The Search for a Vernacular Expression: Navajo Weaving Revivalists in Southwestern America

Amira Shabason

At the end of the nineteenth century, the search for a vernacular expression became paramount to Euro-American Arts and Crafts adherents trying to forge a cultural identity for themselves as American rather than British citizens.[1] As a means of establishing an identifiable artistic style and to strengthen their civic identity, Anglo-Americans in the Southwest appropriated the aesthetic of local Navajo weavers as the vernacular style of the region. For American followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Navajo weavers’ unification of labour, art, and life, as well as their use of natural and locally-sourced materials demonstrated an ideal society operating on the socialist principles delivered to the Victorians by John Ruskin and William Morris in Britain.[2]

Moved by the common misconception of the “vanishing Indian,” turn-of-the-century ethnologists and art collectors took part in a “voracious scramble” to collect and preserve as many American Indian artifacts as they could.[3] While their ideals were firmly grounded in a nostalgic past, their intentions were diverse, ranging from traditionalists and primitivists who longed for a medieval or pre-industrial past, modernists who would adapt the ideal of craftsmanship to the machine age, socialists who envisioned the “cooperative commonwealth,” and promoters who popularized the ideas of the others even as they turned these ideas into objects of consumption.[4]

According to Herzog, “the often contradictory values that informed Arts and Crafts thinking led to writings about Indian art and artists that contained complex, multiple meanings for their readers.”[5] The clashing principles of the movement, which problematically fluctuated between socialist and capitalist leanings, resulted in complicated and often paradoxical relationships between Native American artisans and Euro-American Arts and Crafts proponents. The reception and distribution of Native handicrafts resultantly alternated between salable commodity and anthropological artifact, fine art and souvenir.

According to Herzog, “American Indian art ultimately came to stand for a whole set of projected sentimental ideals that had more to do with turn-of-the-century European American values and nostalgia than with Indian life itself or the meaning of Indian art for its cultures of origin.”[6] Indeed, while the fictitious portrayal of the Native American as “cruel warrior” dominated American and European entertainment at the end of the nineteenth century, the contradictory character of the “noble savage,” associated with “strength, dignity, bravery, innocence, and closeness to the unspoiled natural world” was exalted in the fine arts realm.[7] Already aware of the dangers of the Industrial Revolution and the doomed fate of the craftsman in the age of mechanization, Anglo-American crafts advocates venerated the pre-colonial methods employed by Navajo weavers, seeing Native handicrafts practices as living, working models of Morris’s socialist principles. American Arts and Crafts journals such as The Craftsman reinforced this drive with articles like “Indian Blankets, Baskets and Bowls: The product of the original craftworkers of this continent”; published in 1910, it described Native craft traditions as “actual manifestations of the craftsman ideal, embodiments of a harmony of intentions that went beyond visual aesthetics to evoke a spiritual and moral harmony within the arts and crafts environment.”[8]

According to Kaplan, “the drive to preserve a national past that also informed the present could provide as strong a motivation as philanthropy.”[9] Inspired by romantic notions of a dying culture, revivalists sought to preserve the Classic style of Navajo weaving as a righteous symbol of American heritage and identity.[10] The idea of a vernacular style appealed so much to the ideals of Victorian traders and collectors that they would often intervene in the process of rug-making to ensure that the Native craftspeople did not evolve their designs from the “genuine” pre-contact motifs of Navajo textile production in any way.[11] To be “Indian” meant to be part of “a tradition [that] had to be insulated against outside influence, frozen at an indeterminate point in its evolutionary history.”[12] These ideals clashed with the traditional Navajo emphasis on artistic autonomy and freedom.[13] However, what ended up being produced were not “traditional,” but rather modified and standardized designs that adhered to the particular notions that Anglo consumers had about Navajo weaving.[14]

The “traditional” motifs in question are those from the Classic Period of Navajo textile production between 1650 and 1868. During this period, weavers were producing utilitarian serapes and so-called “chief’s blankets” used for clothing and shelter. These designs were characterized by borderless zigzag and diamond motifs [Fig 1], wide horizontal stripes [Fig 2], and red, blue, and white colour schemes.[15] Weavers spun their wool from their personal flocks of sheep and the dyes were obtained from local plants, except for the reds, which were obtained from Mexican traders.[16] The question of “authenticity” becomes particularly problematic when discussing these textiles; even though Eurocentric revivalists saw them as some of the “original” American artworks, the entire tradition of Navajo weaving is only about 400 years old. The Navajo people are Athabaskan Natives who originally emigrated from Northwestern Canada and Alaska to New Mexico sometime between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, not long before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico.[17] Cotton and wool textile production did not begin until the seventeenth century when they adopted the vertical loom [Fig 3] from the region’s native Pueblo people, and their design motifs were often adapted from Mexican, Pueblo and Spanish art objects.[18] As Anglo-American settlement began expanding westward in the nineteenth century, conflict mounted between the Navajo people and the new colonizers. In 1863, many Navajos were marched from their homes in northern Arizona to eastern New Mexico, where they were forcibly interned at the Bosque Redondo Reservation until 1868.[19] Separated from their flocks and homes, these five years proved to be a crucial turning point in the weavers’ development. Experimentation with new materials, colours, and motifs exposed to them on the reservation effectively ended the Classic Period of Navajo weaving.[20]

From the very beginning of the Navajo fibres tradition, textiles were objects of currency for weavers who traded them with adjacent Native tribes.[21] However, with the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s, the primary market for Native craft objects shifted from the Native consumer to the white tourist.[22] McLeod describes this transformation as “double edged,” for while tourist trade created a new form of commerce on the reservation, the majority of these tourists were looking for inexpensive curio objects rather than high-quality works of fibre art, “simulat[ing] an insidious demand for cheaper imitation souvenirs.”[23] Ironically, the marketability of Native handicrafts as romantic objects of a pre-Industrial society could never have been so successful had it not been for the tourist market, itself a product of industrialism.[24]

With the railroad also came business-savvy white traders who began capitalizing on the nostalgic sentiments associated with ‘traditional’ Native crafts—a nostalgia that stemmed from the perceived disappearance of ‘authentic’ textile production, which was largely a result of the very same railroad tourism that these revivalists were seeking to exploit.[25] While they were interested in Navajo weaving on a personal level, traders were businessmen above all, and their main focus was the salability of these textiles to the traveling public.[26] According to Blomberg:

At the urging of these traders, weavers gradually transformed the thin, tightly woven blankets into much heavier and thicker rugs suitable for use on the floors of Victorian homes. To accommodate the tastes of eastern buyers, the rugs were embellished with new patterns contained within borders for a more pleasing effect under furniture. 
Many of these new designs were actually created by the traders, and others were inspired by motifs used in Oriental carpets and were a far cry from Classic Period blankets.[27]

According to Hedlund, this switch from the production of “wearing” blankets to floor rugs “reflects the customary willingness of Navajo weavers to change with the times. They have borrowed but have always integrated the new with the old, making it their own.”[28]

Although the tradition of Navajo weaving has always been one of artistic autonomy and stylistic development, primitivist attitudes labeled this type of eastern influence [Fig 4] as a “downward trend” in Navajo weaving.[29] Like the baskets and pottery produced by the Pueblo people of the region, the appeal of Native weaving “seemed to offer non-Indian admirers access to the beginnings of humankind and the origins of art.”[30] Viewing European inspiration as “inauthentic,” Arts and Crafts revivalists discouraged Navajo weavers from employing any sort of post-colonial technique in their work. According to Herzog, the Euro-American pursuit of their culture’s indigenous roots “lead to recognition of American Indian art as the earliest American art,” as something that should be preserved and venerated as an important aspect of the country’s material culture.[31]

In 1925, a group of affluent philanthropists in Santa Fe formed the Indian Arts Fund as a movement to protect the destiny of the Indian art trade from the tourist-based curio market. Despite their virtuous intentions, patriarchal overtones and ahistorical stereotypes can be detected in their proclamation that “far from wanting to change the Navajo, we would make him more Navajo, less white man; far from dictating his weaving, we would protect it from that dictation which has brought it… already so low.”[32]

In the commercial world, John Lorenzo Hubbell was the most influential revivalist trader from the Rug Period of Navajo weaving. As the owner of Hubbell Trading Post at Ganado, Arizona, he played a crucial role in the development (or rather arrested development) of Navajo design motifs. In his 1905 catalog, Hubbell described his efforts to preserve the quality and craftsmanship of Classic Period rug motifs:

I have been at the greatest pains to perpetuate old patterns, colors and weaves, now so rapidly passing out of existence even in the memory of the best weavers… I can guarantee the reproduction of these antique patterns. The next thing to possessing a genuine old blanket is owning one made exactly on the pattern of such blankets.[33]

Commissioning old-style blankets from the region’s most skilled weavers, Hubbell is said to have influenced not only local craftspeople but also art dealers and tourist consumers interested in reproductions of antique Navajo rugs.[34] Hubbell’s biggest customer was the Fred Harvey Company, the hotel concessionaire for the Santa Fe Railway.[35] According to Taylor, Fred Harvey Hotels “included ‘Indian Rooms’ in several of their hotels where pueblo pottery could be purchased along with Navajo rugs, silver jewelry and other Southwestern and Mexican artifacts.”[36] The buyers for these “Indian Rooms” “wielded strong influence over [Hubbell’s] decisions about rug designs”—stronger even than the actual Navajo craftspeople who were responsible for executing the designs of the rugs.[37] The Santa Fe Railway joined forces with Hubbell and Harvey in their promotion of Southwestern Native culture by providing local Native craftspeople with free rail passes so they could sell their wares to tourists at railway stations. They even appropriated local Indian art in their advertisements [Fig 5] and décor, reinforcing for tourists the aesthetic of Native craft as part of the Southwestern heritage as a whole [Fig 6].[38]

By providing financial incentives for artists who adhered to the pre-Industrial methods and motifs of the Classic Period, these traditionalists only further marginalized the Natives from modernization.[39] In 1938, Bill and Sallie Lippincott, owners of the Wilde Ruins Trading Post in Arizona, decided that they would only stock traditional chief-style blankets in their store, rejecting any designs with borders, no matter how ethnically Navajo the weaver was. They also offered prizes and financial incentives for weavers who continued to work in vegetal hues and natural dyes. This type of revivalism was not uncommon; even the federal government became involved in attempts to revive the Classic Period aesthetic of Navajo weaving. According to Webster,

As economic conditions worsened on reservations during the Depression, the marketing of Indian crafts assumed greater importance. As one of the Federal Public Works of Art Projects, colored linoleum-block prints of old Navajo blankets were produced for use by the U.S. Indian Service, to encourage “a revival of the older designs in Navajo weaving, as part of its broad program in Indian Arts and Crafts.”[40]

In 1940, the Bureau of Indian Affairs published a “recipe” book in collaboration with local Navajos, anthropologists, botanists, chemists, and the Home Economics Department at Wingate Vocational High School in New Mexico, detailing and promoting the use of native plant dyes. Starting in 1930, prizes were also issued at the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, a large exhibition of Native art in New Mexico, for the best blanket of vegetal dye and “native” pattern.[41]

Taylor argues that “the Anglo-American attempt to revive […] crafts in New Mexico had its origins not so much in a concern for a people as in a perceived need for a product.”[42] Rather than promoting ethnic Navajo art, revivalists promoted a Eurocentrically-edited product of Southwestern American material culture and identity. Over time, the motifs imposed upon Navajo weavers by revivalist collectors became synonymous with the tradition of Navajo art in its entirety. By emphasizing the pre-contact methods of Navajo weaving as the only genuine type of Native manufacture, “curators imparted their inner convictions and values about Navajo weaving to the public at large.”[43]

In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a revolutionary exhibition of American Native art. Although the museum’s curators encouraged visitors to “set aside sentimental views of traditional Indian arts and to embrace the new artistic expressions” of contemporary Native artists in their catalog, only nineteenth-century serapes and revival-style Navajo weavings were exhibited.[44] In reality, the group of revivalists who promoted this type of work was relatively small; however they were socially and financially well connected.[45] The antique and replication Classic Period weavings, only affordable to the rich, became accepted as the only “genuine” Navajo art because it is the collections of these wealthy philanthropists that still survive in major museums today.[46] These types of eastern interventions have reinforced the single-sided public perception of authenticity in Native art and ultimately of the cultural identity of the Southwest as a whole.

The efforts made by romantic traders, collectors, and curators to preserve the pre-Industrial Navajo weaving practice as a traditional American vernacular became so extreme that they froze aspects of stylistic development by essentially forbidding the Native craftspeople from evolving their designs. This occurred even as the American government imposed radical changes on every other aspect of Navajo life. Although their efforts were honorable in intent, the revivalists’ insistence upon maintaining the “traditional” methods of Navajo weaving ensured that the Native weaver, limited to handspun, naturally-dyed yarns, could never produce the inexpensive novelty items favored by the average

By the beginning of the twentieth century, most Navajo families were living on reservations. The loss of their nomadic lifestyles meant an increasing dependence on salable craftwork; in many households weaving had become a major source of monetary income for the family.[48] The insistence by Anglo traders and collectors to use the so-called ‘authentic’ materials and techniques of pre-contact Navajo weaving ultimately prevented any form of high-volume production that would have allowed the weaver to excel in the capitalist society that her people were being forced to adapt to. In the end, revival styles worked more to maintain the difference in power between the white capitalist and the Native craftsperson than they did to promote any sort of perceived cultural heritage.[49]

List of Images
Figure 1: Blanket, Serape. 1865-1875.
Figure 2: Blanket, Chief Style. 1800-1860.
Figure 3: Upright Navajo loom
Figure 4: Bordered Rug from J.B. Moore Crystal Trading Post. 1903-1920.
Figure 5: Advertisement for the Santa Fe Railways, early 1950s.
Figure 6: US Postal Stamps, 1984.

Blomberg, Nancy J. Navajo Textiles: The William Randolph Hearst Collection. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1988.
Boris, Eileen. “Dreams of Brotherhood and Beauty: The Social Ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement.” In The Art that is Life: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920, edited by Wendy Kaplan, 208-222. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987.
Bowe, Nicola Gordon. “The Search for Vernacular expression: The Arts and Crafts Movements in America and Ireland.” In The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement edited by Burt Denker, 5-24. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996.
Campbell, Gordon. “Navajo blanket.” The Grove Library of Decorative Arts. Last modified 2006. Accessed December 16, 2010.
Crawford, Alan. “Ideas and Objects: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain.” Design Issues 13, 1 Designing the Modern Experience, 1885-1945 (Spring 1997): 15-26.
Hedlund, Ann Lane. “The Weaver’s World.” In Reflections of the Weaver’s World: The Gloris F. Ross Collection of Contemporary Navajo Weaving, 15-23. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1992.
Herzog, Melanie. “Aesthetics and Meanings: The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Revival of American Indian Basketry.” In The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement edited by Burt Denker, 69-92. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996.
Kaplan, Wendy. “America: The Quest for Democratic Design.” In The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920: Design for the Modern World, 246-284. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
McLeod, Ellen Easton. “Embracing the ‘Other’.” In In Good Hands: The Woman of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, 203-233. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999.
Nelson, William L, Calvin A. Roberts and Susan A. Roberts. “The Arrival of the Navajo and the Apaches.” In A History of New Mexico, 3rd Revised Edition, 56-58. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.
Taylor, Lonn. “Arts and Crafts in the Santa Fe Style.” In The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement, edited by Burt Denker, 93-116. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996.
Webster, Laurie D. “Reproducing the Past: Revival and Revision in Navajo Weaving.” Journal of the Southwest 38, no. 4 (1996): 415-431.

1 Nicola Gordon Bowe, “The Search for Vernacular expression: The Arts and Crafts Movements in America and Ireland,” in The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996) 5.
2 Alan Crawford, “Ideas and Objects: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain,” Design Issues 13, no. 1 Designing the Modern Experience, 1885-1945 (Spring 1997): 16-17.
3 Ellen Easton McLeod, “Embracing the ‘Other’,” in In Good Hands: The Woman of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999), 210.
4 Eileen Boris, “Dreams of Brotherhood and Beauty: The Social Ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement,” in The Art that is Life: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920, edited by Wendy Kaplan (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), 208.
5 Melanie Herzog, “Aesthetics and Meanings: The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Revival of American Indian Basketry,” in The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement, edited by Burt Denker (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 70.
6 Ibid., 90.
7 McLeod, 209.
8 Herzog, 82.
9 Wendy Kaplan, “America: The Quest for Democratic Design,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920: Design for the Modern World (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 255.
10 Herzog, 69-70.
11 Bowe, 5-6.
12 Herzog, 84.
13 Ann Lane Hedlund, “The Weaver’s World,” in Reflections of the Weaver’s World: The Gloris F. Ross Collection of Contemporary Navajo Weaving (Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1992), 15.
14 Kaplan, 255.
15 Nancy J. Blomberg, Navajo Textiles: The William Randolph Hearst Collection (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1988), 2.
16 Ibid., 3.
17 William L. Nelson, Calvin A. Roberts and Susan A. Roberts, “The Arrival of the Navajo and the Apaches,” In A History of New Mexico, 3rd Revised Edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004), 56.
18 Hedlund, 18.
19 Blomberg, 5.
20. Ibid., 9.
21. Lonn Taylor, “Arts and Crafts in the Santa Fe Style,” in The Substance of Style: Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Burt Denker (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 94.
22 McLeod, 216.
23 Taylor, 115.
24 Laurie D. Webster, “Reproducing the Past: Revival and Revision in Navajo Weaving,” Journal of the Southwest 38, no. 4 (1996): 415.
25 Ibid., 418.
26 Blomberg, 6.
27 Hedlund, 18.
28 Webster, 415-416.
29 Herzog, 82.
30 Ibid.
31 Webster, 426.
32 Ibid., 418.
33 Ibid., 417.
34 Ibid.
35 Taylor, 95.
36 Webster, 418.
37 Herzog, 78.
38 McLeod, 210.
39 Webster, 427.
40 Webster, 414.
41 Taylor, 107.
42 Webster, 427.
43 Ibid.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid., 418.
47 Hedlund, 18.
48 McLeod, 48.