The Emergence of Navajo Regional Weaving Styles

After Bosque Redondo, the Navajo came back to their beloved ancestral homeland but had to rebuild their sheep flock and wool supply. They acquired and traded yarns with the newcomers to their land, the Anglo, government licensed traders, who were spreading across the newly formed reservation.

The influence of the trading posts on the social and cultural life on the reservation grew over the years and brought many changes to the people and their native weaving industry. Several parallel events slowly merged to create a world and birth place, to a metamorphosed traditional art. When the Classic wearing blanket became obsolete, the imagination and ingenuity of the Indian traders gave birth to the floor rug that this new breed of Easterners, the tourist, was in desperate need of! The perennial perfect storm. Some of the most influential traders were the early partners Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, C.N. Cotton and later J.B. Moore.

Juan Lorenzo was born in 1853, in Prajito, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico to a Hispanic mother and an Anglo father. After working at an early age as a post office clerk, the 17 years old Juan succumbed to the romance of the West, bought himself a horse and a saddle and headed to the still wild and untamed Utah Territory. No one knows for sure, but the “Hubbell’s legend” has it that young Juan seduced a Mormon girl and seduced her so well that the local Mormon bishop wanted him to marry the girl and her sisters! That prospect did not appeal to Juan who decided to skip town instead. With a posse sent after him he barley survived his quick exit, and found himself south of the Grand Canyon in the safer Navajo Reservation with two gunshot wounds.

Here he honed his trader’s skills working as a clerk at Indian posts before acquiring his own first trading post in 1876. Two years later, he bought what would become the famous Hubbell Trading Post in Pueblo Colorado Valley, soon renamed Ganado after the Navajo leader Ganado Mucho, a close friend of Juan Lorenzo.

This young and ambitious man slowly built up an ”empire,” owning some two-dozen trading posts throughout the reservation, as well as freight and mail lines services and warehouses. Early on, Hubbell partnered with his good friend C.N. Cotton, who managed the post at Ganado while he was on duty as sheriff in St Johns, Utah some 90 miles away. Both of them were astute and fair traders who built a successful relationship with the Navajo people.

The early and mid 1880’s were years of transition for the Navajo weaving industry. The market for wearing blankets was slowly changing and disappearing. Hubbell’s store housed hundreds of these beautiful blankets, way more than their actual market could handle. They were still only wholesaling to suppliers of mining camps and others Indian reservations across the country. They were at this time only advertising the blankets as durable, utilitarian products able to stand the harsh treatment of rural life. Sturdy and large enough for a bed, they never mentioned the beauty of these blankets. In an 1884 letter to a client in Custer, Montana, Cotton inquired about buying buffalo robes and lion skins and selling wearing blankets.

Soon our two traders thought of a new market, the East Coast and its more affluent population to turn blankets into household objects. Starting in the 1880’s, an antimodernist movement spread in the East and Europe in reaction to the new modern lifestyle. Imagine that,  the public concern with immigration, industrialization, labor unrest and world war fueled a nostalgia for the past! A cosmopolitan world looking for its roots in what was viewed as a primitive and pure culture. History repeats itself? Naaaw.

The Southwest became the embodiment of what antimodernist were looking for, natural beauty and primitivism. The Native people, with the help of Indian traders were more than happy to satisfy this new existential need.

Hubbell and Cotton first had their weavers replicate old blanket patterns, using the commercial yarn Germantown, mostly recreating the Moki style in what became the famed Hubbell Revival. They asked their weavers to produce larger and thicker pieces that were now floor rugs. They encouraged and expected quality craftsmanship and artistic innovations and were now advertising beauty to stores and dealers in New York City and other Eastern metropolis.

Because buyers such as the Fred Harvey Indian Department did not care much for the Moki style and the Germantown yarn that was not “Indian” enough, Hubbell asked his artist friend Elbridge A. Burbank to create paintings, for his weavers to copy from. New patterns blending early native designs and Oriental ones framed into an all around border became a new innovation for Navajo weaving. Now almost all the yarns used were native handspun wool limiting the color palette to white, gray, brown, black and of course the famed Ganado red with an occasional blue. The new patterns and color schemes had a great influence on other regional styles such as Two Grey Hills.

Even though our two traders parted ways in business, they stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Hubbell passed away in 1930 and Cotton in 1936.

The Hubbel Trading Post stayed in the family until it was sold to the National Park Service and still functions as a trading post. The C.N. Cotton Company ceased all activities after Cotton's death. 

 

References: 

100 Years of Navajo Rugs - Marion E. Rodee

Rugs & Posts - H.L. James

C.N. Cotton and His Navajo Blankets - Lester L. Williams

The Legend of Don Lorenzo - Erica Cottam

Juan Lorenzo Hubbel

Juan Lorenzo Hubbel

C.N. Cotton

C.N. Cotton