Navajo rugs are collected the world over for their beauty and exquisite craft work. The history of Navajo weaving is integral to the history of the Navajo people. The Navajo probably learned to weave about 1600 from their Pueblo Indian neighbors. As they learned their craft, the Navajo wove clothing and blankets as their Pueblo teachers did, in the natural colors of wool: browns, beiges, and grays. But Navajo weaving progressed beyond the skill of the Pueblo Indians. The Navajo began to use vegetable dyes to weave brightly colored blankets of great beauty and intricacy. These blankets, called Chief Blankets, were traded for goods to the chiefs of other tribes. Now very rare, they are valuable collectibles.
Beginning in 1863, the Navajo were hunted down by the United States Army and imprisoned at Fort Sumner, in a tragic and regrettable episode of American History. During their years of captivity, Navajo weaving changed dramatically. The Navajo came into contact with Anglo traders, who suggested that heavier rugs be woven instead of blankets, with borders around the edges to suit Anglo tastes. The Navajo were also introduced to commercial dyes which made brighter colors.
Railroad officials also influenced Navajo weaving. Starting in the 1880s, Navajo women were employed by the railroad to demonstrate weaving and other native crafts at railway stops. At this time, railroads were advertising trips to the "wild west", and wanted to provide interesting events for tourists. Many of the Navajo rugs in museum collections today were woven during this period.
Around the turn of the century, the quality of Navajo weaving declined. In recent years, however, Navajo weavers have returned to vegetable dyes and traditional patterns, producing fine quality rugs once more.
A Sample Navajo Rug
Note: This activity was motivated by a quilt pattern activity in The Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics Addenda Series, Grades K-6: Fourth-Grade Book (1992). See the reference list for complete information.
Materials: Navajo rug designs, 10 x 10 grid paper, pencils, crayons.
Navajo rugs contain a wealth of mathematical ideas. They all have symmetry and use a variety of polygons. Examine some of the Navajo rug samples included here. Find additional patterns in Navajo Rugs and Blankets: A Coloring Book (1994) by Chuck and Andrea Mobley, North American Indian Designs for Artists and Craftspeople (1984) by Eva Wilson, and Southwestern Indian Designs (1992) by Madeleine Orban-Szontagh.
Next, draw your own Navajo rug design on 10 x 10 grid paper. Use the entire grid for your design. Select a color scheme for your rug that uses two, three, or four different colors. Color your rug so that all colors in your rug cover about equal area.
CONNECTIONS TO CHILDREN'S LITERATURE
There are wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction, available. Songs from the Loom: A Navajo Girl Learns to Weave by Monty Roessel is a wonderful non-fiction account of a young girls' coming to age on the reservation. The Goat in the Rug is an engaging tale of the goat that supplies the wool for his owners' rug. The Magic of Spider Woman is a fantasy about the origins of Navajo weaving.