As a prelude to Southwest textiles, let us introduce the people and cultures who created them.
Pueblo peoples are descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans and have lived in the Four Corners region for centuries. Archeological evidence shows, for example, Zuni pueblos in this region for about 1,300 years.
Sedentary farmers, they have an extended tradition as weavers of cotton, long before European contact. In Pueblo cosmology, cotton serves as a metaphor for Clouds and Rain, and is still the fiber of choice for ceremonial and ritual garments and textiles.
The quality of their weavings was noticed early on. Francesco Vasquez de Coronado, in the 1540’s, praised the mantas received as gifts. Later, the manta became a valuable trade item, acquiring a standard value, used as tribute and tax.
Pueblo loom weaving was primarily a male activity and still is for the Hopi today.
The other inhabitants of the region are of the Athapascan linguistic group who migrated from the MacKenzy Basin in Western Canada perhaps down the intermontane region of Utah and Colorado, establishing themselves around the Pueblos as early as AD 1,000 or as late as the 15th century. No consensus exist as to the exact date of their arrival.
These Apachean peoples were mostly hunter gatherers, except for the ones the Spanish referred to as “Apache de Nabaju”, meaning “Apache of large planted fields”, in reference to the fact that these people were semisedentary who planted fields of corn and other crops, before moving away from their fields for hunting as well as raiding and trading.
Navajo legends tell of them learning from Spider Woman, and weaving in earlier worlds that the one they find themselves in today, which gave them knowledge and practice to weave great blankets and other textiles.
Most ethnologists and archeologists believe that the Navajo learned weaving from long contact with Pueblo peoples, but mostly after the 1680 Pueblo revolt against the white settlers and religious authority, when Puebloans took refuge with Navajos fearing retaliation from the Spanish.
The earliest mention, in Spanish record, of Navajo weaving dates to 1706: “they make their clothes of wool and cotton”, and by 1795, Fernando de Chacon, then governor, wrote: “They work their wool with more delicacy and taste than the Spanish.”
Expanding this great tradition and becoming exceptional weavers themselves, are they a classic example of the student outclassing the master? Or could it be that Navajo weavers are women, where Pueblo’s are men? Feminine finesse and sensitivity? Or Pueblo male weavers are constrained and restricted by religious and ritual traditions, when Navajo women are free from them?
But again, Spider Woman may have really taught them how to weave in an earlier world!
Food for thought for the philosopher in all of you!