Q&A: Something You Might Not Know About Navajo Blankets
June 1, 2015 at 12:05 am
Navajo weavings are a staple of Arizona’s trading posts and an enduring symbol of the American Southwest. But did you know the blankets used in Navajo homes are made mostly in Oregon? Barry Friedman, who’s a blanket collector and an expert on the history of Navajo blankets, spoke with Arizona Highways about why that’s the case. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. At the bottom of the interview, don't forget to check out the photo gallery!)
Tell us about the history of Indian trade blankets, and how this unusual arrangement got started.
So, at the end of 1890 was the Wounded Knee Massacre, which was sort of the end of the Indian Wars. After that, all the Indians in America were put on reservations, the Navajos having the largest reservation because they were the largest tribe. The Navajos had a history, not only of weaving, but also of wearing blankets. The Navajos are the only tribe that weaves sheep’s wool into anything. So they were a weaving tribe, and they were conquered, basically, in the 1860s and put on this horrible prison camp in New Mexico, Bosque Redondo. They were wards of the government and didn’t have their sheep and couldn’t weave, and so the government provided them with blankets and other goods that they needed. So they used commercially made blankets during that time.
Now we’re going to jump back to the 1890s, when the Indians were back on reservations. Federally licensed Indian traders were allowed to set up on the reservations; there are still a number of them on the Navajo Nation. That became sort of the linchpin for reservation life, because the staples were all for sale by the traders — tools, saddles, coffee and all the other things they couldn’t make themselves.
The catalyst for getting Navajos weaving again was that an Indian trader one day decided that based on the popularity of Oriental rugs back East, they wanted to try to get Indians to weave their own version of an Oriental rug. The Indians had never woven anything like that in their lives; they only made blankets, and a rug requires a much heavier textile. This trader went to the Indians, and they made their version of Oriental rugs, and the trader started selling them. It was so successful that ultimately, all the Navajo weavers were converted to making rugs for non-Indian homes. But the Indians still wanted blankets, but they didn’t weave blankets anymore.
Was it just more profitable to weave the rugs, as opposed to the blankets? Is that why it was such a complete change?
Yeah. They were all wards of the government, so they just got what the government doled out. This was a way for the Indian women to barter or sell their weavings and gain additional income. So they could take a rug to the trading post and get tools, coffee, more materials to weave, etc. The trader, obviously, profited as well by selling the rug for a profit.
So some commercial mills started making Navajo-style blankets, and the Navajos decided they liked them. So the rule of thumb, since the early 1890s, has been that all the Indian weaving that is done is done for non-Indian homes. All the blankets that the Indians own are made by white people. The only surviving pioneer mill for those blankets is Pendleton Woolen Mills in Pendleton, Oregon. They sell to non-Indians as well, but about half their annual production goes to Indians, particularly Navajos. Babbitt Brothers, in Flagstaff, is the Pendleton distributor in Arizona.
The Indians use these blankets as gifts for weddings, christenings, births … any really important occasions. They also use them for bedding and warmth, of course. There are two types: a fringe version, which is always a woman’s shawl, and a robe, which is the men’s version.
Is Pendleton the only company making them today? How did an Oregon-based company become a provider of blankets to Native Americans in the Southwest?
Other places come and go, but Pendleton is the only surviving manufacturer from the 1890s. The town of Pendleton, where the mill is located, is near the biggest reservation in the state of Oregon, so they had local customers already built in. So they became popular with the local Indians, and the Navajos down here kind of got wind of it.
How much do Pendleton’s blankets sell for?
The modern, standard 64-by-80-inch blanket, which would be a bed-sized blanket, sells for about $279. In the summer months, when they don’t need the blanket, they’ll pawn them, and then they buy them again in the winter. The antique blankets, which are what I buy and sell, can sell for as much as $20,000 if they’re in pristine condition and from before 1900. More common would be between $500 and $1,000.
How did you become interested in this?
I’m from Cleveland originally, but I always loved the West and the idea of cowboys and Indians. I’ve also always had a fascination with textiles; I don’t know why. So I went to Arizona State University, and I went to a garage sale one day and saw this blanket there. I didn’t know what it was, but it had an Indian-looking pattern. The price tag said 85 cents, firm. So I figured I could afford that. That was 1969, and that was my first blanket. It said “Pendleton Woolen Mills” on it. I tracked them down, but they couldn’t tell me much about it. They said they didn’t know much about their old blankets; they only knew about the blankets they were making at that time.
So, over the past 46 years, it’s been this giant puzzle that I’ve been trying to put together. I’ve written two books; they’re giant coffee-table books. I just think the blankets are beautiful. I’m also the vintage-blanket consultant to Pendleton, and I also supply antique blankets to Ralph Lauren and a lot of other interesting people. There’s a lot of interest in them, because they’re historic and the Indians owned them.
To learn more about Barry Friedman and Indian blankets, visit www.barryfriedmanblankets.com.