Message #201: From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG To: "'Matthias Giessler'" Subject: Navajo Germantown Samplers Date: Wed, 28 May 1997 21:28:59 -0700 http://medicinemangallery.com/doctor.html Navajo Germantown Samplers Although Navajo textiles are some of the most well-known and documented exaples of Native American weavings, they have had a relatively recent history. Spanish, Pubelo Indian, and Anglo contact has influenced the development of this fine artform. Traditionally basketweavers, the Navajo women may have been introduced to more productive textile weaving techniques by Pueblo peoples, many of whom fled to Navajo settlements in the late 1600s in fear of Spanish reprisals for the Pueblo revolts. The Navajo knew about Pueblo and Spanish weaving traditions for some time, either through raiding parties or trading expeditions. Those Pueblo people who came to live with the Navajo brought their tools, techniques, and their Spanish sheep, which produced much finer weavings than did cotton or other fibers used previously. The right materials had a tremendous impact on the growth of Navajo textile making. even today, the type of wool used in a weaving can be the best indicator of the date that the piece was made. Weavers were involved in every step in the process of creating a textile, from carding and spinning the wool to making the dyes. Wool was dyed with natural materials, such as plants for yellow and green colors or ash and pitch for black. The popular red hues were not made by the Navajo themselves, but instead they used unraveled bayeta cloth or other trade fabrics. These appropriated fibers usually had been colored with a red insect-derived pigment called cochineal, taken from a type of parasite that lives on prickly pear cactus. Indigo, which was imported, was also bought for use to create blue tones. Often wool was left undyed, ranging in color from beige to gray. The Navajo used their weavings for their own people, but they saw that their craft had a great trade potential. Because their weavings were so tightly woven, they were sought by Anglo traders as bedding material and by other Native Americans, from Pueblo people to Plains Indians, as clothing or blankets. For this reason, Navajo weavers were always eager to create designs and styles that would demand the best price. This "commercial" sensibility would affect Navajo textile design dramatically with the introduction of the traders and trading posts. Beginning in 1863, U.S. Government intervention into traditional ways of life kept the Navajo people in a dependent relationship with Anglos. Moved from one reservation to another and encouraged to take up farming rather than herding, the Navajo found themselves with few resources or ways to earn a living in the white man's system. Government-endorsed and private traders encouraged the Navajo to create traditional artforms for sale tot he new breed of Western traveler, the tourist. In order to make Navajo weavings more appealing to this new market of buyers, many of whom were not accustomed to the patterns and colors of Native American arts, the traders drew patterns and set guidelines for the weavers to follow. The traders also realized that the textiles would sell better if they were made to be rugs rather than blankets. Thus the traders introduced borders and even some patterns based on Oriental rugs. The opening of the railroad in New Mexico and Arizona in 1880-1881 brought not only tourists but also commercially made goods to the reservation trading posts. Traders introduced the Navajo to aniline dyes, which allowed the weavers to color their own hand-spun wool yard in bright, permanent colors. Traders also ordered commercially made yarns, already dyed and spun and ready for use. Some of the most widely used manufactured yarns came from Germantown, Pennsylvania. Germantown yarns were more expensive than the handmade variety, and thus the traders doled them out to only their best weavers. These yarns came in bright greens, blues purples, reds and yellows, and their weight and texture were lighter than the traditional wools. Soon the weavers began experimenting with the colors and design possibilities of the new material, creating brightly colored patterns called "eyedazzlers" by those traders who thought they were somewhat garish. Because many tourists could not afford large rugs or didn't have room in their houses for them, the Navajo weavers began to make small sampler-sized textiles. During the turn of the century, many of these small weavings were made from the colorful Germantown yards and were made by some of the best weavers, making them miniature masterpieces of Navajo textile art. Often they were left on the miniature loom on which they were started so that the tourist would have a complete display item to illustrate the weaving process. These weavings were also appealing because they did not take up much space in the travelers'' baggage. Rather than miniature rug designs, many of these samplers contain brightly colored individual motifs. One type of symbol used was the "whirling logs" pattern. This was an ancient Native American good luck symbol, but unfortunately a similar design was adopted by the Nazis as their swastika. When the Navajo learned that a variation of their symbol was being used by an enemy of peace half a world away, they stopped portraying the whirling logs. Appearance of this symbol in Navajo art can help to date the piece as being made before 1935. Another design used in small weavings is that of the ye'ii figure. Ye'ii are supernatural beings in the Navajo cosmology, and their depiction in artwork for sale was controversial among the Navajo community. "Ceremonial" weavings, those that portray ye'ii figures or sandpainting designs, were considered by many Navajo to be disrespectful to the supernaturals. Weavers who chose to ignore this taboo were warned that they would go blind for committing such an act, and often they participated in special cleansing ceremonies in an effort to avoid divine retribution. Often weavings with ceremonial subjects were more expensive due to the special care that the weaver need to take to make them. Nevertheless, they were popular with tourists who relished their exotic nature. Medicine Man Gallery is pleased to be currently displaying an unusually large collection of Germantown samplers, most dating tot he late 1800s. These pieces are excellent examples of the quality of work produced by the best Navajo weavers at that time. Unique examples of pieces still on their looms are shown, rare because the fragile looms usually do not survive their hundred year age in such fine condition.