Navajo Chief's Blanket

Navajo Chief's Blankets


For Katherine the task seemed simple enough.

“Write something about Navajo Chief's blankets.”

“All right, that's straightforward.”


Navajo Chief's Blankets: Exceptionally tight, well woven, wide striped blankets in a dimension wider than long; used as wearing apparel and high value trade items from 1800-1885, favored by the Utes and Plains Indians. The blankets were not specifically woven for “Chiefs,” but were given that designation because they were expensive and considered a status item among Native people. Textile scholars generally concur that there were four phases in the manufacture of Navajo Chief's blankets.


First Phase: 1800-1850

This was the initial period in which Navajo weavers wove natural, churro wool blankets patterned in wide cream and dark brown stripes. The border bands sometimes included pairs of narrow indigo blue stripes and the indigo stripes were occasionally bordered by narrow lines of raveled red. (Kent:1985)


Second Phase: Early 1800s-1870

“Small red bars or rectangles of red were woven into the ends and centers of the blue stripes in this type of blanket, thus creating twelve spots of color.” (Kent:1985)


Third Phase: 1860-1880

In this phase the Chief's blanket is characterized by a shift from twelve red bars or rectangles to “...a nine-position layout of a central diamond, half diamonds along the four edges, and quarter diamonds in the corners.” (Blomberg:1988) The diamonds were usually terraced-edge or serrate and weavers often placed design elements within them, such as “zigzags, crosses, thin lines, stacked elements and triangles.” (Campbell:2007)


Fourth Phase: 1870-1885

In this last phase the diamond motif eventually became so large that it overshadowed the background stripes.


Katherine found these facts interesting, but without historical or cultural context, what did they mean? She went back to work and found some items of interest. In a 2002 episode of the Tucson Antiques Roadshow, a striped blanket was identified as a Navajo First Phase Chief's, estimated to be worth from $300,000 to $500,000. Imagine the owner's surprise! Even more startling was a June 2012 YouTube video of the John Moran Auction House auctioning off a First Phase Chief's blanket. The blanket, believed to have been woven around 1840, had been owned by John Chantland, owner of a dry goods store in Mayville, Dakota Territory. Chantland traded goods for the blanket in 1870 and upon his death bequeathed it to his heirs. His great-great grandson was down on his luck and selling the piece. The final bid came in at a staggering $1,500,000.


Now, for Katherine, Navajo Chief's blankets were gaining substance, fleshing out, with actual people, places and stories. Now the blankets were spanning centuries, tying together American history, prairie commerce and modern day excess. While many YouTube viewers championed the rags to riches story of Chantland's heir, others wrote bitter commentary about white people making a fortune off the sweat and tears of a beleagured people.


For deeper understanding Katherine read an article on the Chantland blanket written by Santa Fe dealer Joshua Baer. Baer not only presents the history of the Chantland blanket, but offers a theory for the origin of the Chief's pattern as well. In his opinion the Navajo Chief's blanket was a direct result of 17th century Pueblo influence on Navajo weavers. Baer claims that the Navajo blanket was a version of the Hopi batchelor blanket, a wider than long blanket composed of “alternating horizontal brown and white stripes overlaid with vertical white stripes.” (Baer:2012)


Baer's theory seemed plausible, but it reminded Katherine of a quote she'd recently read in the book, Walk In Beauty, by Anthony Berlant & Mary Hunt Kahlenberg. Plate 3 of their volume features a red, blue and white Hopi Cape, circa 1800-1865. Its caption states: “With upper and lower stripes, wider than it is long, the cape is the ancestor of the Navajo Chief Blanket.” (Berlant & Kahlenberg:1991)


Katherine mulled over these two perspectives on the Chief's blanket origin. The blanket's early simplicity certainly mirrored the Hope Cape's starkness in design. Yet she pondered...where else had she seen wide striped blankets associated with Native Americans? Could there be other textiles that influenced Navajo weavers? Then she remembered Hudson Bay Blankets.




After a week spent reading voluminous reports about trappers, fur traders and Native peoples, Katherine realized that tracing striped blankets from Hudson Bay south, east and west across North America was daunting. However she did learn that Indians of 18th century French Louisiana “...made clear their preference for imported woolen blankets in various colors and stripe patterns.” (White:2013) She next learned that the French engaged in regular trade with the Pawnee of Nebraska as early as 1703, that “...traders from St. Louis were among the Pawnees from about 1750 onward at regular intervals,” (Grinnell:1920) and that “In 1806 Pike estimated that Santa Fe traders came to the Pawnee about every third year.” (Hanson & Walters:1976)


Here was evidence that showed early trade from east to west and west to east, but how could Katherine more conclusively link French traders, Pawnees, European striped blankets and the Navajo? She found a possible route in a piece written by archaeologist Dudley Gardner. In the book, The Red Desert, Dudley states: “Both the Pawnees (in Nebraska) and the Mandans (in present day North Dakota) did business in the western interior. The Pawnees and Mandan villages had access to French goods. Kettles and other iron implements from the villages reached the Taos Indians in the late 1600s. By 1700 the southwest traders at Taos and Pecos were actively engaged in trading English goods.”


The famous Taos Trading Fair was also “known far and wide for its slave markets.” The Navajo and Apache raided Pawnee villages to the east and captured slaves to sell to the Spanish. In 1699 Navajos appeared at the Fair “...laden with (Pawnee) slaves, jewels, guns, powder flasks, clothing, and even small pots of brass. The People were acquiring goods other than those of their Pueblo relatives, and the influences they received from the whites may sometimes have come overland from the French.” (Underhill:1956)


To Katherine it seemed possible that striped English blankets were part of this network, that amongst the kettles, slaves and ironwork, Hudson Bays were occasionally to be found. For another opinion on this theory Katherine wrote to Harold Tichenor, Canadian author of The Blanket, a definitive study of Hudson Bay blankets. His reply warrants repeating.


“I have often thought that the striped blankets from Europe may have influenced the Navajo weavers. It is certain that the Hudson’s Bay Company was trading striped blankets into North America as early as 1671. French traders based out of Montreal also introduced striped blankets into the upper Mississippi most certainly by 1720 or most probably earlier. The fact that there was active trade among the First Nations from before contact and on certainly could have allowed the rapid diffusion of trade blankets into the Southwest.


Whether they came from the Northeast or around west of the Great Lakes I would expect striped blankets were known to the Navajo by an early date. It is not hard to imagine diffusion of HBC blankets from York Factory as early as 1685 to the Cree of the Saskatchewan River on to their Athabascan neighbours to the west and then on south into Navajo country. By this route a blanket could conceivably reach the Navajo within a couple of seasons of its manufacture in England.”




Setting aside the various origin theories for the Navajo Chief's blanket, Katherine moved on to a topic upon which all agree, namely, that the Chief's blanket was an important trade item, “the mother from which all external Navajo trade developed.” (Van Valkenburg & McPhee:1938) Spanish records from the 1700s mention Navajo trade in superior woolen textiles. For a later, American account Katherine found the 1845 words of trader William Boggs near Bent's Old Fort, Colorado. Boggs “...establishes the popularity among the Cheyennes of particularly the banded shoulder blanket in the version called the First Phase Chief Blanket, traded from the Navajos. Boggs described blankets “all alike, with white and black stripe(s) about two inches wide.”” (Herold & Yellowman:2000)


In an article entitled, The Early Fur Trade In Northwestern Nebraska, this colorful snapshot is given: “Until 1849 Pierre Chouteau Jr. & Company were secure in their monopoly except for some small competition from Richards' Fort Bernard eight miles below Laramie. Richards and the other independents were using a large percentage of merchandise from New Mexico - hand-woven blue, white, and brown blankets, abalone shells, Taos whiskey, corn, flour, and dried pumpkins. The Sioux particularly liked some of this exotic merchandise...”(Hanson & Walters:1976)


Lastly, there is the 1853 record of mountain man Alexander Barclay's “final trading venture, a trip to the Indians of the Platte River area, loaded with one of New Mexico's prime trade items, the Navajo blanket...Barclay's first step in preparation for this expedition was to visit the Navajo Indians, “in order to obtain a quantity of peculiar blankets which they very ingeniously weave without machinery, and which, from their durability and firm, decided colors are a very good article of trade with other Indians towards the Missouri River North.”” (Hammond:1976)




At this point Katherine paused and reviewed her work. Thus far she had introduced the Navajo Chief's blanket as a style with four distinct phases, shown that it was prized by collectors, presented three perspectives regarding its origin and through anecdotal accounts, demonstrated that it was an important item in Plains trade. Katherine realized, however, that missing from her narrative was a consideration of the Chief's blanket's spiritual foundation, its root.


Having lived with the Navajo for a number of years, Katherine knew that striped blankets had power, even those commercially made, and that they spoke a language. When riding in a car she was instructed to sit on her Pendleton blanket with the stripes facing forward, in the direction of travel, to facilitate her journey. She knew that the way she crossed her blanket over her chest told a story, and that when sitting on her blanket in the hogan the striped edge had to be turned under. In this way the blanket would protect her from other people's energy. Surely Navajo Chief's blankets of the 1800s had language and power of their own.


Katherine reflected on the ever increasing complexity of the Chief's blanket design, from its early calm, but commanding cream and brown bands, to its Third Phase with multiple design elements, and finally to the Fourth Phase, with its overpowering diamonds. She thought of the time frame for the changes in pattern: 1800, 1860, 1870-1885. What struck her was the strong parallel between the design shifts and increased westward expansion. As pioneer wagons rolled across the prairie and American military presence strengthened, as Native innocents lay massacred at Sand Creek and Washita, as the transcontinental railroad thundered and 30 million bison fell to their knees, the Navajo Chief's blanket may have spoken the language of protection and shield.


The zigzag and cross elements of the Third Phase both hold power – the bow and lightning for the first and the four directions, four colors, four seasons, four elements, with the second. Might these Chief's blankets, traded so heavily on the blood soaked Plains, been woven by Navajo women, consciously or unconsciously, as protection for themselves and brethren Nations? The large diamond element in the Fourth Phase may have represented the Big Star, a most powerful symbol. What better way to shield one's self from a hail of bullets than to wrap one's heart in the Big Star?


These thoughts saddened Katherine and she called her Navajo medicine man friend. “Grandfather, what do these striped blankets mean?”


“You put the life of nature on you,” he said. “Mother Earth is talking. The stars are talking. Black and white, night and day. The stripes are the layered rock. We put it on like that. That rock is our bone inside our skin. It's what inside that bone, the marrow, the foundation of it all.”


That night Katherine sat with book in hand and somberly read the words of Lieutenant James H. Simpson, the man “who led the first American expedition into Navajo country in 1849. He remarked in his diary that a group of Navajo attired in their blankets reminded him of “stratified rock formations.” (Berlant & Kahlenberg:1991)

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