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Master Weaver and Shepherd Malinda Nez

Master Weaver and Shepherd Malinda Nez

Malinda is out taking care of her flock on Cinco de Mayo!
  • Beth Barth
Sandpainting : Father Sky Mother Earth

Sandpainting : Father Sky Mother Earth

Sandpainting : Father Sky Mother Earth Navajo Weaving : Historic : JV 121 : 68" x 74" (5'8" x 6'2") : $18,000

Navajo Sandpainting - Father Sky, Mother Earth weaving from the Male Shooting Chant and used in various other chant ways.

The first creation of the Great Spirit was Father Sky and Mother Earth, from whence all life sprang. 

The stars, sun, moon and the constellations are shown on the body of Father Sky. The zigzags crossing his shoulders, arms, and legs form the Milky Way.  From the bosom of Mother Earth radiates the life-giving energy of the sun, bringing fertility to the womb of Mother Earth, from whence springs the seed of all living things.  The 4 sacred plants shown are: Tobacco, Corn, Bean and Squash. 

Mineral, vegetable, and animal – all things grow, mature, bear fruit, and fall. They all return back to the source from which they came (represented by the ovals at the bottom of Father Sky and Mother Earth).

The bat, the sacred messenger of the spirit of the night, and Big Fly or Sacred Fly guard the sand painting.  The Rainbow Bars allow the Holy People to translocate instantaneously.  

Style Sandpainting
Weaver Unknown Navajo
Date circa 1930s
Size 68" x 74" (5'8" x 6'2")
Item # JV 121
Learn more about Sandpainting weavings

Contact us for more information at nizhoniranch@gmail.com or 520-455-5020.

  • Beth Barth
President Roosevelt and Elle of Ganado

President Roosevelt and Elle of Ganado

What do President's day and Navajo weavings have in common?  A wonderful 2001 article published in "Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies" brings both together in a way which helped shape the nation.  Please grab a cup of tea, sit back and let your heart be filled. 

Elle Meets the President: Weaving Navajo Culture and Commerce in the Southwestern Tourist Industry(1) 

During the spring of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt included a two-hour stop in Albuquerque while on a speaking tour through the western territories.  the Commercial Club of Albuquerque chose a Navajo woman, called Elle of Ganado, to weave a gift for the president - a textile rendition of his honorary Commercial Club membership card.  Club members provided the design, which Elle wove quickly in hand-spun red, white, and blue yarn. 

During his tour of Albuquerque, Roosevelt visited the Commercial club, where he received Elle's blanket, and he stopped by the Alvarado Hotel's Indiana Building, where he met the weaver herself.  An Albuquerque newspaper reported that upon meeting the weaver, the "president gave her a hearty shake and told her how much he appreciated her work.  The little speech was interpreted and pleased the Indian woman beyond expression."

Although her own thoughts were apparently "beyond expression," Elle's image spoke volumes to turn-of-the-century Americans, showing New Mexico as not only  conquered, but commercialized, safe for investment and safe for statehood.  

Indeed, Commercial Club members orchestrated this performance as part of a statehood campaign, a drive for integration into the social, economic, and political life of the United States, an effort that would not pay off for nearly ten more years. 

Elle and the president's meeting suggests ways in which race and gender, regional and national politics, culture and commerce interacted and were inextricably linked as the twentieth century began.  

Elle of GanadoThe pivotal role that Elle played in Roosevelt's visit reveals that while we tend to think of women like Elle as marginalized historical figures, they were far from peripheral to the unfolding of the twentieth-century American history.  Not only can we better understand such women by placing them within the larger economic, cultural, and political context of their times, but we can better understand that context by putting a woman like Elle at its center. Elle of Ganado, also called Asdzaa Lichii' (Red Woman) in Navajo, was born to the Black Sheep Clan and lived in the southern part of the Navajo Reservation near the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona.  She might have been about 50 years old at the time she met Roosevelt, and she lived until 1924.  She was acknowledged as the best weaver among the Navajo.

At the suggestion of trader John Lorenzo Hubbell, she and her husband Tom began spending substantial periods of time in Albuquerque beginning in 1903 after the Fred Harvey Company opened its Indian Building as part of the Alvarado Hotel complex at the Santa Fe Railroad depot.  Together with other Navajo and Pueblo families, they worked as arts and crafts demonstrators within the burgeoning southwestern tourist industry. 

You may read the rest of this fascinating article online here:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/3347066 

Navajopeople.org has an interesting piece about Elle's husband Tom here:  http://navajopeople.org/blog/elle-ganado-wife-of-tom-ganado/

1Moore, Laura Jane. “Elle Meets the President: Weaving Navajo Culture and Commerce in the Southwestern Tourist Industry.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, 2001, pp. 21–44., www.jstor.org/stable/3347066.

  • Beth Barth
Nez / Marianito Gallery Show 2022

Nez / Marianito Gallery Show 2022

  • Beth Barth
North to Alaska!

North to Alaska!

We love it when clients share how they display weavings they have collected from us.  This antique JB Moore with natural wool colors is just spectacular in this space.  What a calm and cozy room - especially nice during an Alaska winter.
  • Beth Barth
Meant to Be

Meant to Be

You may have heard the saying,  you don't choose a weaving, a weaving chooses you.  

By the photo one would jump to the conclusion that the wall color, furniture and wall size were chosen to compliment this incredible rug woven by Master Weaver Cecelia Nez.  Especially since it was awarded the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial top gun award,  Best of Show in 2014.  Not even close.  All it took was minor furniture rearranging and voila.  

Sure seems this weaving chose it's new owners well!

  • Beth Barth
Churro Sheep : Back from the Brink

Churro Sheep : Back from the Brink

For hundreds of years Churro sheep have been the center of Navajo life, yet the animal was nearly exterminated by outside forces.  

Steve started working with Navajo weavers in the early 1970s and in the 1980s. He was very interested in improving the Navajo weaving quality by distributing better wools to some of his better weavers. During this time it was New Zealand Romney and Lincoln wools he would distribute to some of the better weavers in the Wide Ruins and surrounding areas. Many of these works were featured in his book The Fine Art of Navajo Weaving.

In the 1990s the economy was not very good and the natural dyes of the Wide Ruin weavers were copied commercially so the uniqueness of their weavings was compromised in value. At this time, Navajo weavings were missing something. Steve met with an old friend, Ray Dewey, in Santa Fe and they discussed how the quality of Navajo weavings could be improved at this point in time. The answer was the wool and the dyes.

The best weaving wool for the Navajo rugs and blankets is the Churro sheep wool. The historic pieces that have been present since over 100 years ago are clear evidence that the Churro wool is the best and only becomes better with time. This conclusion planted the seed to bring Navajo churro wool back to the loom. There were existing efforts to revive the Churro sheep since it was on the endangered species list, but nothing to improve genetics enough to have a high quality weaving wool. Navajo churro wool was the first weaving wool of the Navajo Nation because of its low lanolin content, long staple and translucent qualities. Bringing the churro sheep back to the Navajo weaver and the wool back to the loom was an important goal for Steve and Gail.

Steve was able to find the source of the Navajo Churro Registry where the genetics were being perfected for a better fleece. The next step was to find dye artists who were willing to dye the wool by hand for what would later be called the 'Navajo Churro Collection'.  Though it seems like a simple thing, this took several years to put together. Moving forward with the process, the next step was reaching out to the best weavers on the Navajo reservation who were willing to use the Churro wool. The weavers were thrilled to use the wool, loved the new colors (Indigo, Cochineal and the highest quality dyes from Switzerland). With that, the Navajo Churro Collection was born.

Navajo third phase Chief blanket Julia Upshaw weaver indigo blue cochineal red Nizhoni Ranch

The result of this project is history making in itself. For one thing the Navajo Churro Sheep are no longer on the endangered species list. Some of the very best master weavers of the Navajo nation are able to work on projects in the Navajo Churro Collection that they otherwise would not be able to do. They are given the very best wool which is hand dyed and custom spun ready for them to weave on their loom; the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery supports them through the weaving process even if it takes years for them to complete. A registry is kept of each weaving documenting the weaver, a photo of her, and the weaving. It is very important that in 100 years from now, the weavers will be recognized for their work.

The Navajo Churro Collection Weaving project is playing a part in preserving the Navajo weaving art in the Navajo culture. The Navajo Churro Collection celebrates the Navajo weavers and the art of the loom. The Nizhoni Ranch Gallery exclusively offers these weavings to the world, which represent some of the finest Navajo weavings ever made. Steve and Gail will continue their work and hope that one of the benefits of this project will be for young Navajos to take up this very difficult and beautiful art form, as it is a legacy well worth preserving.

 

  • Beth Barth
Carding & Spinning Sheep's Wool for a Navajo Rug

Carding & Spinning Sheep's Wool for a Navajo Rug

 

Navajo weaving is both an art form and a labor of love. That’s because these highly-detailed rugs, blankets and weavings aren’t just for comfort; they tell an historic tale of a proud people through beauty and innovative creativity.


The origin of these well-woven textiles may have been passed down in story from Spider Woman who taught the first weavers to weave by using sunlight, white shells, lightning and crystals.
Here is more information about the historic methods of working with the wool after it is shorn from the sheep. 


Traditional Hand Carding
Historically, fleece and fibers were prepared before they could be used for weaving. Hand carding is the process of separating and straightening wool fibers using wooden paddles with wire “teeth” or bristles.

It works like this: the top “card” hooks its teeth into the wool in one direction, while the bottom “card” hooks its teeth in going the opposite direction. The weaver then works to gently tease and pull apart the wool creating evenly distributed layers, varying fiber lengths, eliminating any foreign matter inside, and improve fiber resiliency.

There are also two types of teeth which can be used—coarse and fine. The coarse cards are for fibers like mohair or wool, while the fine teeth can be used on soft fibers like cotton or angora.

Spinning the Perfect Thread
There are many forms in which to spin wool and the Navajo have a few techniques that can be used to form the perfect thread. The most famous and historic method is the Navajo spindle, also known as a drop spindle.

This type of spindle is generally categorized into three classes—center whorl, bottom whorl and top whorl. They all have varying degrees of speed and balance, but they can also produce different threat thickness.  These “handspindles” involve spinning a stick with a weight top while the yarn twists and winds around the shaft.

Most of the historic weavings on our website are made with hand shorn, hand carded, hand spun Native Wool.  

  • Beth Barth
Don't Fall for a Knock Off Navajo Rug!

Don't Fall for a Knock Off Navajo Rug!

Oh, the thrill of stumbling across a beautiful weaving at a spectacular price.  Here at Nizhoni Ranch some of our clients have interesting stories about coming across an estate sale, consignment shop, garage sale or auction house where they hit the jackpot or crapped out.

Yet, the old adage "if something sounds to good to be true, it probably is".  Probably is the downfall for some.  The definition of probably is: without much doubt, reasonably true, likely.  Probably is trouble - it gives a ray of hope to those who want to believe.

Then there is the Antique Roadshow situation.  As AR passed through Tucson in 2001 a man took in a blanket he inherited from his grandmother. The blanket was originally given to his great grandfather by Kit Carson. The blanket was used on his bed as a child then later sat on the back of a chair for years.  After watching the appraiser almost pass out and then being whisked away by security, he was told the weaving was a Ute First Phase Blanket, circa 1850's.  A national treasure worth (at that time) $350k to $500k.  Today that very weaving is valued somewhere around 1.5 million.  A beautiful story that remains one of AR's finest moments - a must see and a tear jerker!

So what is one to do?  Pay close attention to:

1 - Fringe

Almost all Navajo weavings will not have fringe.  There are only 2 exceptions. Textiles woven with Germantown yarn.  Fringe is added after the weaving is completed.  Take a look:

Saddle Blanket - Single Sunday Navajo Weaving : Historic : PC 119 - Getzwiller's Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Germantown Saddle Blanket, PC 119

 

The other Navajo weaving that has fringe (only on one end) is a Gallup Throw.  Gallup throws became a popular and inexpensive tourist souvenirs.  They are woven with a cotton warp.  Once finished the warp is cut then knotted. A typical contemporary Gallup Throw sells for somewhere between $50 to $100.  See below:

Ganado Throw

 

 2. Warp

Warp strings run vertically and made on a continuous loom that contains the actual warp threads. You can check this by running your hand along the side of the rug to feel whether the warp threads run the length of the rug or whether they’ve been cut. In Mexican-made copies, the warp strings run horizontally and threads are cut and then sometimes hidden, making it more difficult to detect.  

Mother and children Navajo weaving rug

 Navajo woman weaving on an upright loom with vertical warp strings.

 

3. Lazy Lines

Lazy lines appear as a diagonal line in the weave of the fabric. During the weaving process, the rug maker would move to work on adjacent sections of the warp, resulting in the subtle diagonal lines referred to as lazy lines. Note: not every Navajo weaving has visible lazy lines.

Lazy lines in Navajo weaving

 Lazy lines at diagonal angles

 

 4. Cost

Like all Navajo weavings, the values vary based on the age, quality, size, design complexity and condition.  A 3 x 5 contemporary weaving, with good design, good condition and nice wool starts around $ 2,000.  Below is a contemporary Teec Nos Pos / Red Mesa weaving.  Teec Nos Pos is one of the most intricate of designs. This was woven in 2017 by Elsie Begay and measures approximately 5' x 9', $9,000.

Red Mesa Teec Nos Pos Nizhoni Ranch GAllery

The U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board have published a very informative pamphlet on How to Buy Authentic Navajo (Dine') Weavings.  To view the publication go to:   https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/uploads/iacb_navajo_brochure_2017_web.compressed.pdf 

Bottom line, buy through a reputable source and keep all receipts and other documents.  Reputable, meaning they stand behind the weaving and if it's not as portrayed, they will return 100% of what you paid.  

If you are fortunate enough to have a weaving pop up outside of a gallery or reputable dealer and told it is Navajo, buyer beware.  We believe if you love a weaving, the price is right and will still be happy if the weavings turns out to be something other than Navajo - go for it!     

Happy Hunting!

 

 

  • Beth Barth
Christmas Time is Here!

Christmas Time is Here!

Here we are - Steve, Gail, Beth, Tank and Snuffy Rockin Around the Clock!

A Big Christmas Howdy from us all at the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery!  
We are beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! 

Best wishes to all for the Holidays and 2022 !!

Steve, Gail, and Beth

 

  • Beth Barth
Deliberate Imperfections?

Deliberate Imperfections?

Intentional Flaw?  Deliberate Mistake?  Perfectly Imperfect?

Recently a new collector inquired about how much would a weavings value and collectability be diminished if the weaver made a mistake in the mirror image of the design.  The answer is zero.

Navajo are deeply religious.  They believe nothing is perfect, except for the Gods.  They were given the gift of weaving by the Gods and taught by Spiderwoman herself - an important deity to the Navajo.  To honor the Gods, Navajo weavers deliberately incorporate an imperfection. 

Often times one must closely study weavings to find the deliberate mistake. Here at the gallery we enjoy looking for and finding the change up in the design. Even our eyes we miss them sometimes.  It becomes a bit of a game.  Some weavings may only have one, others have a few.  When we find a weaving with several flaws we imagine the weaver may have been overly superstitious and wanted to ensure the Gods would be pleased and no bad luck would follow.

Some of the most important pieces collected have fairly obvious deliberate imperfections.  One example is the 3rd Phase Chief Blanket which is on the front cover of Navajo Textiles by Nancy J. Blomberg.  That 3rd Phase is part of the William Randolph Hearst Collection.  Without working too hard we came up with 7 imperfections in the design.  

 

Here is a weaving that we currently have available.  Can you find an imperfection?   At the bottom we will share what we have found.  Warning - this is a tough one but give it a shot.

 J
JB Moore Navajo Rug : Historic : PC 104

 

There is another deliberate imperfection called the Spirit Line or Spirit Pathway.  Navajo believe that when weaving a rug, the weaver entwines part of her or his  spirit into the rug.  The spirit line prevents the weavers spirit from being trapped and allows weaver's spirit to safely exit the rug.  Spirit Lines are found in rugs with a border - however not all bordered rugs have spirit lines.  It is up to the weaver as to how they will incorporate their personal deliberate imperfection.  Look to the top right corner of the weaving below for the Spirit Line.

 
Navajo Double Saddle Blanket : Historic : PC 83


Not a surprise we adore Navajo weavings and are honored we can share our collections with the world.  While we have been in this business for more than half of a century there is still much to learn about Navajo weaving, past and present.  Without a doubt Navajo have been given the gift of weaving by the Gods and for that we cannot be more thankful.

 

Here is the answer from the challenge above.  

 

 Here are a few more to try.  Enjoy!


Crystal Navajo Rug : Historic : GHT 2262

Teec Nos Pos Navajo Weaving : Historic : PC 88

 

  • Beth Barth
The Schoch First Phase Chief’s Blanket

The Schoch First Phase Chief’s Blanket

The discovery of a Navajo masterpiece.

The weaving of wearing blankets is part of the Navajo (Diné) creation story, present in Navajo culture from the beginning. Spider Woman, who wove the web of the universe, taught the Navajo people to weave. She is present in their lives today, residing atop Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly.


An Early Classic First Phase Chief’s Blanket, Diné (Navajo), circa 1830, also known as the Schoch First Phase. The first phase measures 54 inches long by 73 inches wide, as woven. In the collection of the Bernisches Historisches Museum (BHM), Bern, Switzerland, by purchase from Marie Karolina Ruef, Lorenz Alphons Schoch’s widow, 1890. BHM Catalog #1890.410.0027. Cataloged by BHM as a “Sioux trade cloth.” Photograph by Joshua Baer. © 2021 Joshua Baer & Company, Santa Fe. Used by permission. All reproduction rights reserved.

The Navajo philosophy of Sa’ah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozhoo guides life in balance and in harmony with the natural world and the universe. Balance occurs in the physical world with a reverence for the four cardinal directions, the four sacred colors and the four sacred mountains that border Navajo Country.

Balance is the theme of the Beauty Way Chant, part of which reads:

In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again

To the south of Navajo Country, or Dinétah, were the Hopi. To the north were the Utes. Navajo wearing blankets were admired by the Hopi and Utes, who bartered with the Navajo for their blankets. Navajo blankets woven longer than wide were called “serapes” by the Spanish. Navajo blankets woven wider than long were called either “chief’s blankets” or “mantas.” The term “chief’s blanket” came into use because chief’s blankets were expensive. Only the high-ranking members of the Utes and the Plains tribes could afford them. According to Joshua Baer, an appraiser of Navajo blankets in Santa Fe, “Anglo-American explorers and military officers began collecting Navajo chief’s blankets during the 1840s. Between 1840 and 1860, the rate of exchange for one chief’s blanket was either 10 buffalo hides, 20 horses, or $50 in gold. In 1850, $10 was one month’s pay for a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army. The $10 gold piece, or ‘eagle,’ contained one-half of one ounce of gold.”

Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), Kiäsax, Piegan Blackfoot Man, 1833, watercolor and graphite on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. Gift of the Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.395. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019.

Navajo chief’s blankets were valued by the Ute, the Sioux and the Cheyenne because of their beauty, but also because they were so tightly woven as to be nearly waterproof and could be worn as a coat in the daytime and used as a blanket at night. Examples of early first phase chief’s blankets are scarce today because they were worn aggressively until they were worn out.

Early chief’s blankets featured broad stripes of blue, brown and white handspun Churro yarns. The handspun brown and white yarns were un-dyed. The handspun blue yarns were dyed in the yarn with indigo. Baer explains, “After the introduction of rectangular, target designs during the 1840s, and the subsequent introduction of concentric diamonds during the 1850s, Navajo chief’s blankets with no designs came to be known as ‘first phases.’ Chief’s blankets with rectangular designs came to be known as ‘second phases’ and chief’s blankets with concentric diamonds came to be known as ‘third phases.’” First-phase chief’s with broad brown and white stripes are referred to as man’s style, in contrast to the woman’s style chiefs blankets which have narrow stripes.

An Early Classic First Phase Chief’s Blanket, Diné (Navajo), circa 1830, also known as the Schoch First Phase. The first phase measures 54 inches long by 73 inches wide, as woven. In the collection of the Bernisches Historisches Museum (BHM), Bern, Switzerland, by purchase from Marie Karolina Ruef, Lorenz Alphons Schoch’s widow, 1890. BHM Catalog #1890.410.0027. Cataloged by BHM as a “Sioux trade cloth.” The image has been enhanced to show how the first phase may have looked in original condition.Photograph by Joshua Baer. © 2021 Joshua Baer & Company, Santa Fe. Used by permission. All reproduction rights reserved.

First phase chief’s blankets with brown, white and blue stripes are known as Ute style first phase chief’s blankets. Blankets with thin red stripes between the blue and brown stripes are known as bayeta first phase chief’s blankets because of their use of raveled bayeta yarn. The Navajo weavers were adept at dying their handspun yarn blue with indigo but weren’t able to dye their handspun yarn red with cochineal. Produced in Mexico, cochineal is the dried and pulverized larvae of ladybugs. In the 17th century, cochineal was declared the property of the King of Spain and shipped to Spain where it was used to color woolen cloth in vats.

In response to Spain’s attempts to monopolize cochineal, the British developed a red dye from lac, a scale insect found in Bengal. Red bayeta cloth was woven and piece-dyed in Seville, Spain, and in Manchester, England, then exported in bolts to North America. Bayeta was then shipped from ports in New Orleans and Charleston to St. Louis where it was transported by mule to merchants in Santa Fe, Taos, and the Chama Valley. When bayeta arrived  in Navajo Country, Navajo weavers raveled the woven cloth to obtain red yarn to weave into their blankets. Between 1830 and 1860, bayeta was Navajo weavers’ primary source of red yarn. Navajo weavers also used a red knitting yarn from Germany, known as Saxony.

A Classic Bayeta First Phase Chief’s Blanket, Diné (Navajo), ca. 1850. The bayeta first phase measures 57 inches long by 71 inches wide, as woven. Collected, 1851, by Samuel W. Woodhouse (1821-1904), a surgeon and naturalist who accompanied the Topographical Engineer Corps on the Sitgreaves Expedition to explore the Zuni and Colorado Rivers. Inherited by Woodhouse’s son, Samuel W. Woodhouse Jr. (1873-1943). Purchased by the Museum of the American Indian (MAI) from Woodhouse Jr., 1923. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Washington, D.C. NMAI Catalog #11/8280.

Baer explains the incorporation of red yarn in second and third phase blankets and subsequent variants: “Second phase chief’s blankets have horizontally banded fields with rectangular foreground designs, usually in the form of either concentric squares, concentric rectangles, or pairs of solid rectangular bars. Ute Style second phases have no thin red stripes between their design elements. Bayeta second phases have thin, horizontal red stripes of raveled bayeta between their design elements.

“Third phase chief’s blankets have horizontally banded fields with diamond-shaped foreground designs. Ute Style third phases have no thin red stripes between their diamonds. Bayeta third phases have thin red stripes of raveled bayeta between their diamonds.

“Navajo chief’s blankets that combine second and third phase designs are called variants. Chief’s blankets with designs appropriated from Navajo dress halves, mantas, poncho serapes or serapes are also called variants.”

An installation of the three phases of Navajo chief’s blankets can be seen at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, has what Baer considers to be one of two Ute style first phase chief’s blankets in mint condition. The Nelson-Atkins also has as a chief’s blanket variant with a spur pattern in cochineal-dyed bayeta wool, circa 1840.

A Classic Second Phase Chief Blanket, Ute Style, Diné (Navajo), circa 1850. The second phase measures 56 inches long by 75 inches wide, as woven. Collected, 1851, by Samuel W. Woodhouse (1821-1904), a surgeon and naturalist who accompanied the Topographical Engineer Corps on the Sitgreaves Expedition to explore the Zuni and Colorado Rivers. Inherited by Woodhouse’s son, Samuel W. Woodhouse Jr. (1873-1943). Purchased by the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), New York, from Woodhouse Jr., 1923. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of NMAI. NMAI Catalog #11/8281.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum describes its first phase blanket as “a broad horizontal configuration of contrasting and subtly colored bands…often described as a distillation of the Navajo’s desert plateau and mountain landscape.”

A characteristic of Navajo looms is that they were often set up outdoors where the weavers looked through them at the landscape as they worked.

The widespread trade in chief’s blankets is documented in a watercolor by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), a young Swiss artist who accompanied the Prussian naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867) on an expedition through the Missouri Valley from 1832 to 1834. Prince Max, as he was known, believed the Indigenous tribes of central North America were on the verge of extinction. He had set out to document their cultures before they disappeared.

Bodmer was a prodigy who would amaze audiences by creating an accurate sketch or watercolor in less than an hour. Prince Max would often use him to impress the people they met on their expedition. In 1833, on one leg of their journey, Bodmer painted Kiasax, a Piegan Blackfoot chief, wearing a Ute style first phase chief’s blanket with pairs of blue stripes. It is the earliest known painting of a Navajo chief’s blanket.

A Classic Third Phase Chief Blanket, Ute Style, Diné (Navajo), circa 1855. The third phase measures 58 inches long by 78 inches wide, as woven. Collected between 1855 and 1860 at Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory (now Wyoming), by Thomas S. Twiss (1802-1871), U.S. Indian Agent for the Upper Platte River). Acquired by Daisy M. Barnett (1874-1937), at an unknown date. Purchased by the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), New York, from Barnett, 1921, with funds donated by MAI Trustee Harmon W. Hendricks (1846-1928). Image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Washington, D.C. NMAI Catalog No. 10/8457.

They met Kiasax aboard the steamer Assiniboine owned by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. They also took advantage of Astor’s steamer Yellowstone, which they rode from St. Louis 900 miles north to Fort Pierre and Fort Union.

Prince Max’s choice of the scrupulously accurate Bodmer resulted in some of the finest paintings of the region and its people. The prince was as meticulous in his written descriptions as was Bodmer in his paintings and drawings. In a journal entry from March, 1833, he describes Massika, a Sauk man he met in St. Louis. “The area surrounding the eyes and ears is red, often also the cheeks; with others the entire head is completely red, except for a white spot on the forehead and a black one around mouth and chin; this gives them a dreadful appearance…Their ears are pierced along the upper edge with three or four holes, and from them hang short strings of blue and white wampum, like tassels.”

George Catlin (1796-1872), St. Louis from the River Below, 1832-1833, oil on canvas, 193/8 x 26¾”. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr., 1985.66.311.

Prince Max’s collections were dispersed in museums in Bern, Berlin and Stuttgart.

George Catlin (1796-1872) traveled to the West five times in the 1830s, painting portraits of its Indigenous people and amassing artifacts from their cultures. He wrote in 1841, “St. Louis…is a flourishing town, of 15,000 inhabitants, and destined to be the great emporium of the West…[It] is the great depot of all the Fur Trading Companies to the Upper Missouri and Rocky Mountains, and their starting-place; and also for the Santa Fe, and other Trading Companies, who reach the Mexican borders overland, to trade for silver bullion, from the extensive mines of that rich country…I have also made it my starting-point, and place of deposit, to which I send from different quarters, my packages of paintings and Indian articles, minerals, fossils, etc., as I collect them in various regions, here to be stored till my return; and where on my last return, if I ever make it, I shall hustle them altogether, and remove them to the East.”

Lorenz Alphons Schoch traveled from Switzerland to St. Louis in 1832 and collected between 1833 and 1837, at the same time Prince Max and Bodmer were on their expedition and Catlin was collecting artifacts. Schoch was the son of a Swiss instrument manufacturer. Among the artifacts he collected is a war shirt that appears in George Catlin’s painting Mix-ke-móte-skin-na, Iron Horn, a Warrior, 1832.

George Catlin (1796-1872), Mix-ke-móte-skin-na, Iron Horn, a Warrior, 1832, oil on canvas, 29 x 24”. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr. 1985.66.153.

Judy Thompson wrote The North American Indian Collection: A Catalog for the Berne Historical Museum in Switzerland. She comments, “Although European trade goods had reached the Plains area by the early 1700s, Plains Indians had little direct contact with white men until the mid-19th century. Collections as early as the Schoch material (1837) are therefore rare. Lorenz Alphons Schoch (1810-1866) was a Swiss from Burgdorf, Canton Berne. He went to the United States in 1832, where he lived in St. Louis for several years and apparently came into contact with various Indian tribes in his role of merchant or trader. Schoch returned to Switzerland in 1842. His collection was purchased from his widow in 1890.”

 

A Classic First Phase Chief’s Blanket, Ute Style, Diné (Navajo), ca. 1850. The first phase measures 51 inches long by 70 inches wide, as woven. In the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Ex- Fred Harvey, Kansas City. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, from the estate of Fred Harvey, 1933. NAMA Catalog #33-1430. Photo: Joshua Ferdinand.

Another item in the Schoch collection in Berne is a blanket cataloged by the museum as “Sioux Trade Cloth.” Baer believes it is the earliest documented example of a Navajo first phase chief’s blanket. It is illustrated here by his interpretation of the item if it is restored. He bases his hypothesis on five criteria:

  1. Its collection date (1832-1837) establishes the Schoch First Phase as the earliest Navajo chief’s blanket with a documented collection history.
  2. The absence of pairs of blue stripes in the Schoch First Phase makes it a unique example of the Navajo first phase style, and raises the possibility that the first phase was woven during the late 18th century, which would make it the earliest known example of a Navajo chief’s blanket woven in the man’s style.
  3. Ticking along all of the edges of its brown and white bands is unique to the Schoch first phase. Of the approximately 150 other known classic Navajo chief’s blankets, none have ticking along all edges of their horizontal bands.
  4. The Schoch First Phase’s configuration of three brown stripes and four white stripes above and below its central panel links the first phase to three of the best-known classic Navajo chief’s blankets in either museum or private collections. [The Twiss Third Phase Chief’s Blanket, Ute Style, Navajo, circa 1850, in the collection of National Museum of the American Indian, is illustrated here, on Page 43.]
  5. The location of the Schoch First Phase in the Bernisches Historisches Museum (BHM) in Bern, Switzerland, and BHM’s catalog listing of the first phase as a “Sioux Trade Cloth,” establish the Schoch First Phase as an undiscovered example of early classic Navajo weaving.
  6. A Classic Chief’s Blanket Variant, Ute Style, Diné (Navajo), ca. 1840. The variant measures 53 inches long by 72 inches wide, as woven. In the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust. NAMA Catalog #33-1432. Photo: Joshua Ferdinand.

Before Baer’s interpretation of what he refers to as the “Schoch First Phase,” the Navajo chief’s blankets with the earliest documented collection history were the classic bayeta first phase chief’s blanket, Navajo, circa 1850, also known as the Woodhouse Bayeta First Phase; and a classic second phase chief’s blanket, Navajo, circa 1850, also known as the Woodhouse Second Phase. Both were collected at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico Territory in September, 1851, by Samuel Washington Woodhouse (1821-1904), who was a surgeon and ornithologist with the Sitgreaves Expeditions of 1849 and 1851. Both the Woodhouse First and Second Phase Chief’s Blankets exhibit no wear. They were probably purchased from their weavers. The blankets were acquired in 1923 by what is now the National Museum of the American Indian from Woodhouse’s son in 1923.

Baer remarks, “The Schoch First Phase is an extraordinary work of American art. The first phase is also an important part of American and Native American history. My hope is that the BHM will allow the Schoch First Phase to travel to the United States. This will make it possible for the first phase to be seen by contemporary Navajo weavers, and by the American public.”

  • Beth Barth
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