Navajo Dress Panels

Woven on a loom, these dress panels are more than a century old and mark important turning points in the history of Navajo culture. The two pieces would have been tied together at the “buttonholes” along the edges, with additional ties along the top forming the neck opening. Formerly part of the Historical Society collection, these panels are now on permanent loan to the Oklahoma Judicial Center.

According to Navajo legend, weaving began when Spider Boy brought the first loom to the Navajo with a frame created from the power of the sun, lashing cords of lightning, and warp strings made of rain. In addition to its practical function, weaving is a deeply held practice reflecting the spiritual and cultural tradition of the tribe. Archeological finds indicate the inhabitants of what is now New Mexico were using looms as early as the Fourteenth Century. References to Navajo weaving appear in Vasquez De Coronado’s accounts of the Southwest in the Sixteenth Century.

The Navajo raised Churro sheep, which are recognized as the first breed of domesticated sheep in the New World. The breed is characterized by hardiness, adaptability, and the superiority of its fleece. With a long staple of protective top coat and soft undercoat, Churro are especially well-suited for the climate extremes typical in the American Southwest. These qualities also provide the wool with versatility, making it excellent for weaving. The colors and materials found in Navajo textiles reflect the tribe’s history and interaction with other groups. In the 1700s, reds were introduced from imported cloth brought by the Spanish through Mexico. The cloth would be unraveled into threads, then re-spun with the Churro wool to make blankets.

The Nineteenth Century brought settlers with repeated raids and assaults back and forth between the Navajo and the Americans. These battles came to a head in 1864 when Colonel Kit Carson implemented a scorched earth policy, burning crops and destroying sheep and livestock. The Navajo fled to their last refuge, Canyon De Chelley, where Carson forced them to surrender. Afterwards, nearly 10,000 Navajo were marched to Bosque Redondo, a desolate area in southeastern New Mexico. An estimated 2,000 died on the 300-mile journey the Navajo call the “Long Walk.”

Over the next four years, the remaining 8,000 captured Navajo clung to survival in the Redondo internment camp. The United States government intended them to become farmers, but water was scarce and the soil was saturated with alkaline. Weaving still took place at Redondo – some families had managed to bring their sheep on the Long Walk. In addition, the government supplied commercially manufactured yarn and cloth, but the items produced were strictly functional pieces. By 1868 the government gave up on the failed farming experiment and the Navajo were returned to their homeland near the Four Corners area.

After the return, the government issued each tribal member two sheep. However, these animals were selected for meat production, not wool – their fleeces lacked the long staple protective top coat, demanding a different method of spinning. Remaining Churros became even more prized among weavers. In the 1880s, the art of Navajo weaving was again threatened, this time by the low cost of commercially produced blankets. Ironically, it was another invention of the industrial era that ultimately saved Navajo weaving: the railroad. Eastern tourists traveled through New Mexico and paid handsome prices for the hand-made pieces. The panels on display date from this time period, when Navajo weavers were transitioning from making textiles for their own use to items that could be sold to tourists.

These particular dress panels were donated to the Oklahoma Historical Society in 1945 by Nettie E. Jones. Her husband, Charles G. Jones was an early Oklahoma City area developer who opened the first flour mill in Oklahoma Territory. The dress panels were originally collected by Mrs. Jones’ brother, W.E. Wheeler. The panels are on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.