Value & Exchange

Rapheal Begay (Diné), Bluebird Backyard (Window Rock, AZ), 2020. Digital photograph. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

Blankets have long been an important source of income for Diné (Navajo) weavers. Textiles such as “Chief” blankets were key trade items in both local and intertribal networks of exchange long before they attracted the attention of settlers. In the nineteenth century, a thriving market for handcrafted souvenirs in the Southwest emerged as train tourism increased across the region. Weavers began crafting smaller blankets for these collectors, which came to be known as “Child’s” blankets, and sometimes cut larger textiles to sell to traveling tourists. Some products were designed to satisfy collector’s expectations of “authenticity,” particularly regarding Indigenous designs and styles; others incorporated novel motifs like trains, which reflected the world in which their makers lived. The work of fifth-generation master weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas (Diné), who sold her first rug when she was ten years old, reflects on this history of value and exchange. This thematic section features her set of miniature weavings representing the three so-called phases of Chief blankets—a designation imposed by Euro-American collectors and dealers. Teller Ornelas’s work highlights the ways that settler regimes of value celebrated certain kinds of textiles while neglecting the identities and skills of their makers.

In Focus

Small-format blanket Diné artist
Small-format blanket

Diné artist
Before 1910
Dyed and undyed wool
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Margaret Olivia Sage, 1909, 50 / 9263

Although often described as “Child’s” blankets by traders, these weavings were not actually intended for children. Rather, the term describes small blankets crafted specifically for the tourist market. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Diné (Navajo) weavers responded to collectors’ desires by crafting smaller pieces that could be transported easily by train and automobile.1 This blanket also appears to have been cut, since the selvedge cords that usually bind the sides of Navajo weavings are missing. It may have been cut down from a larger piece to accommodate the Child’s blanket format, perhaps even generating two or more blankets from the same weaving.

Gerald Nailor (also known as Toh-Yah, Diné), Untitled (Tourists), 1937. Gouache [on paper]. Courtsey of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bequest of Dorothy Dunn, 1992, #51404.

This particular blanket is pictured above in a painting by Diné artist Toh-Yah (Gerald Nailor) of the weaver-tourist encounter, which satirizes the spectacle that was central to the economy of southwestern tourism.2 Although Nailor’s connection to the textile is unknown (it was collected decades before he made the painting in 1937), it is possible that the blanket was a serialized style, popularly reproduced for the commercial market, or that he may have encountered a photograph of it in period publications.3 Regardless, Nailor’s painting and this Child’s blanket elucidate the double-edged nature of the tourist encounter, as revealed by this parodied depiction. 

—Tova Kadish

Fred Harvey, the Alvarado Hotel walkway with Indigenous vendors, Albuquerque, New Mexico, ca. 1930. Photograph. University of Arizona Libraries, Special Collections, Fred Harvey Collection.

  • 1

    Ann Lane Hedlund, “‘More of Survival Than an Art:’ Comparing Late Nineteenth and Late Twentieth-Century Lifeways and Weaving,” in Woven by the Grandmothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian, ed. Eulalie H. Bonar (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 56.

  • 2

    Leah Dilworth, Imagining Indians in the Southwest: Persistent Visions of a Primitive Past (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996). Gerald Nailor’s painting with this weaving is also featured on the cover of Jennifer McLerran’s A New Deal for Native Art: Indian Arts and Federal Policy, 1933–1943 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009).

  • 3

    This weaving was published in two period publications: “Navajo Blankets,” American Indian Art Magazine 10 (1910); and George Wharton James, Indian Blankets and their Makers (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1927).

Train pictorial weaving Diné artist
Train pictorial weaving

Diné artist
Dyed and undyed wool, tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Margaret McKelvy Bird, purchased ca. 1883, 50.2 / 6706

In the late nineteenth century, trains held a paradoxical status for visitors to the American Southwest and for the region’s Indigenous peoples. Euro-American artists often used trains as a visual motif associated with the so-called “vanishing Indian” (see image below). The Native way of life was thought to be disrupted by the growth of white settlements, trading posts, and tourism—all of which were brought Westward by train travel. After centuries of Spanish colonization, these settler groups brought new forms of exploitation, but they also brought new economic opportunities to Native weavers.1

Frances Flora Bond Palmer, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1868. Hand-colored lithograph, published by Currier & Ives, New York. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Kathy and Ted Fernberger, 2009-215-2.

One way that Diné (Navajo) weavers asserted their power over these new technologies was to incorporate them as motifs into their art production—unsettling touristic desires at the same time that they catered to and profited from them. The fact that this small, collectible Child’s blanket was purchased in 1883 demonstrates how quickly weavers responded to these changes—the railroad had only arrived in Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, in the late 1870s.2 Additionally, this blanket is woven with Germantown yarn, made by an eastern mill, which may have been shipped in by rail, further reflecting the adaptability and survivance of Native communities.

The weaving of train imagery can also be understood as an autoethnographic move, in which weavers appropriated and commented on colonial motifs.3 The use of thunderbirds, a Diné symbol of strength and protection, alongside the train ascribes the meaning and force of the thunderbird to the train and vice versa. By juxtaposing these images, Diné weavers visually articulated how this technology was incorporated into Native exchange systems and asserted their own agency within it.

—Tova Kadish

  • 1

    Leah Dilworth, Imagining Indians in the Southwest: Persistent Visions of a Primitive Past (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 122.

  • 2

    Laurie D. Webster, Louise Stiver, D. Y. Begay, and Lynda Teller Pete, Navajo Textiles: The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Denver: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2017), 58

  • 3

    Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner, eds., Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds (University of California Press, 1999), 16.

Hopi embroidered robe/manta Attributed to Ahbah (Hopi)
Hopi embroidered robe/manta

Attributed to Ahbah (Hopi)
before 1910
Cotton cloth and wool yarn, warp-dominant plain weave with embroidery
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Margaret Olivia Sage, 1910, 50 / 9956

Hopi has long been the source for cotton textiles in the Pueblo Southwest. This embroidered robe, or tu’ihi, has the traditional layout, border, and cloud designs of a Hopi embroidered manta, but the normally plain white midsection has been embellished with a well-executed medley of Hopi designs atypical of this type of textile: a sun symbol, rain clouds with lightning, bars, and birds.

The addition of these Hopi decorative elements to a traditional embroidered robe suggests that this item and a few other similar examples were made for the non-Native art market. We are not aware of any early photographs of Hopi people wearing this style of embroidered robe in ceremonies, nor are they present in early museum collections made directly from Hopi families.

In 1902 artist-photographer Adam Clark Vroman photographed a Hopi embroiderer identified as “Ahbah, Kachina Blanket-Maker” with two embroidered robes nearly identical to this one. The photograph was taken in the Second Mesa village of “Sichimovi” (Sichomovi), where many of Vroman’s other Hopi photographs were made. Based on Ahbah’s slightly different placement of the added embroidery motifs, we believe that he produced at least three of these embroidered robes for the non-Native market.

—Louie Garcia (Tiwa and Piro Pueblo), fiber artist and educator, and Laurie Webster, textile scholar

Hopi ceremonial-style blankets of this type are usually bordered in black, green, and red embroidery like this example. Although they do not typically include designs in the middle register, they often do feature a wide ground of kaolin-rich, white fabric woven from homegrown and handspun cotton. This blanket, however, is woven with commercial cotton twine warps and embroidered with Germantown wool, materials that have been useful in dating this weaving to around the turn of the twentieth century, contributing to scholars’ speculations that this piece was not created for local use.1

Blankets similar to this one are used in the Sa’lako and Shalako ceremonies, practiced in two distinct Pueblo cultures—Hopi and Zuni, respectively.2 Alternatively, some scholars associate this blanket with the multiday Hopi wedding ceremony, in which brides wear white mantas that might later be embroidered.3 The blanket’s symmetrical wool embroidery features the sun, bald eagles, tricolored rain clouds with lightning, and spirit-messengers called katsinas. Katsinas make periodic visits to Hopi villages, bringing benefits to help the community live harmoniously and prosperously.

Adam Clark Vroman, Sichomovi – Kachina and blanket maker, 1895/1912. Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, SCWHR-P-001-V0552.

Likely made for the tourist market by the male weaver Ahbah (shown with this textile above), this item emphasizes the inextricable link between earthly life and that of the other-than-human realm.4 Many textiles like this one were appealing to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors because they appeared to include sacred imagery. This fact was also well understood by many Indigenous weavers who were attuned to market demands. Collectors of Pueblo art and material culture might also have encountered such textiles adorning carved katsinas available for purchase.

Zuni artist, Shalako kokko, before 1925. Courtesy School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, IAF.C6. Photo: Addison Doty.

Navajo, Hopi, and other Pueblo tribes have many distinct cultural characteristics, particularly in their respective weaving traditions, but this blanket suggests a similarity among the cultures: the pervasiveness of spirituality, for some more than others, in all aspects of living.

—Marion Cox

  • 1

    American Museum of Natural History, New York, Division of Anthropology, Collections Database, Textile Card, cat. no. 50/9956, accessed May 7, 2021,

  • 2

    The Hopi Sa’lako ceremony occurs at the end of a special Home Dance approximately every twelve years in July, completing initiation for young men. The Zuni Shalako ceremony occurs every winter and is a new-house-blessing ceremony. Peter M. Whiteley, email exchange with author, August 23, 2022. For more on the Sa’lako ceremony, see Barton Wright, “Kachina Images in American Art: The Way of the Doll,” in Kachinas in the Pueblo World, ed. Polly Schaafsma (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000), 147–61.

  • 3

    Kate Peck Kent, Pueblo Indian Textiles: A Living Tradition (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1983), 55–56

  • 4

    At the time that this blanket was made, all Hopi weavers were male, which still tends to be the case. Peter M. Whiteley, email exchange with author, August 23, 2022.

“Chief” blanket, Second Phase Diné artist
“Chief” blanket, Second Phase

Diné artist
After 1878
Dyed and undyed wool, tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by Uriah S. Hollister, ca. 1850s–80 (?), purchased with Jesup Fund, 50.1 / 4425

Navajo weavings such as this “Chief” blanket were embedded in local and regional networks of exchange long before settler markets had demand for them. Blankets were one of the most valuable intertribal trade items and were commonly exchanged with nearby Pueblo and Ute groups for turquoise, buffalo robes, horses, bows and arrows, and foodstuffs. The Ute served as middlemen in the complex exchange of Navajo Chief blankets, trading them to Plains bands who incorporated them into local cultural practices. For instance, some Lakota women embroidered the blankets with quillwork (see blanket below) while Cheyenne and Arapaho men gifted them to their wives as regalia.1 The introduction of colonial middlemen (primarily traders and trading posts) in the early 1870s gave a new form to a familiar concept: Diné (Navajo) weavers were already accustomed to crafting items for a consumer-driven market.

Diné artist, first-phase “Chief” blanket with embellishments by Sicangu Lakota users, ca. 1840–1850. Wool yarn, dye, German silver (“nickel silver”/copper-nickel alloy), brass, hide thong/babiche, porcupine quills, horsehair, and metal cones. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 20/1339.

Uriah S. Hollister, the army general and noted collector of Navajo weavings who acquired this blanket, claimed that it was produced in 1850. If correct, that date would place this piece in the “Second Phase” (ca. 1830–70s) of the perceived progression of Chief blanket designs, in which weavers experimented with blocks of color, such as the red rectangles seen here.2 Chemical analysis of the yarn, however, indicates that the red dye used was synthetic and not manufactured before 1878. Hollister’s misinformation may reflect a common desire on the part of collectors to find older, “authentic” Navajo blankets, crafted without colonial influence. Later weaving styles were seen by some collectors as overly commoditized and considered to be less valuable.3 This Second Phase blanket is possibly a deliberate revival of the style to meet this appetite, demonstrating Diné weavers’ continually adept responses to an ever-shifting marketplace.

—Tova Kadish

  • 1

    Roshii Montano and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, “Blanketing the Plains: Hanoolchaadi in Indian Country,” First American Art 14 (2017): 24.

  • 2

    Barbara Teller Ornelas, Chief Blankets: Phase One; Phase Two; Phase Three, Southwest: Economics, Native American Art Teacher Resources, Hood Museum of Art,

  • 3

    Joe Ben Wheat, Blanket Weaving in the Southwest, ed. Ann Lane Hedlund (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), 79, 136.

Contemporary Chief Set (Three Miniatures) Barbara Teller Ornelas (Diné)
Contemporary Chief Set (Three Miniatures)

Barbara Teller Ornelas (Diné, b. 1954)
ca. 2005
Commercially processed, aniline-dyed Merino wool, respun by the artist; red, blue, and black, 90 threads per inch; white, 80 threads per inch
Collection of Sue Bury, courtesy Toh-Atin Gallery, Durango, Colorado

Over my forty-five-plus years of being a professional weaver, I have seen many different museum weaving collections. I get very inspired by them. Once, in 1999, I took my children to visit an exhibition of old Navajo weavings at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. They were arranged to show the three phases of weaving that collectors use to categorize our artforms. But I noticed: no names, no histories, just dates, sizes, and materials.

Who were these weavers? Where did they live? Were they some of the ones who were captured and sent to Bosque Redondo? Did they survive because of their weavings?

So I started telling my children about the weavers, imagining who they might have been, and I made up this story about a mom with two young children. She wakes up very early, walks to the cliffs to say her morning prayers, gets water from the well and feeds her small lambs. She comes back to her hogan to make breakfast for her family, making sure they are in balance for the day. She sits in front of her loom. With her kids by her side, she starts to sing her weaving songs. When she feels in balance, she starts to weave. The kids are hearing the thump of the comb against the warps. She tells them, that’s the sound of your family’s heartbeat. When you learn to weave, you will carry your family’s heartbeat forward. The sounds of her singing and weaving bring harmony to their lives and home.
As we were leaving, I asked: How many weavings are on display? They told me seventy-five. Seventy-five silent weavers. I thought of my great grandmother, my two grandmothers, my mom, my two aunts, my sisters, my daughter, my son, and my granddaughter. I thought of how their names are now attached to their work and people know their history. We’ve come a long way and it’s been a long struggle. But it’s wonderful to be a part of the change.

So, in honor of them:
We Will Be Silent No More!

—Barbara Teller Ornelas (Diné), fifth-generation textile artist

Barbara Teller Ornelas’s set of miniature tapestry weavings re-creates the three “phases” of Chief blankets as designated by Euro-American collectors. Historically, each phase points to a progression of different colors, patterns, and designs in these banded blankets. According to collectors, the three phases trace the transformation of Diné (Navajo) weavers’ own ideas and practices, a change that corresponds to Diné participation in larger-scale interregional commercial markets.1

Blankets were, and continue to be, an important source of income for women weavers. Over time, Chief blankets in particular became highly valued and often fetishized by collectors. The unintended consequence of this trend is that works often went uncredited or were valued only in as much as they represented “authentic” Diné culture. Works from earlier phases were often claimed by dealers and collectors to be superior in quality, materials, and technique; their social value and internal use seemed to lend them an aura of rarity and nostalgia.2 There is also a long history of intertribal trade for Chief blankets, revealing their significance and value as trade items both within and beyond the Southwest.

In addition to requiring immense skill to produce, this set could also serve as a commentary on the ways in which Diné weavings have been perceived as authorless—positioned as valuable cultural belongings and highly prized tourist/collector commodities rather than as works by individual artists. Their small size recalls the miniaturization so common in the souvenir arts, where cultural items are often reproduced as collectable curios that can be transported back home with ease (a process that is also evidenced by the two Child’s blankets in this section. Through an expertly crafted rendering of a classic weaving style, Ornelas’s set of miniatures confronts these differing, and sometimes conflicting, regimes of value to reveal their cultural legacy and contemporary vibrancy.

—Tova Kadish

Artist Bio

Barbara Teller Ornelas (Diné)

Barbara Teller Ornelas (Diné, b. 1954) is a fifth-generation master Navajo weaver and culture bearer, who sold her first rug when she was only ten years old. Her father, Sam Teller (1918–2000), was a Diné (Navajo) trader for thirty-two years and her mother, Ruth Teller (1928–2014), was a weaver, gardener, quilter, and photographer. When Ornelas was ten, her paternal grandmother dreamt that her granddaughter would become a great weaver who shared their traditions around the world. Fifty-six years later, Ornelas has not only honed her artistry as a Two Grey Hills weaver but shared it with audiences internationally in the form of workshops, lectures, and exhibitions.

Craft in America. Barbara Teller Ornelas on weaving. Video, 2016. Archival courtesy of Arizona State Museum/University of Arizona/Helga Teiwes, Barbara Teller Ornelas, Lynda Teller Pete, Library of Congress. Accessed April 29, 2020.
  • 1

    Laurie D. Webster, Louise Stiver, D. Y. Begay, and Lynda Teller Pete, Navajo Textiles: The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Denver: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2017), 57–61.

  • 2

    Joe Ben Wheat, Blanket Weaving in the Southwest, ed. Ann Lane Hedlund (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), 79.

Learn More

Navajo Weaving and the Art Market
Navajo Weaving and the Art Market

Rug room at Toh-Atin Gallery. Courtesy of H. Jackson Clark II, Toh-Atin Gallery, Durango, Colorado.

Interview with Jackson Clark

Hear an interview with Jackson Clark, owner of Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, Colorado. Shaped by the Loom’s curator, Hadley Jensen, speaks with him about the art market, histories of Navajo weaving, and what he values most about his work with Native artists.