. Although historically horrendous for the Navajo people, it had a positive effect on Navajo weaving because of greater exposure to Rio Grande Hispanic weavings. A classic Rio Grande blanket design features a diamond in the center. From about 1860 to 1880, the six red bars located in the central stripes merged into three central designs, typically a terraced edged diamond in the center and two half diamonds at each end of the center stripe. Crosses were also a popular pattern in the nine-spot layout which became known as Third Phase Chief Blankets.
Finally, the full impact of Hispanic weaving design made itself felt in Navajo blanket styles. Serrated quarter, half and full diamonds or connected crosses became the dominating feature of the blanket along with the more liberal use of red yarns and dyes, both aspects resulting in the sublimation of the original dark and light horizontal stripes. The Fourth Phase Chief Blanket first emerged around 1870, a reflection, too, of the shift Navajo weaving was making from wearing blankets to rugs, a timeframe in Navajo weaving known as the Transition Period.
Today, Navajo chief blankets woven during that period are valued up to $500,000. The style remains popular among Navajo weavers and can be woven in the classic forms listed above or include other pictorial, geometric and color elements. Because of the transition from blankets to rugs, it is not uncommon to see the chief blanket design woven in a format which is longer than it is wide. Wherever Navajo rug designs may evolve, their roots remain in the beauty and simplicity of the original wearing blanket designs.