Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Garden Plants and Native American Textiles

If you missed my last post, I've just finished decorating my sunroom and adjoining area as we head into the days of what's likely to be an Indian Summer.  I've used several collected Native American decor items, including textiles. This post is about the textiles created by the Native American people, and their use of the precious garden resources indigenous to their land which help them create their beautiful works of art.

Most folks are aware that blue jeans were originally dyed with the extracts from the indigo bush plant. Through years of tradition and experimentation, long before written recipes, people have used natural dyes for ornamentation of textiles and their bodies.  Native Americans taught early European settlers how to use plants as natural dyes. Various parts of a given plant can produce a number of colors, and additional natural materials can be added for mutations in color intensity.

Historically, the resources on the land of the Navajo people were not taken for granted. Nearly every natural resource available was used to its fullest extent, including plants as foods, herbal medicines, and natural dyes. Dyes for cottons and wools were extracted from plants indigenous to the land. The sample below is a perfect example of how Native Americans used their plants for their textiles. I purchased this framed sample at the J L Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, AZ.
As you can see from the photo of the sample above, each strand of colored yarn in the partially woven textile leads back to the plant from which its color stems.  Do you have any of these plants in your garden?

You can learn more about the use of natural dyes from plants on this excellent source from the USDA Forest Service:  Native Plant Dyes. It includes a chart of many colors and the various plant(s) that can produce those colors. The link is also embedded in the caption of the photo collage I've assembled, below.  These are the same plants as pictured in my sample above, only in their natural, growing habitat.
 USDA: Natural Plant Dyes
USDA: Charting Natural Plant Dyes to Native American Textiles
As I noted in my previous post, my husband and I traveled through parts of Navajo Territory of AZ and UT several years ago. As part of our visit through Monument Valley (UT), we took a back road grounds tour with one of the locals. What a fascinating trip, full of local, natural wonders!

As part of that chartered trip, we were invited into the home, or "hogan", of an elderly Navajo woman, who demonstrated the art of weaving a rug. This was not a contrived set in some stage; this was an actual home, a sacred place to the Native American Indian.  While many Native Americans have moved to trailers and simply constructed single story homes, there are some who still live the traditional way in hogans. This simple structure is made of mud, wood, and hay, with a doorway facing east, to ensure morning sunlight and blessings upon the home. At the center is the stove, with its exhaust pipe exiting through the apex of the ceiling of the structure, surrounded by a wooden frame and chicken wire.
Native American hogan, in Monument Valley
The elderly matrons of Native American society are honorable women, entrusted with teaching younger women homemaking traditions, among other rituals. As we entered the hogan, our hostess was sitting in front of her work in progress, rapidly combing wool with her hands. The dirt floor had hide rugs scattered throughout.  The walls were adorned with various finished textiles as examples of her work, along with numerous woven baskets.
The photo below shows the interior of the hogan walls a little better, as well as the woman's looms, hanging (dyed) woolen yarns, and raw materials strewn on the floor. Older, more traditional looms would not have the steel, supporting pipes you see here.
Though wrought with gnarly knots of arthritis, her hands still appeared nimble as she carefully threaded her weaves.
Her tools were few and simple, as she tightened each strand with a tug and a comb.
Later in our trip, while at the trading post where I purchased my sample, I was utterly amazed at the assortment of textiles on display, many of which were antiques. I remember being told a single rug could take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years to complete, depending on its size.
J L Hubbell Trading Post, Ganado, AZ
It was only after this trip, while at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, did I purchase a small book on the Navajo rug patterns.  Some patterns have become more easily identifiable and obvious to me since trying to educate myself on the various motifs (Two Grey Hills, Tec Nos Pes as just two examples). More modern textiles somewhat blur traditional patterns (and colors), and it makes it hard for me to discern most patterns. Aniline, or synthetic, dyes became available to Native Americans once the railroad systems were built in the late 19th century.  As with most crafts, there are traditionalists and there are those who prefer innovative techniques that modern technology provides.  
J L Hubbell Trading Post, Ganado, AZ
The textiles I was able to see while immersed in the culture were mostly traditional, and expensive, as one would expect of most hand-crafted items of this caliber and all in one location. However, I really wanted to be able to take home at least something small, so I carefully sifted through stacks of smaller items until I ultimately selected a runner that is now in my sunroom.
Looking for one of my own at J L Hubbell Trading Post
I like studying auction catalogs with Native American articles, as much for the education as for the interest in acquiring an item every now and then.  I have purchased a few Native American handbags, mostly created for the tourist industry in the early part of the 20th century, but I also have a couple that I've acquired through reputable auctions that were used by their original people.

If you're interested in Native American - or any other regional antiquities - but traveling to the source is not exactly within your budget, I would highly recommend finding auction houses that specialize in items that you collect or are interested in learning more about.  Many reputable auction houses allow viewing their catalogs online, where you can rely on the juried descriptions (as opposed to eBay sellers' descriptions, which are not always reliable). Many of these houses are now hosting their auctions online also, and you can get in on the action - just beware of all the buying details for things like added fees (buyer's premium, shipping, storing) - if you explore this route.

For Native American antiquities, Wes Cowan of Cowan's Auctions, in Cincinnati, OH, is an American anthropologist, auctioneer and antiques appraiser of high regard.  You may know him from his appraisals with Antiques Roadshow and appearances on television.  His specialties include Native American and Western Art, as well as other Historical Americana.  By following his website and his auction catalogs, I have invested a good amount of time learning many characteristics that denote various Native American tribe arts and crafts, in addition to what travels I've logged. You may find it a helpful resource too.

If you are also interested in Native American arts and crafts, and have additional resources you reference and like to share, please send me an email.  I'd love to hear of other notable sources.

Home Sweet Home Garden Party
We Call it Junkin' History and Home
Mrs. Olson's SYC
Gardens Galore No. 5
Met Monday

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