The Weaving of Native Americans

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Vintage albumen print. Original caption “Aboriginal life among
 the Navajoe Indians. Near old Fort Defiance, N.M. / T. H.”

         One of the chief arts of the North American Natives is that of weaving blankets. When the Spaniards came to our country they found beautiful blankets and fine weaving among the Pueblo and Navaho people of the southwest. Perhaps these people learned this art from their neighbors to the south; or they may have originated it themselves because they needed and sought something better than mere skins for clothing.

       In the early days, the Hopi Indians wove principally their own cotton to which they added some fibers of the yucca plants and animal hairs. When sheep were introduced by the Spaniards, they began to use a little wool. Their weaving is more complicated than that of other tribes. They not only produce a plain weave, but a checked one, and another which shows a repeated figure, usually a diamond.

       Among the Hopis it is the men who do most of the weaving of the blankets, shawls, sashes, and clothing. A lovely custom is still followed in weaving the bride’s clothing. After the most important of the wedding ceremonies, the bridegroom’s father distributes cotton to all his men relatives and friends. They spin and weave this cotton for the bride, working for several days or weeks. During that time, the bride stays with her husband and his family helping to cook and feed the weavers. Very carefully and beautifully the men weave a large white robe, a small white robe, and a wide, white belt with long fringe.

       When all are finished the bride wraps the small robe about herself, puts on white buck-skin boots and prepares to go to her mother’s house where the young couple make their home for a while. She carries the large robe and belt in a rolled mat made of reeds bound together. After the wedding she uses the robes on ceremonial occasions and finally, the small one is wrapped around her body when death takes the little native woman to ”Maski,” the Home of Hopi Souls.

       The indigenous people of the northwest coast seem to delight in color and movement. Perhaps their main thought is of the clan or family symbol which is expressed in totem poles, house fronts, house interiors, canoes, boxes and blankets. The Chilkats weave the most beautiful, fantastic blankets full of myths, and made in three colors: black, yellow, and greenish-blue. Although the women weave the blankets they are not supposed to be familiar with the designs and so copy them from patterns which have been drawn on boards by the men. The design contains the clan emblem and is usually of one or several animals so highly conventionalized that some natives themselves can hardly explain them.

       Not only the designs, but the materials used are different from those of other native blankets. The Chilkat woman takes the soft wool of the wild mountain goat and twists it around fibers of the inner bark of the cedar tree. These very strong threads of natural color are hung on the loom for the warp. The other threads, colored and containing no cedar fibers, are worked in and out of the strong warp threads. It takes about a year for a Chilkat woman to prepare the wool and weave one blanket, but it lasts for several generations.

       The weaving of Chilkat blankets is almost a thing of the past. The younger girls are not interested in spending so much time on robes whose ceremonial uses are almost forgotten. Only a very few old women are left who understand the art of weaving. Soon, even they will weave no more.

       Perhaps the best known of indigenous blankets are those made by the wandering Navahos. They practically live out-of-doors and the beauty of this is worked into their blankets. The women make these blankets, spinning the sheep’s wool, dyeing it, and weaving it on hand looms. They often weave in crosses for good luck and symbols of the sun, moon, stars and lightning to bring the much needed rain.

       The colors worked into the blankets by the older Navahos were symbolic. They were considered sacred, ”gift of the best of their gods.” Take for instance red – it means the blessed sunshine in which they move and live. No wonder these weavers love red and put the glorious warmth of it into their blankets. White stands for the early morning light which comes from the east and carries with it the hope of a new day. Blue stands for the cloudless afternoon sky in the south. The western sunset brings the yellows. Black comes from the far north where dark clouds gather and will, perhaps, bring the rain.

       Thus the Navaho woman of yesterday and today weaves her very life into her blankets. Often she sings the night chant as she works, ”With all around me beautiful, may I walk.”  Wood

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