Back at the turn of the 1900s, Navajo weavers were moving away from making the wearing blankets known throughout the Southwest. The Navajo had worn these blankets for over 100 years and traded them to other Native tribes.
As the American and Spanish cultures combined in the Southwest and trading posts appeared on the Navajo reservation, the Pendleton blanket and white man’s clothing began to replace the wearing blanket. Women started to wear dresses made of velvet obtained from the trading posts that emulated the clothing of United States military officers’ wives during the Navajo imprisonment during the civil war.
Traders from different parts of the reservation began encouraging the weavers to make heavier patterns for use as floor rugs. New patterns emerged at Ganado, Crystal, Teec Nos Pos, Two Grey Hills, and other trading areas.
But not all the weavings made were intended for the floor. Will Evans, a trader at the Shiprock Trading Company in New Mexico, was responsible for developing the Navajo Yei pattern. The images of Navajo Deities, taken from the traditional Navajo sand paintings, were put into weavings.
The patterns caught on and became a part of the development of traditional Navajo weaving. The Yei and Yeibichai (images of sacred dancers depicting the Yeis) weavings became popular and are still recognized as a category for judging at the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial.
Most of the Yei weavings were intended for floor use. South of Shiprock at Red Valley, very large Yei patterns emerged. But there was another side to the Yei. These smaller weavings, known as “samplers,” were made to sell to the newly emerging tourist industry in the Southwest. These small weavings, usually featuring one or two Yei figures, were attractive Native American handicrafts that were easy for a tourist traveling across the country by train to buy at a Fred Harvey Hotel gift shop on their trip across the West. National Park stores also carried them.
Why were they so popular? I guess most buyers had no idea they were depictions of sacred figures, but they looked “Indian.” They were a great, quality souvenir of a trip across America’s wide-open West. The Fred Harvey Company did a masterful job promoting Native crafts and helped create a new group of artists to supply their needs.
The selection of Yei Samplers we are featuring today was given to us by a Santa Fe couple that has recently downsized. (Not to worry, they kept a few!) They range in age from the 1920s through the 1930s. They are all made with hand-spun native wool dyed by the weavers using aniline dyes purchased (or given to them) by the traders.
See all Yei Weavings in the Gallery
Weavers continue to make these pieces today, but almost all are made with commercial yarns. While nothing is wrong with that, these symbolize a particular time in Navajo weaving.