During the first half of the 19th century, the Navajo chief’s blanket became an important trade item among members of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Sioux, and Ute tribes. Worn around the shoulders like large, banded shawls, Navajo chief’s blankets were expensive garments, commanding as much as one hundred buffalo hides or twenty horses in trade. The term “chief blanket” came into use because only the highest-ranking members of the Plains tribes had the resources necessary to trade for these blankets.
Chief’s blankets were woven by Navajo women, whose skill at spinning, dying, designing, and weaving woolen wearing blankets was unsurpassed. Between 1800 and 1840, Navajo chief’s blankets featured simple, horizontal striped patterns in blue, brown, and white handspun yarns. After the introduction of rectangular, target designs during the 1840s, and the subsequent introduction of concentric diamonds during the 1850s, Navajo chief’s blankets with no designs came to be known as “first phases.” Chief’s blankets with rectangular designs came to be known as “second phases,” and chief’s blankets with concentric diamonds came to be known as “third phases.”
While first phase chief’s blankets were popular among Plains Indians, 19th century Anglo-Americans preferred the more colorful and decorative second and third phases to the stark horizontal bands of the first phase. As a result of that preference, very few first phases were collected by Anglo-Americans until the late 19th century, when their beauty and rarity were more fully appreciated.
Today, the appearance of a first phase chief’s blanket is a noteworthy event. This example displays all the hallmarks of a great first phase: the weave is fine, the handle is supple, the blues exhibit depth and luminosity, the browns are variegated, and the whites present a rich, ivory tone. This blanket’s surface speaks of its age, and of its use as a treasured garment. Its colors speak of a time when complexity and decoration were of less importance than contemplation and restraint.
Joshua Baer, December, 2003