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The History of the 'Native-American' Print

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 7, 2011 07:53 AM

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This holiday season, "native" patterns and prints are all the rage: from housewares to cocktail dresses, a wide range of products are sporting Native-American-looking stripes, patterns, and colors. But where do those patterns come from, and what do they really mean? In a fascinating article at Collector's Weekly, Lisa Hix explains that the patterns have a complicated, surprising history: "the history of the Indian trade blanket," she writes, reveals centuries of artistic exchange and collaboration between Native Americans and Europeans. They aren't just 'native.'


Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, photographed with a Pendleton blanket around 1904.

Here's the short version: Many of today's 'native' patterns are drawn from Navajo blankets. Go back in time, and those blankets were influenced by 17th-century Pueblo weavers, who in turn were influenced by Spanish weavers. (The Spanish, in fact, brought sheep to the New World.) Over the intervening centuries, the Navajo and other Southwestern tribes took that tradition and made it their own, developing their own distinctive patterns and colors.

Then, in the twentieth century, white Americans entered the conversation: Pendleton Woolen Mills, which was founded in Oregon around the turn of the twentieth century, sent its head loom artisan, a man named Joe Rawnsley, to live with Native Americans so that he could design blankets specifically for the Native American market. When his early blankets were well-received, Nix writes, "the company sent him on a six-month tour of the Southwest, where he lived with Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi to find out what blanket designs those tribes would prefer. He returned with hundreds of ideas," drawn from a wide range of Native crafts. The designs freely mixed patterns, colors, and shapes from all over the Southwest.

Using new technology, the Pendleton factory could produce the blankets in new, vibrant colors. Pendleton sold them to Native tribes, which began to incorporate them into religious and cultural life, even using them in ceremonies. At the same time, it sold them to collectors back East, who thought of them as 'traditional' Native blankets -- which, in a sense, they had become. Today, many of the extremely colorful or fanciful patterns, like the ones used in Pendleton's collaboration with the fashion house Opening Ceremony, are drawn from that twentieth-century interchange between white and Native weavers.

What's the lesson? The patterns are beautiful and, yes, authentic -- but they authentically reflect a complicated, shared history, rather than a lost, original, 'traditional' Native culture. More, including many beautiful images and interesting comments, at Collector's Weekly.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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