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The Trading Posts and the Navajo Rug

The development of the “Navajo Rug” as we have come to understand it today, was inextricably tied up with the emergence of Trading Posts both in and around the area of the Navajo Reservation. The major source for all of the subsequent artistic and technical innovation in Navajo weaving is to be found in the American Trading Post.

The Crystal Trading Post
Inside the Crystal Trading Post, effectively a fortified compound. c. 1880s.

In the previous post on “What is a Navajo Rug” we learned that originally there was no such thing as a true Navajo Rug. Instead, the Navajo, who were relatively newcomers to the region, had adopted weaving techniques from the indigenous Pueblo Indians, had incorporated wool into their weavings with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1600s, but had only woven blankets and these only in simple stripe patterns, usually limited to un-dyed wool of white, grey, black and brown. The first dyed color to be introduced into Navajo weaving was blue, from indigo brought by the Spanish.

During the mid-1800s a few intrepid frontiersmen set up trading posts in Navajo country. At this time the region around the “four corners” where the States of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet, was the real Wild West with a wide array of unruly Indian tribes continually raiding each other, but also with an increased Spanish presence. The Spanish had put down roots in Santa Fe in 1600 AD and, although they had been in the region for some time they had been pushed back to some degree and most certainly didn’t exercise control.

The Trading Posts were one of the first manifestations of the new Anglo influence coming in from the east. Ultimately, they were the first step taken towards a seemingly unavoidable clash with Spanish Mexico. But for now the trading posts were little more than innocuous structures set up beyond the desert frontier, far away from any assistance.

Navajo Reservation Trading Posts
The Trading Posts and the Navajo Reservation

The people who established these Trading Posts were hardy, driven and industrious. Perhaps no better example may be given than Hambleton Noel, who deciding to establish a trading post at Teec Nos Pos, where others had failed before, having been driven away by the Indians. Noel first had to prove his skills with his Remington before a conference of a few hundred Indians decided that he was allowed to stay on account of his courage. Not a job for the faint-hearted!

A Legislative Bill dating back to the time of Washington had laid out terms for trading with the Indian population. The prospective traders had to front a $10000 bond, had to be United States citizens, and were prohibited from selling guns and ammunition and alcohol (although these could easily be obtained off the Reservation). So establishing a Trading Post in these unforgiving lands was a serious commitment.

Despite these obstacles by 1900 there were close to 100 Trading Posts. The Trading Posts thrived as, first the arrival of the train brought a new and inquisitive crowd of tourists, and then the car brought a steady stream. Indigenous Indian products were highly desired items and trade was brisk. Today, these Trading Posts are diminished in numbers.

A few individuals should be noted for playing an important role in the development of the “Navajo Rug”.

Juan Lorenzo Hubbell established his post at Ganado, Arizona. Hubbell was committed to reproducing the authentic Indian blankets, made in a loose weave, in stripes but also incorporating crosses and serrated-diamonds (Spanish influence) against a deep red background - what would become known as the classic “Ganado Red”. Hubbell used red dye to great effect by dying yarn twice in aniline red. Hubbell was the first entrepreneur to offer a more heavily woven rug using Navajo designs. He also was the only trader to focus on large area rugs. His success led to him owning fifty trading posts at one time.

Juan Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado Trading Post
Hubbell inspecting weavings at the Ganado Trading Post
Ganado Red
The Famous Ganado Red
Ganado N-01 by Southwest Looms
Ganado N-1A by Southwest Looms

Hubbell, in spite of his respect for the integrity of traditional Indian weaving, was not averse to using foreign materials in order to make business. With the opening of the train line from the east to Santa Fe, new machine spun yarns could be brought in to provide a superior four-ply weave. A lot of this yarn came from the Germantown area of Pennsylvania. This particular “Germantown” rug was made to order by Hubbell for a private client and is now available as a reproduction through Southwest Looms.

Original Germantown Rug
Original “Germantown Rug”
Germantown Rug by Southwest Looms
Germantown N-4A by Southwest Looms

Hubbell took the unusual approach of having the designs painted and hung on a wall for the weaver to follow as a template. It is of interest that this is precisely what the Persian traders in Tabriz did when they drew designs to be copied by the Turks of Northeastern Azerbaijan to the east. The result was the Heriz Rug, one of the most collectible Persian rugs of our time.

Tabriz and Heriz Rug Designs
Tabriz transformed into Heriz

Another significant figure note was J.B. Moore of the Crystal Trading Post in New Mexico. Moore was a traditionalist and played with the authentic color-palette of un-dyed wools. Many of Moore’s designs came out of his imagination and he is credited with providing the inspiration for the Two Grey Hills, the Teec Nos Pos and the Storm designs.

J.B. Moore at the Crystal Trading Post in New Mexico
Moore at Crystal Trading Post

The Two Grey Hills trading post has become synonymous with the rug of that name. During a more mature phase of trading post history the local weavers made a marked return at Two Grey Hills to traditional woolen color palettes, grey, white and brown wool with black being the only dye used. The Two Grey Hill rugs features geometric crystalline groupings that may also be seen in the Crystal Rug.

Two Grey Hills Antique Rug Two Grey Hills by Southwest Looms
Two Grey Hills. Original and N-2 Reproduction by Southwest Looms

Moore’s designs tend to have more details than seen elsewhere. Many see an association with Caucasian rug designs and sometimes this is difficult to ignore.

Traditional Crystal Rug
Traditional Crystal Rug
Crystal Rug by Southwest Looms
Southwest looms has also made a Crystal rug design (N-10)

As noted above, at one stage there were close to 100 Trading Posts, far too many to examine. For our purposes it has been enough to review a few of the more well known posts that have played a major role in the promulgation and expansion of Navajo Rugs. Some are very simple designs but in yellow colors, like the rug named for the Trading Post Wide Ruins.

Antique Wide Ruins Wide Ruins by Southwest Looms
Antique Wide Ruins and Wide Ruins N-14 by Southwest Looms

Another intriguing type of Navajo Rug is the so-called ‘Yei” rug, often mistakenly referred to as “Corn People”. These figurative designs were made at numerous Trading Posts, such as Shiprock and Lukachukai, but have their origins in Navajo sand-drawings. Sand-drawings were sacred and their depiction of “Yei” (figures in the spirit world) made them even more so. At first there was a degree of consternation among the Navajo about making these drawings as utilitarian products, but it remains a little discussed subject.

Yei Rug
Yei Rug

So the long and the short of it is that there is not really any such thing as an authentic Navajo rug. A Navajo rug is a hybridization of many different factors - Pueblo weaving; Spanish indigo; red bayeta; Spanish serrated diamonds and cross motifs; American trading posts; machine spun yarn; Caucasian rug designs, and so on. Today, we at Southwest Looms are continuing this tradition by making reproductions of these wonderful weavings.