Babies get wrapped in Pendleton trade blankets. At Native American ceremonies and giveaways, the gift of choice is usually Pendleton blankets. Pendleton blankets are given to returning veterans who have fought in American wars, and there are even aromatic cedar caskets lined with Pendleton blankets sold by Summit Ridge Custom Caskets in Mancos.
Now, after years of planning and deliberation, two of the magnificent Navajo rug designs from the Durango Collection at Fort Lewis College are available as Pendleton blankets.
I have had a Pendleton woolen vest with Native American-inspired designs, and two of my cowboy hats are Pendleton woolen crushables. Our two sons had Pendleton baby blankets in their cribs, and at a raffle, I won the Mesa Verde National Park Pendleton blanket specifically crafted for Mesa Verde’s 100th anniversary.
When I teach American history and World War II, I proudly pull out of the box the Pendleton code-talkers blanket, a rare reversible blanket with different designs on each side. I ordered it when Hogan’s department store was still downtown, and as soon as it came in, I took the blanket to campus to show it to my Native American students. As I discuss World War II and the Pacific Theatre, I ask for Navajo students in class to come up and hold the outstretched blanket, and we translate the blanket symbols into Navajo – turtle for tank and hawk for a fighter plane. A fish represented a submarine.
I use that blanket to describe the vital role Navajo code talkers played in communicating messages across the Pacific as U.S. Marines island-hopped closer to Japan. The Japanese could not decode Navajo because it was not a written language, and so the code talkers played a crucial role in military logistics. The code talker blanket represents those symbols and words. FLC students are moved by the code talker story.
Of all the Pendleton blankets given to returning Native American soldiers, the Chief Joseph’s blanket and the code talker blanket are the most popular. Families give them to their returning veterans as a symbol of honor and patriotism, so I tell the blanket’s story in class. And I’ve got a Pendleton blanket story of my own, from over four decades ago, when I hitchhiked across the Southwest during spring break.
HHHA light snow had fallen in Gallup, New Mexico, with a promise of more. I had not brought a heavy coat, so I walked into a pawnshop and found an array of Pendleton trade blankets in diverse colors and styles. I didn’t know then that the Pendleton Woolen Mills had begun with British weaver Thomas Kay who arrived in Oregon in 1863. Kay’s grandsons opened Pendleton Woolen Mills in the early 1900s to produce weavings to compete with Canadian goods, including the brightly striped Hudson’s Bay blanket. The mill began producing Native American-inspired designs like the Pendleton trade blanket. That’s what I saw on the pawn shop’s shelves.
For $25, I bought a used Pendleton, a bright-blue and red blanket with a flashy red fringe. I wrapped up in it as I stood beside the road, soon covered in snowflakes. I had no problem getting rides in the back of trucks across the Navajo reservation. Everyone smiled and laughed and became accommodating. It wasn’t until two days later headed toward Page, Arizona, when I finally landed a ride inside a truck cab.
A young grandson drove a new Ford F-150, and his grandmother sat beside him making cedar bead necklaces. As we accelerated down the highway, the grandmother said, “That’s a real pretty blanket.” She paused. Then she added, “That’s one of the finest female blankets I’ve seen.” She started to chuckle and her grandson banged the steering wheel and burst into laughter.
I had no idea that Pendleton trade blankets were gendered and that blankets with fringe were female blankets and that blankets with a flat border were male. Now, all those pointing fingers from children and the laughs as I climbed into pickup beds made sense. I had to laugh, too, and when our sons were born, I made sure we bought the right baby blankets.
HHHPendletons are as ubiquitous on the reservation as were the old-fashioned sacks of Blue Bird flour. Family-owned for six generations, the Pendleton Woolen Mills have become world famous. Today, the company operates and owns five facilities and 50 retail and outlet stores. It makes everything from sweaters to skirts, shirts, jackets, robes, shawls and my favorite – the trade blanket. So it is only right that Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, family-owned for decades, is now selling the Pendleton trade blankets made from originals owned by FLC. The designs have been reproduced from blankets, which are part of the Durango Collection donated to FLC’s Center of Southwest Studies by Richard and MaryLynn Ballantine, H. Jackson Clark and Mark Winter.
“The nice thing is that Pendleton Mills will give a percentage back to the Center of Southwest Studies. It’s a neat partnership,” Jackson Clark of Toh-Atin told me. “At powwows and giveaways, Pendletons are always the No. 1 present, but there aren’t too many with actual Navajo designs. The Mills changed the size to make the blankets perfect to fit on twin beds.” Clark said with a grin. “If Ralph Lauren had seen these designs, he would have made a lot of money with them.”
HHHThe licensing agreement with Pendleton went into effect in August 2018, and now the blankets are available for Christmas purchases. One of the blankets represents an early Navajo (Diné) sarape made between 1800 and1850 with indigo-dyed blue yarn, indigo with vegetal-dyed green and natural churro wool. The blanket reflects a Rio Grande Valley style and is subtle with fine blue lines and diamond patterns on a white background.
The second blanket is a dramatic Navajo (Diné) child’s blanket from the late Classic Period, circa 1870, which incorporates Spider Woman crosses, reds and oranges, probably from red trade cloth unraveled by hand and rewoven. There are also bold white and black stripes for a striking effect.
“These beautiful blankets make wonderful gifts, or to decorate your home. Your purchase will benefit our Southwest Native artists,” said Shelby Tisdale, director of the Center of Southwest Studies. Sale proceeds will establish a fund at FLC to bring Native American artists to campus to work with the center’s collections and to explain the values and meanings of art and artifacts.
As for the definition of a child’s blanket, Clark said: “The name is misleading as there has never been a documented photo or any writing which confirmed that Navajo children wore blankets. Ty Campbell, an expert in Navajo weaving, offers the theory that these small blankets were woven by Navajo women to be sold, perhaps to Union soldiers, as souvenirs of their time in the West. Regardless, many of these small blankets were, in quality, the equal of the classic Navajo blankets.”
Worth thousands of dollars 40 years ago, both blankets are prized possessions of FLC and representative of the unique Durango Collection with its 800 years of Southwestern weaving. For only $291.60, you can buy a replica and enjoy it as a sample of the Preservation Series of Pendleton blankets. I like that idea. The originals are preserved and protected, and the replicas are fashionable and warm. Christmas shopping this year just got a lot easier.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at [email protected]