Tag Archives: Navajo

Native Americans and Trade blankets

Late in the 18th century as Europeans were pushing further into North American continent they traded blankets to the Native Americans. These first “trade” blankets were woven in England and imported into the Americas by the Hudson Bay company. The only other blankets available at that time were woven by the Navajo people in the southwestern United States. While the Navajo blanket was highly prized, they were not available to  vast numbers of other Native Americans. The reservation system brought an end to Navajo blankets as the traders offered them goods for rugs which they could market back east.

In 1892 J. Capps & Sons became the first American woolen mill to offer indian trade blankets. Capps was located in Jacksonville, Illinois and offered these trade blankets under the Capps name as well as American Indian Blanket Mills. Capps was later followed by several other mills as listed below. Only one of the companies that wove trade blankets made it longer than the mid 1930’s.

J Capps & Sons – Jacksonville, Illinois – Closed 1912
Buell Manufacturing – St Joseph, Missouri – Closed 1911
Racine Woolen Mills – Racine, Wisconsin- Closed 1912
Shuler & Benninghofen Woolen Mill – Hamilton, Ohio – Closed 1911
Oregon City Woolen Mills – Oregon City, Oregon – Closed 1935
Knight Woolen Mills (Provo Woolen Mills)- Provo, Utah – Closed 1920?
Pendleton Woolen Mills – Pendleton, Oregon 1896- Present Day

Pendleton Woolen Mills began production of trade blankets in 1896 and continues to be the lone manufacture of trade blankets in the USA. Hudson Bay blankets are still made in England. Pendleton has woven indian blankets under four primary lines, Pendleton, Beaver State, Cayuse and Blackfoot. The Cayuse and Blackfoot were budget lines and used remanufactured wool to create the blankets. Beaver State is the line that has been manufactured in the modern era. Pendleton also makes, clothing, accessories and blankets other than Native American or Indian designs.

Pendleton in recent years has manufactured blankets paying tribute to their long gone competitors. The Tribute series pays homage to Oregon City, Racine, Capps and Buell mills by reintroducing paterns they made famous.

Pendleton Buell 6 Tribute blanket

Pendleton Buell 6 Tribute blanket

Native American people today consume Pendleton Blankets for many different uses. They are used as  payment to medicine men or other tribal elders, retirement gifts, burial shrouds, graduation gifts, wedding gifts and finally bedding. Companies such as ourselves also sell Pendleton Blankets to people of all races and in all parts of the world.  Pendleton blankets have become widely desired because of their history and  commitment to quality.

Native American Jewelry – Navajo Phase 2

Phase 2 or the second period of Navajo silversmithing is generally thought of as being between 1910 -1940. This period is characterized by the exertion of outside forces such as commercialization, exploitation and economics almost dealing a death blow to the Navajo traditions.

The second period is when the economy out side of the reservation became increasingly relevant to the Navajo people. When prices for the products they sold, wool, sheep and jewelry declined in the outside economy it resulted in a lower price being offered to them.

This period was also the beginning of a growing tourism industry. By 1915 Fred Harvey would open hotels in Gallup, Flagstaff, Albuquerque and other cities along the Santa Fe railroad. The growing mass of tourists demanded inexpensive Indian-made curios. New businesses opened in these cities to fulfill the demand and needs of the tourists. These new businesses also provided the Navajo people with new tools, materials and techniques. In the past this access to new tools and materials would have inspired the Navajo smiths to create new designs and techniques but in this period the demands of commercialization and exploitation squashed the expression of authentic designs.

Needing to provide for their families many Navajo silversmiths were forced to go to work in commercial shops. Inside of these shops the Navajo’s were forced to make forms that were outside their norm. Items like boxes, letter openers, ashtrays, combs and more were being made. The benchwork made during this time can be characterized by their redundant forms, repetitive design and substantial decoration.  This jewelry was adorned with non-authentic designs such as bows and arrows, swastikas, thunderbirds and other. The Navajo tradition of simplicity of design and proportion would give way to commercialization and it’s result was technical and artistically inferior silverwork.

Match book cover representing nontraditional items

Match book cover representing nontraditional items

Perhaps the most significant development of this “railroad curio” phase is the misrepresentations that were purposely promoted by the curio industry. False stereotypes were propagated because of the lack of quality and artistic style of the jewelry they were coerced to make. The majority of traditional pieces created during this time period were made by Navajos who lived far away from these commercial centers. These items of jewelry reflect the Navajo’s traditional sense of harmony and order. The number of these traditional pieces made were few as there existed no market for them among the tourists. As the nation entered the depression the market for tourist curios began to dry up and silver production began to diminish. The metalworking tradition among the Navajo was about to face it’s most dire threat to it’s continuity.


Non Native Symbols such as Cactus and Stick Figure

Silversmithing was not the only part of Navajo life to be affected by the depression. A lack of employment opportunities along with the governments forced reduction of sheep herds threatened the very nature of Navajo economic tradition and culture. During these hard times Navajo people began to pawn their jewelry more and more frequently than before. As the depression drug on many of the items of jewelry pawned were not redeemed. With an ever growing inventory of dead pawn jewelry the traders began to find a market with tourists, collectors and museums.

The condition of the Navajo economy did not improve until Congress passed the indian Reorganization Act in 1934. This legislation enabled the tribal nations to incorporate, self-govern and to hold their tribal lands as their own. Equally important was the fact that this act essentially ended the acculturation of tribal peoples. A year later in 1935 the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was established to open new markets and to improve the condition of tribal artists in general. Shortly after guilds were established to teach apprentices the traditional designs and techniques of Navajo metal working. Silversmiths also benefited from financial support from public institutions and museums which provided economic feasibility to their chosen career.