Chief’s Blanket, Navajo Nation (1865-1870); Warp: native handspun wool, Weft: native handspun wool and raveled wool; Gift of Rex and Pat Lucke (All images courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg)

Navajo weaving is an extraordinary tradition that spans centuries, with some of the earliest known examples appearing in the form of “chief blankets” — wearable wraps that feature simple, horizontally striped and banded designs. Earlier this month, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announces that it has received a rare and treasured example of a Navajo First Phase Chief’s Blanket from the late classic period (1865-1870). The weaving’s motif is in the terraced-style and represents the first of its kind to enter the foundation’s collection, joining two Navajo pictorial weavings that were acquired in 2019. The announcement dovetails with the foundation’s special programming in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

“The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg seek to tell a broad and inclusive story of early American culture through the study and display of objects made and used by all the peoples of what is now the United States,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Chief Curator and Vice President for Museums, Preservation, and Historic Resources, in a press release. “At the institution’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, American Indian pottery, basketry, and textiles will help us to share the contributions of indigenous peoples. This Chief’s Blanket comes as a major contribution to that effort.”

According to the foundation’s website, there were local “tributary” tribes in Williamsburg, such as the Pamunkey, Mattoponi, and Chickahominy, who were considered subjects of the crown. There were also “foreign” Indian tribes who had a nation-to-nation relationship with Great Britain, such as the Shawnee and Cherokee — these would dispatch diplomats to Williamsburg to discuss treaties with the Royal government of Virginia.

As holidays like Thanksgiving remind us, our country’s thriving indigenous populations were forced to assimilate by invading Europeans on their own land; enduring bio-warfare; exploitative treaties that continue to be violated; a practice of forced sterilization that continued into the 1970s; and a literal parade of other horrors. In the Virginia territory, the saga of settler relations with Powhatan Indian tribe has been romanticized by retelling, including two error-fraught Disney movies, but includes the 1693 founding of the College of William and Mary with the specific mission of teaching American Indians and clergy.

Chief’s Blanket, Navajo Nation, (1865-1870) (detail view)

The blanket was donated by Rex and Pat Lucke, American folk art enthusiasts who began collecting antiques, folk art, and other artifacts in the early 1970s. The pair became interested in Navajo weavings while visiting an American Indian arts gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, and bought the chief blanket there. (The foundation was unable to provide provenance prior to the 1970s.) Like many Navajo weavings, the piece is attributed to “anonymous Navajo women” working on handlooms. The resulting works are stunning, graphic designs on blankets and rugs, simultaneously useful in daily living and a tribute to longstanding Navajo cultural and artistic traditions.

“This chief’s blanket is a beautiful specimen of weaving,” said Kimberly Smith Ivey, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of textiles. “It’s finely woven, and the blanket itself feels almost like silk. The beautiful deep indigo blue stripes are hard to capture in a photograph, but are stunning in natural light.” The one-panel weaving is produced in native hand-spun wool and raveled wool in salmon (aniline dye), blue (indigo dye), and the natural wool colors of brown and white.

Pictorial Weaving [Horses, Cows, Eagles, and Chicken Serape], the Navajo Nation (1875-1885), Native handspun wool with undyed natural shades and aniline dyes; The Lucke Collection

The work is not yet on display, but Navajo Weavings: Adapting Tradition, a new exhibition that opened in September, can be seen at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum through December 2022. The small exhibition features six other weavings on loan from the Lucke Collection, none of which have been displayed at Colonial Williamsburg before.

In a 2013 article for Salon, Andrew O’Hehir observes: “Over the last three decades, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a nonprofit originally envisioned and endowed by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s, has undergone a gradual but ambitious reinvention, fueled partly by changing cultural and social realities but also by a wealth of new historical research into the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. This conceptual reimagining, which has involved considerable collaboration with academic historians, seems to have accelerated rapidly since ‘Revolutionary City’ was first introduced in 2006.”

Perhaps greater recognition of the incredible wealth of native art and cultural practice is part of that overall effort, but we still have a ways to go if we intend to weave an accurate picture of the history of Williamsburg and its relationship to American Indians.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...