Antique Navajo Yei Blanket
AGE: circa 1896-1910
In the paragraphs to follow I have woven together a personal communication with Chris Wetherhill along with excerpts from a few key online articles concerning early sand painting inspired Navajo Yei weavings or blankets.
“The first sand-painting rug was woven in Chaco Canyon in 1896 at the request of a gentleman on the Wetherill Expedition (Wheat 1976: 48). In 1897, Richard Wetherill had another rug woven that remained in the family's possession until at least 1913. The fate of these early rugs is unknown. Two sandpaintings, one in Chaco Canyon and one in Two Grey Hills, were made in 1904, and several rugs were also made at Newcomb's Trading Post in 1903 and again between 1906 and 1911. No information is available on these rugs, but stories persist regarding the commotion they caused - supposedly resulting in the cessation of production of sand-painting tapestries for a number of years, except for the "great flood of so-called yei and yeibichai blankets" (Wyman, 1983: 264).”
This antique Yei weaving is a large blanket made from Merino wool. Quoting Chris Wetherhill from his online article, “Astronomical Imagery in Navajo Weaving”; “The use of the diamond to represent a star is most clearly seen in weavings based on sand paintings used in the Little Star and Great Star Chant ways. (The former commemorates the unnamed stars and cures problems caused by star-gazing or night illness; the latter is based on the bright named stars and is one of the major religious ceremonies used to dispel sickness.) There the diamond often occupies a central position in the design. It's usually outlined with hatchmarks representing starlight or it can be filled with multi-colored small dots representing more stars.”
Looking at this blanket: I see two stars metaphorically coming down through a ‘wobbling symbol’ to deposit two rather linear ‘corn gods’ or creatures marching towards the observer. These ‘marching gods’ flank an even larger and more decorated central figure wearing an elaborate head dress, shaped like a cross, and waving even more arms. Some observers might see the idealized image of a corn plant. I don’t think many people would see this blanket the way that I do but most seem to sense that something is coming towards them that they do not understand.
I don’t know if my publishing this blanket will bring more to the surface but let me say that I believe this to be the first early sand painting inspired Yei weaving to come to light since the first decade of the 20th century.
Quoting a correspondence to and from Chris Wetherhill:
Chris: Do you think you would be able to identify the first Yei Navajo blanket given to Marietta Wetherill, literally to get rid of it because of the uproar it caused, by her brother in law around the turn of the century? I believe I may have that particular Yei weaving! If this interests you we can proceed with a technical analysis of the weaving.
Chris Wetherhill responded'
“From my general knowledge of Navajo weaving I can say your piece looks to be of the correct era: the existence of a border puts it after about 1895 (and probably not by very much because the border is so simple); the red (faded to a nice rose) is so characteristic of the aniline red dye used during that period around the turn of the century and up thru the 1920's; the variegated grey background is also characteristic of that period (though of a wider span of time); and the general design is simple enough overall to also place it during the period before traders had a big influence on weaving -- the design clearly shows the
influence of sand-paintings, which is something rare until about two decades later.
So all in all, and without touching the work or seeing it up close, I'd say it probably dates from about the right period, though it could also have been made as late as the 1920's. At the very least is appears to
be a fairly unique piece. I've never seen one quite like it in any museum, book, collection, etc. And the pictures give the impression that it's in really good shape, considering the age.
Do you have the technical know-how to determine what the warp is made of, whether the weft is handspun or plyed yarn, what the warp and weft counts are, etc.? If so, I'd love to know those details.
At any rate, thanks for taking the time to send along the pictures. I'm sorry I couldn't solve your puzzle, but as I'm sure you're aware it may be impossible for anyone to say for sure what your weave's history
is. If it's not too much trouble, keep me informed of any progress you make.
I have owned this GREAT Yei rug for many years and feel confident enough now to say that this is one of the first commissioned Yei weavings. These large blankets caused considerable political problems for the traders as it was strictly taboo to record the sacred sand painting images in any kind of durable medium.
The present offering is a supremely important Navajo Yei textile as not one of those early “taboo” Yei sand painting derived blankets is known to have survived. I date this blanket to circa 1896-1910.