Although their name is unknown, a Navajo weaver made this wearing blanket between 1860 and 1865. The School for Advanced Research acquired it in 1931, and it’s in the collection of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center (IARC).
“This piece was originally given to [Orville Hickman] Browning, who was Secretary of the Interior from 1866 to 1869. It was common back then for tribal delegations to give gifts to the Secretary of the Interior when they came to Washington,” says Jennifer Day, IARC’s head registrar.
The maker used a plain weave with a warp of 16 threads per inch and a weft of 86 threads per inch to create the 81-by 58-inch blanket. Its chemically dyed cotton and wool Germantown yarns were first used by Navajo weavers during their imprisonment at Bosque Redondo after the Long Walk. Although the weaving dates to the same time period, Day says she has not found evidence of where it was made. The various geometric shapes, including triangles and diamonds, may have symbolic meanings, but Day didn’t want to speculate on what they might be, explaining that in Navajo weaving, such specifics are personal to individual weavers. One edge of the blanket is pulled and stretched, indicating that someone wore it for a time before giving it to Browning.
Day says there is more documentation of the blanket’s history than for most of the textiles in IARC’s collection — at least since it left the Navajo community. SAR purchased it from Ida B. Railey, who received it as a gift from her aunt Elizabeth O’Bannon Price, who inherited it from Browning, her uncle. Although SAR no longer purchases objects from private collections, Day says SAR obtained many items this way during The Great Depression.
“That’s probably how this came into our collection — through somebody else’s economic need.”