Contemporary First Phase Chief's Blanket by Wilbertson Begaye (#06)

59" x 47"


$3,750.00


This fine modern weaving replicates the great First Phase Chief’s Blanket of the 1850s, the foundation garment of all Navajo weavings. Woven of Churro wool, it is hand-dyed and mill-spun of fine single-ply yarn. Wilbertson Begaye used the wool, colored with natural blue indigo and red cochineal dyes, to reproduce this classic example of Navajo weaving.


Weaving

After the medicine woman told the people about the prayersticks she told them that there was a place in the underworld where two rivers crossed. It was called ni tqin'kae tsosi, fine fiber cotton (Indian hemp). There were two persons who brought the seed of that plant, they were spiders. They said that the people were to use the plant instead of skins for their clothing. So this seed was planted in the earth. When the seeds were planted, the plant ripe, and the cotton gathered, the people shaped a little wheel, 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and they put a slender stick through it. This was used in the spinning of cotton. When they began spinning they pushed away from the body toward the knee. Then the chief medicine woman said: "You must spin towards your person, as you wish to have the beautiful goods come to you; do not spin away from you." For it was in their minds to make cloth which they could trade for shell and turquoise beads and she knew their thoughts. She said :"You must spin towards you, or the beautiful goods will depart from you." There were two names given to the spindle, yudi yilt ya'hote, meaning, turning or shooting around with the beautiful goods. This the Spider Man suggested; but his wife said: "It shall be called by another name, ntl is yilt ya'hote, turning with the mixed chips." After they had spun the thread they rolled it into good-sized balls. They brought straight poles and laid them down; one down, one opposite. They tied two other poles at the ends, making a rectangular frame. They rolled or wound the thread on two of the poles as the sun travels, east to west, over and under the poles. The Spider Man said that the ball of thread should be called, yudi yilt nasmas agha, rolling with the beautiful goods. His wife said: "No, it shall be called ntsli yilt nasmas agha, rolling with the mixed chips." After the loom was finished the cross poles were erected and other poles placed on the ground to hold the loom frame solidly, and the loom was stretched and lifted into place. Then the Spider Man said: "It will be called yoteblitz nes thon, looping with the beautiful goods." His wife said: "From hence forth it shall be called nil tliz biltz nes thon, looping with mixed chips." Then they used a narrow stick about two and a half feet long, and they wound the yarn or thread over it, and where there is no design they ran it along. That was given the same name as the ball of thread. The Spider Man held that it should have the same name as the ball; but his wife said: "No, it shall be called nil tliz nasmas agha." Then they used the wide flat stick for tapping down the thread. The Spider Man said: "It shall be called nil tliz na'ygolte" ; but his wife said: "It shall be called nil tliz na'ygolte, twining with the mixed chips". When they got this far with the weaving, the threads of the warp mixed together and were too near or too far apart. So another kind of stick was used. It had long, narrow teeth. It was also used for the purpose of tapping down the thread. The Spider Man said: "It shall be called yote yo'golte, hoeing with the beautiful goods." His wife said: "It shall be called nil iltz yo'golte." The Spider Man said: "Now you know all that I have named for you. It is yours to work with and to use following your own wishes. But from now on when a baby girl is born to your tribe you shall go and find a spider web which is woven at the mouth of some hole; you must take it and rub it on the baby's hand and arm. Thus, when she grows up she will weave, and her fingers and arms will not tire form the weaving." To this day that is done to all baby girls. The weaving progressed, and they made all kinds of articles. They used cotton and yucca fiber and Indian hemp. These were the thread. They raised turkeys, and they used the feathers for feather blankets. They ate the turkey flesh for their meat. They killed rabbits and cut the fur into strips, and they made fur blankets. They wove different kinds of grass into mats for their floors, and also, to hang in front of the openings of their houses. There were many kinds of weaving. The people lived peacefully and were happy in working out designs in the new art. They raised great quantities of corn. All this made them grow in number; they became a very strong people and their past troubles were forgotten; but this was not to last. Pg. 37, 38


The Dine': Origin Myths of the Navajo Indians; 1956, Aileen O'Bryan.

Weaving has been carried to a high degree of perfection by the Navaho. The art as it exists among them today is not an invention of their own, as nothing similar is found among any other tribe of the Athapascan stock. It is pretty safe to say that the Navaho learned the art of weaving from the Pueblos. Their own legends, however, account for it in their own way. The hanelnaeheke hani', or moving upward chant legend, records that the art of weaving was taught by the Spider Man and Spider Woman in the following manner. "The Spider Man drew some cotton (ndaka') from his side and instructed the Navaho to make a loom. The cotton-warp was made of spider-web (nashjei bitlol). The upper cross-pole was called yabitlol (sky or upper cord), the lower cross-pole ni'bitlol (earth or lower cord). The warp-sticks were made of shabitlol (sun rays), the upper strings, fastening the warp to the pole, of atsinltlish (lightning), the lower strings of shabitlajilchi (sun halo), the heald was a tsaghadindini isenil (rock crystal heald), the cord-heald stick was made of atsolaghal (sheet lightning), and was secured to the warp strands by means of nltsatlol billdestlo' (rain ray cords)." "The batten-stick was also made of shabitlajilchi (sun halo), while the beidzoi (comb) was of yolgai (white shell). Four spindles or distaffs were added to this, the disks of which were of cannel-coal, turquoise, abalone and white bead, respectively, and the spindle-sticks of atsinltlish (zigzag lightning), hajilgish (flash lightning), atsolaghal (sheet lightning), and nltsatlol (rain ray), respectively." "The dark, blue, yellow and white winds quickened the spindles (beedizi) according to their color, and enabled them to travel around the world."

Presumably, this legend accounts for the now vanishing tradition that weaving should be done with proper moderation. Overdone weaving (akeitlo) is ameliorated by a sacrifice offered to the spindle (beedizi). Its prayerstick (bik'et'an) consists of yucca, precious stones, bird and turkey feathers, tassels of grass (tlo'zol) and pollen, and forms part of the blessing rite (hozhoji). The hach'eyatqei, or ch'aeyatqei (prayer to the gods), is recited with the sacrifice. The custom withholding maidens from weaving before marriage, which was formerly observed, is also explained by the fear of overdoing weaving. Little or no attention, however, is paid to this tradition today. Pgs. 221, 223

For references to steps in weaving, coloring and dyeing of wool, setting up of loom, weaving, Implements, use of loom, designs and knitting refer to below Pgs. 223-256

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

Take, for instance, the famous art of Navajo weaving. If you ask a member of the tribe today when weaving was learned, she - for Navajo weavers are women - will tell you that they were taught by Spider Woman, "in the beginning." Yet the Navajo weaving technique, point for point, exactly duplicates that of the Pueblos, who have been weaving since A.D. 600. It is a complicated art, and Navajo girls today need years to learn it from a female relative, practicing every day. It is difficult to believe that the Navajos had worked out the loom, the spindle, and all the other equipment before this era of "learning by marriage." A blanket got in trade, a loom glimpsed on a visit to some pueblo would never have given them enough information. Then there is the problem of sex etiquette, for most Pueblo weavers today are men. Indian proprieties would surely forbid a Navajo woman to receive daily instruction from a strange man. But if she married him! It is possible to imagine the skilled weaver working in a Navajo home, trying to teach his sons who were still wedded to the life of hunting and fighting and, finally, imparting the art to his daughters. That this did not happen too early in Navajo history can be gathered from the fact that all known specimens of Navajo weaving are in wool. Therefore they were made after the Spaniards had come and after the Navajos had sheep. And sheep did not come to the Navajos in any quantity until after the Pueblo revolt. Pgs. 46-47

The Navajos; 1956, Ruth M. Underhill.

Even such everyday tasks as weaving must be done only in moderation. Many women will not weave more than about two hours at a stretch; in the old days unmarried girls were not allowed to weave for fear they would overdo, and there is a folk rite for curing the results of excess in this activity. Closely related is the fear of completely finishing anything: as a "spirit outlet," the weaver leaves a small slit between the threads. Pgs. 225-226

The Navaho; 1946, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton.

The Navajos believe in the Greek maxim "Nothing to excess " believing that overdoing a thing brings bad luck as an offense to the spirits. For the same reason nothing must be too perfect. A rug or basket design with a solid border must have a break in it or flaw to let the spirit of the maker, who has spent so much time and energy, escape. It is natural that things which bring one a livelihood should also have some restrictions. Many commercially minded weavers and other craftsmen have begun to ignore the taboos of their trades as being too restrictive. The large number of taboos relating to pottery making have been given credit for the decline of that craft, and none are listed here.

 

Don 't hit anyone with weaving tools - crack the tools.

They will be paralyzed in the future.

 

Don't spank your children with weaving tools.

They'll get sick.

 

Don't have a weaving comb with six points.

Your baby might have six fingers.

 

Don't go between the poles of the loom when a woman is weaving.

You won't grow - cause evil - won't get much for the rug.

 

Don't have the loom of the weaving stand too long.

It will tire and hurt you.

 

Don't eat or drink while you prepare the loom for the rug.

You'll get poor - won't get much for the rug.

 

Don't eat while you are weaving.

It will go slow - won't be any good.

 

Don't weave a Yei figure with one eye smaller or one leg shorter.

It will affect you that way in later life - affect your baby.

 

Don't leave a Yei figure in a rug unfinished.

The Yeis will get angry - bring bad luck.

 

This is interesting as a compromise taboo. Yeis are Holy People and as such are supposed to be represented only in the sandpaintings which are used and destroyed before sundown but never done in any permanent form. The famous hermaphroditic medicine man Hosteen Clah was one of the first to weave rug versions of the sandpaintings. In the Shiprock area Yei rugs and other pictorial tapestries became increasingly popular after WWII.

 

Don't be stubborn while weaving a rug.

It won't be worth much.

 

Don't throw weaving tools.

You 'II never finish the weaving.

 

Don't burn weaving tools.

The "Yeis" will get angry - bad luck.

 

Don't weave if you don't know a weaving song.

It won't be any good.

 

Don't leave tools in the loom when they are not in use.

You won't finish right away.

 

Don't weave when it is raining.

It will cause the loom to fall.

 

Don't stand by the loom when it is raining.

Lightning will strike you.

 

Don't pass things through the loom.

Anything you pass through will be lost -food, yarn, beads.

 

Don't bump into or move around a loom you are preparing for a rug.

It will be crooked - you won't be able to get it straight.

 

Don't leave carded wool too long.

When you start weaving it won't like it and you'll have trouble.

 

Don't make fun of your weaving.

It will get worse - you'll be poor.

 

Don't leave a loom outside.

It will collect bad things.

 

Don't cut off a loom once it is made.

You will have a short life.

 

Don't steal a rug - wool - weaving tools.

You'll never be lucky - always have bad luck.

 

Don't weave immoral things in a rug.

You'll be sterile.

 

Don't weave any taboo animal into a rug.

You will have all the bad luck associated with that animal.

 

Don 't hang rugs out in the sun.

The sun will take it as an insult.

 

Don't weave at all (boys).

It will affect the reproductive organs.

 

Don't weave on the north side of the hogan.

The rug won't be worth anything.

 

Don't drag your rugs on the ground.

Causes poverty.

 

Don't leave an unfinished rug outside at night.

It might be witched - you won't be able to finish it or sell it.

 

Don't put a rug over your horse's face.

It will go blind.

 

Pgs. 179-183

Navajo Taboos; 1991, Ernie Bulow.

The principal occupation of the present-day Navajo is raising sheep, goats, and a few cattle. And yet four hundred years ago he had seen no sheep or horses. Under the treaty of 1886, each Navajo was given two sheep - about twelve thousand sheep altogether, since not more than sic thousand Navajos survived Bosque Redondo. Now a million sheep graze on the Navajo land. Since the introduction of sheep to this country by Coronado's men, Navajo women have been weaving rugs on crude hand looms - an art which was not entirely new to them, since they already wove with yucca and other vegetable fibers. Pg. 167

Navajos, Gods, Tom-toms; By S.H. Babington, 1950.

There is a saying that a rug is not good unless a weaver puts her "soul" in it. Like Changing Woman, the Holy Person whom the Navajo woman personifies, the weaver is an eternal creator who weaves both an individual product of her own mind and a more universal product from the mind of the tribe. Pgs. 10-11

Sitting on the Blue-Eyed Bear, Navajo Myths and Legends; 1975, Gerald Hausman.

Chief Rug

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.