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  • Unveiling the Rich History and Cultural Significance of Native American Blankets

    7 min read

    a women is making native american blanket with hands

    Discover the Fascinating Legacy and Cultural Importance of Native American Blankets

    Native American blankets signify the intrinsic cultural and spiritual significance of Indigenous Americans. There is great honor and humility embedded in the blanket designs and color choices, which represent a sampling of their spiritual connection to Mother Earth.  

    Historically, Native American blankets were used for warmth, protection, decoration, and as a desired trade commodity with other tribes. Blankets were a widely accepted trade currency and a part of everyday life.

     

    Native American tribes pride themselves in their symbiotic relationship with nature.


    Their blanket designs typically reflect their cultural heritage and beliefs. Most designs and color choices are a visual representation of each artist's story. 


    In contemporary times, there is a growing appreciation for Native American cultural practices, traditions, and beliefs. 


    Discover a world filled with vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and centuries of tradition as we delve into the rich history and cultural significance of Native American blankets.

    an old native american women

    The significance of Native American blankets

    Native American blankets have captivated the hearts and minds of people across the globe, serving as both functional clothing and treasured works of art. From the Navajo to the Hopi, each tribe has its own unique style and technique passed down through generations.


    Native American blankets are not just mere fabrics; they tell stories of resilience, identity, and spirituality. Through their elaborate designs and symbolism, Native American blankets offer a window into indigenous cultures' deep-rooted traditions and beliefs.


    To this day, the rituals tied to Native American blankets are part of life from birth to death. Blankets are gifted to celebrate births, marriages, and christenings, among other celebrations. Native Americans also use blankets to pay off debts, show gratitude, or indicate status.


    Native Americans cradle their babies in blankets, they dance in blankets, and when they die, they are often buried in their blankets.

    black and white image of women from american library

    Origins and history of Native American blankets

    Historically, Native American blankets were made from woven plant fibers; animal hides, and fur, which evolved to using fabric woven by hand from wool or cotton.


    Long before the advent of settlers in North America, Native Americans traded blankets among themselves in exchange for other goods. Trading commercially made blankets from Europeans for beaver pelts was a natural transition.


    This trade became a necessity as the European settlers moved west, killing buffalo and displacing many tribes. Without the buffalo hides, the Plains Native American tribes were forced to rely on traders for their blankets.


    Native American blankets can be traced back to the early civilizations of the Southwest, where tribes like the Navajo and Hopi perfected the craft. 


    Blankets were initially made from locally sourced materials which were spun into yarn and dyed using natural pigments, and trade with the early European settlers in North America led to the introduction of new materials and techniques.


    The introduction of the Spanish Churro sheep in the 17th century revolutionized the production of Native American blankets, as the wool from these sheep was softer and more versatile. The Navajo embraced this change and became renowned for their intricate weaving patterns and vibrant colors.

    a women with hat and blanket standing between mountains

    European Trade blankets

    The striped Hudson Bay Company blanket was made in England and traded by European trappers to the Blackfeet and Northern Plains Indigenous tribes. In 1896, Pendleton Woolen Mills in Pendleton, Oregon, became the only mill founded specifically to produce trade blankets. 


    The first Pendleton blankets incorporated stripes, blocks, rectangles, and crosses which changed in 1901 with the introduction of the Jacquard loom that enabled the mills to create more intricate zigzag designs.

    This marked the beginning of their global recognition and commercialization.


    Pendleton trade blankets were an important part of Native American blanket history. These mass-produced blankets were originally created specifically for the Native American people. 


    Pendleton blankets were made from wool and featured bold, colorful designs that incorporated traditional motifs such as arrowheads and diamonds. Native Americans were both the inspiration for the designs of American trade blankets as well as the blankets' most prized consumers.


    From the beginning, Pendleton produced high-quality blankets that eventually became the favorite Native American trade blanket. By the end of World War II, all the American wool mills had gone out of business except for Pendleton.

    Traditional weaving techniques and materials

    The art of weaving Native American blankets is a meticulous and time-consuming process that requires skill, patience, and a deep understanding of the materials used.


    Traditional weaving techniques were passed down through generations and were preserved and adapted by different tribes, resulting in a diverse range of styles and patterns.


    One of the most well-known techniques used by Native American weavers is the tapestry weave, which involves interlocking different colored wefts to create intricate designs. This technique allows for the creation of blankets with complex patterns and images that tell stories and convey meaning.


    Another commonly used technique is the twill weave, which produces diagonal patterns and is often seen in Navajo blankets.


    Materials used in Native American blanket weaving have evolved over time. Traditionally, wool from animals such as sheep, goats, and bison was the primary material used.


    Today, weavers also incorporate other materials, such as cotton and synthetic fibers, to add variety and durability to their creations.


    Some weavers still use natural dyes derived from plants, minerals, and insects, while others opt for commercially available dyes for a wider range of colors. This does not detract from or reduce cultural and spiritual significance but rather enhances it.

    a women is weaving blanket with hands

    Symbolism and cultural significance of Native American blanket designs

    Native American blanket designs are not merely decorative; they carry deep cultural and spiritual significance. 


    Each motif and pattern hold a special meaning, reflecting the values, beliefs, and history of the tribe that created it.


    Blanket designs often depict elements from nature, such as animals, plants, and celestial bodies which symbolizes the interconnectedness of all living things. A good example is the Navajo Chief blanket, characterized by its bold geometric patterns and vibrant colors, which represent the strength and leadership of tribal chiefs.


    Many Navajo blanket patterns are believed to have originated from the spiritual visions experienced during ceremonies. The intricate patterns of the Chimayo blanket, created by the weavers of the Chimayo Pueblo in New Mexico, tell stories of creation and the journey of life.


    Native American blankets play a vital role in ceremonies and rituals. The blankets are said to connect individuals with their ancestral spirits and the natural world. The act of wearing or using a blanket is to honor and invoke the powers of the tribe's ancestors, providing protection and guidance.

    Famous Native American blanket tribes and their unique styles

    Several Native American tribes have gained recognition for their exceptional weaving skills and distinctive blanket styles.


    The Navajo, known for their intricate patterns and bold colors, are perhaps the most famous weavers of Native American blankets. Their designs often feature geometric shapes and motifs inspired by the natural world.


    The Hopi, on the other hand, are renowned for their intricate tapestry weavings, which often depict ceremonial scenes and symbols of spiritual importance.


    The Pueblo tribes, including the Acoma, Zuni, and Taos, have also contributed significantly to the art of Native American blanket weaving.


    Each tribe has its own unique style, characterized by specific colors, patterns, and weaving techniques. The Pueblo blankets are known for their earthy tones, intricate geometric patterns, and fine weaving.


    Along the Northwest Coast of North America, there are three distinct styles of traditional blankets, namely, Coast Salish, Chilkat, and Raven's Tail.


    These three styles incorporate striking geometric designs and often incorporate modern materials and techniques while still retaining their traditional flair. Most contemporary Northwest Coast Native artists use their blanket designs to tell stories and share their experiences.

    a women in blanket is walking in front of wooden hut

    Preservation efforts and the impact of Native American blankets on contemporary art and fashion

    In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of preserving Native American blanket weaving traditions and supporting indigenous artisans. 


    Organizations and museums dedicated to the preservation of Native American art and culture have played a vital role in promoting and perpetuating these ancient weaving techniques.


    Native American blankets have also had a significant influence on contemporary art and fashion. Their bold designs and rich colors have inspired countless artists and designers who incorporate elements of Native American weaving into their work. 


    From high-end fashion runways to home decor, the influence of Native American blankets can be seen in various creative industries.

    Collecting and caring for Native American blankets

    For collectors and enthusiasts, Native American blankets hold immense value as cultural artifacts and works of art. 


    When collecting Native American blankets, it is essential to ensure their authenticity and provenance. Supporting Native American artisans directly or purchasing from reputable dealers is the best way to support the community and guarantee the authenticity of the blankets.


    Proper care and preservation of Native American blankets are essential to maintain their beauty and longevity. It is recommended to store them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight to prevent fading. 


    Regular cleaning should be done with utmost care, following the specific instructions provided by the weaver or a professional conservator.

    Where to buy authentic Native American blankets

    Authentic Native American blankets can be purchased directly from Native American artisans, cooperatives, or reputable dealers specializing in Native American art.


    Online platforms that collaborate with indigenous communities to sell their products ethically can also be a reliable source.


    Having said this, it is essential to do thorough research and ensure that the sellers have a genuine commitment to supporting indigenous artists and their communities.

    a women with authentic native American blanket

    Native American blanket festivals and events

    Native American blanket festivals and events provide a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the vibrant culture and artistry surrounding these textiles. 


    These gatherings often showcase the work of talented weavers, allowing visitors to purchase authentic blankets directly from the artisans.


    Festivals such as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market attract artists and enthusiasts from around the world, celebrating the beauty and cultural heritage of Native American blankets.

    kids in the native American festival

    Conclusion

    Native American blankets are not just fabric; they are a testament to the resilience, creativity, and deep-rooted traditions of indigenous cultures. 


    From their intricate designs and symbolism to their rich history and cultural significance, these textiles offer a glimpse into the diverse and vibrant world of Native American art. 


    By appreciating and supporting Native American blanket weaving, we can celebrate the beauty and cultural heritage of these treasured textiles, ensuring that their stories continue to be told for generations to come.


    The world of Native American blankets is a place where art, history, and spirituality intertwine. One cannot help but be captivated by the vibrant colors and intricate patterns that have enchanted the world for centuries.

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