Patterns of Exchange: Navajo Weavers and Traders. By Teresa J. Wilkins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, May 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0806137575, $34.95. 231 pages.
Review by Robin O’Brian, Elmira College
from SJC post 2 (10/13/08)
In Patterns of Exchange, Teresa J. Wilkins documents the long and vexed interrelationship between Navajo or Diné weavers and the non-Native traders with whom they have long done business. The work explores in detail the roles that traders played in shaping and developing the commercial Navajo rug trade and thus adds to ongoing theorizing about the nature of “authenticity” and craft production.Wilkins begins with a brief history of Navajo weaving. Accounts differ, but Navajo likely acquired weaving knowledge from their Hopi and other Pueblo neighbors. Weaving has become sufficiently central to Navajo identity that weavers say that the spider gave Changing Woman the ability to weave as a gift and that Navajos have woven ever since.While there had long been a small trade in Native American crafts items, the role of non-Navajo trading posts shaped and expanded the trade in the late nineteenth century. J. L. Hubbell and Clinton Cotton were particularly influential. An 1868 treaty following the Navajo Long Walk by several years mandated rations of food, farm equipment, clothing and weaving implements to Navajos, and many certainly accepted some of these items. The reservation trading posts encouraged the trade of Navajo wool for food and other goods, and by the mid-1870s hundreds of thousands of pounds of Navajo wool was shipped east each year for commercial textile production. The posts also functioned as a form of economic assimilation, “an opportunity to usher Navajo people into a capitalist economy.” By the 1880s Navajos were bartering hides, pelts, wool, and blankets, and the way trade functioned began to change.J. L. Hubbell had acquired a store in Ganado, Arizona, and he took on Clinton Cotton as his partner. Cotton sought to market Navajo products, including piñon nuts and Navajo blankets, even as he and Hubbell continued their active wool trade. Cotton, and later Hubbell, encouraged the use of Navajo blankets in U.S. homes, especially as rugs, and eventually began to suggest designs for weavers to produce. By the mid- to late-1890s Hubbell was using small paintings to provide weavers with examples of designs to copy, and Cotton began a mail-order catalog specializing in Navajo products.The marketing strategies of Cotton, Hubbell, and others intersected with the rise of industrial capitalism and a growing upper-middle-class anxious about the changes in their way of life. Some of this anxiety expressed itself in an anti-modernist sentiment that prized the objects produced by crafters like Navajos. Wilkins points out the irony of seeking the “real” and “authentic” through the consumption of crafts objects, a pattern that only reinforces and intensifies class-based consumer society.Still, demand grew and traders sought to meet it. John Moore, whose first catalog appeared in 1903, described items in terms of their natural origins and so-called “primitive” production. He often described objects as sacred to increase their perceived value, noting that such items were rarely available to outsiders. Moore increased his control over weavers by arranging a specialized production system where some women specialized in spinning and others in weaving. Moore introduced and encouraged adoption of designs drawn from other sources, particularly those used in Oriental rugs. Moore emphasized the “authenticity” and “naturalness” of such items, qualities that collectors of ethnic textiles still seek and value today.Hubbell’s small blanket paintings had a similar role in the rise of the Navajo craft market. The paintings likely served several purposes. As a trader, Hubbell probably used the paintings as examples of possible available blankets. The paintings also provided models of what Hubbell wanted copied. But while early accounts tended to emphasize the role of traders in the development of blanket designs, Wilkins examines the weavers’ own experiences. Unlike traders, Navajos remained deeply embedded in a web of relations and obligations. And while some weavers did produce close copies, many others modified designs and colors, both as an assertion of autonomy and as a means of avoiding the risks that could come with appropriating another weaver’s work.Navajos extend the tension between individual agency and cooperation to their understandings of the creation of the world, when First Man created this world: its animals and plants, its land, the Navajos, their ideas and way of life, exist through the action of his thoughts. In much the same way, weavers create their weaving designs, bringing them to life through their own thoughts and actions. Thinking as both a process and an action can affect what it creates. Weavers may leave a design in an item open—closed designs can close up thinking and action in one’s life, as well.Further, weavers with their looms create persons in the form of blankets or rugs. The original loom given to the First People by Spider Woman was created from the elements of life, and looms are themselves alive. Weavers use their living looms and their own thoughts and actions to create their works, sometimes guided by the loom itself. Said one weaver, “I can’t force it. The loom has to communicate what it wants me to do.” Weavers feel a sense of communication with the rugs they make and “feel” them in the trading post or traveling the world. The complexity of the rug-weaver relationship shapes weavers’ understandings of copying designs.And what of trading relations themselves? Navajos have ideal expectations of what they want from traders, framed in values about helping. Traders can help by buying all rugs offered for sale. They should not overcharge customers. They should extend credit for unfinished rugs, and when they buy a rug they should extend a small “extra,” perhaps some jewelry or sodas, as a token of the trader’s ongoing relationship with the weaver. Because Navajos consider the weaving of the rug to expand beyond its production into its purchase and circulation as a commodity, they regard the trader as a participant in the process.When weavers sell rugs to traders they have a price in mind and will use different methods to convince the trader to meet that price. A weaver may not specify the amount of work she has put into a weaving. A weaver may again invoke relationships, saying perhaps, “My son, I want this rug to cost this much.” Traders who know and respect Navajo kin obligations recognize this and say that it is almost impossible to refuse.Wilkins provides a wealth of such detail in this excellent work. Wilkins outlines the history of trading posts, the development of commercial weaving, the ways that the changing U.S. economy opened new markets for such weavings, and how weavers themselves engage with these changes. Its multi-sited approach makes it invaluable for those interested in Navajo society or more broadly in weaving or textiles as well. Well-written and generally free of jargon, it will be of interest to general readers with these interests as well as specialists.