The History of Navojo Chief Blankets

Blanket Photos & Article by DR. LEONA ZASTROW

For this issue, the man’s issue, Alena asked me to write about Chief Blankets. She thought that these blankets were woven for Navajo men; they were not. There are no chief’s in Navajo history and in their current government system.


Toadlena Trading Post Owner Mark Winter modeling an 1860s Classic Navajo Chief's blanket. Photo by Linda Winter.

Since the 1800’s Navajo women wove Chief blankets. Often, they were used x trading with Plains Sioux people who did have Chiefs. Many times, these blankets were given as gifts to honor people who contributed to the Dine nation or other Indian tribes or organizations. A modern day examples of honoring is the Chief Joseph blanket which was given to me by a Navajo school board for assisting them in changing their educational system, 1980.

Early traders such as J.L. Hubbell sold these blankets, 1900. The Navajo people called them “hanoolchaadi," not Chief Blankets. Traders coined the term Chief Blankets.

These blankets were woven during the Navajo Classic period, which was prior to 1863.

There were three distinct styles of these blankets. Phase 1 was a blanket woven with simple horizontal brown, blue & red stripes. Phase 2 blankets continued with horizontal stripes but added rectangular shapes to the design.  Phase 3 blankets had horizontal stripes and various versions of triangular shapes in the center and in the corners.

Several years ago, I prepared a donation appraisal of two Chief blankets for a woman who donated them to Colorado State University. Previously, both blankets were exhibited by the Fort Collins Historical Society and by the Colorado State University Art Museum. Both blankets were variants of the Phase 3 style. The first blanket has horizontal stripes and variants of triangular designs. It was woven from wool. Dyes were used to color the wool. The colors of the stripes were maroon, tan or cream, blue, and black or brown. Outlining the black/brown stripes were white stripes. The center design was two checkerboard triangular images. Similar checkerboard triangular designs were added to the four corners. The size of this blanket was 71” x 54”, the width was greater than the height.

The second variant blanket horizontal stripes were cream and black or brown stripes and narrow red stripes on the center and near the ends. Vertical red, black & white eye dazzler stripes (serrated diamonds or triangles) were in the center of the blanket and on the sides. This blanket was larger than the first one. It measured 80.5” x 48.5”.

Sources for more information about the history and styles of Chief blankets are the following: Southwest Textiles, Weaving of the Navajo and Pueblos by Kathleen Whitaker. The Durango Collection: Southwest, 1860-1880, Fort Lewis College, the Center of Southwest Studies. Since this issue is dedicated to men, one notable Indian trader (1878) who owned one of the earliest trading post was J.L. Hubell. He bought Navajo rugs, baskets and jewelry. Often, these items were traded and bartered for food and other household items.

Today, his Ganado, Arizona, trading post is part of the National Park association. Visit and view the Navajo past history of bartering and trading. Purchase Navajo art items. By purchasing them, your are supporting Navajo artists who continue the history of Navajo weaving. You could find a modern “Chief’s blanket”. www.hubbelltradingpost.org

If you enjoyed this article, see:
Treasured Lincoln Canes – a Living Spirit of New Mexico’s Tribes.
A Primer on New Mexico’s Native American Pueblo Dances and Feast Days
A Word on Etiquette at Native American Pueblo Events

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