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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter XII:

PREHISTORIC COSTUME The ancient Navaho had very poor and simple clothes in contrast to their well-dressed descendants. Women wore merely a two-piece apron effect about the waist, woven from yucca fiber or cedar bark, while men wore breechcloths. For cold weather, animal skins or a woven yucca blanket were wrapped around the body. The feet and legs were protected by yucca leggings and moccasins of badger or wild-cat skin, which were soled with braided yucca.

COSTUME OF EARLY HISTORIC PERIOD At the beginning of the Navaho historical period, about 1630, they were already tanning hides, as Benavides states that the Navaho presented him with some dressed deerskins. Buckskin became the characteristic material for men's clothing until Bosque Redondo times. There seems to be no record of the Navaho women wearing buckskin dresses. When they began to weave, they discarded the primitive, yucca garments for woolen blanket dresses woven on their looms.

There are numerous descriptions of Navaho clothing of this pre-captivity period in the reports of travelers and government officials. The interested reader who wishes details regarding the manufacture of the clothes in the prehistoric and pre-captivity periods and sketches or photographs will find them easily accessible in the Ethnologic Dictionary and in Amsden's "Navaho Weaving."

Davis, a sympathetic observer of the Navaho in 1855, declared that they dressed with greater comfort than any other tribe. Letherman, who, like many army men of the time, deprecated the American idealization of the Navaho, nevertheless describes the tribe as one which lived with a certain degree of material comfort. He saw the men wearing short breeches of brownish-colored buckskin or red baize (bayeta), closely fitting, and buttoned at the knee. Davis noted that the outer seams of the breeches were decorated with brass and silver buttons. The buckskin moccasins and leggings of dyed deerskin were also adorned with buttons. Blue leggings were held up with fancy woven garters of red.

The men made their own clothes and also knitted their own blue legging stocks, as did the Hopi men. The Navaho man made a skirt from a small blanket or a piece of red baize with a hole in it through which to slip the head. He fastened a strip of red cloth over the shoulders to form sleeves, then he sewed up the sides of the garment to the arm holes, and fitted the shirt more closely about his body with a leather belt heavily ornamented with silver discs. The shirt came below the small of the back and covered the abdomen in front.

Necklaces, bracelets, buttons, and earrings of shell, silver, brass, and coral added other colorful touches to the brown and red ensemble of the Navaho man. The buckskin was sometimes ornamented with embroidery of porcupine quills and beads. The Navaho did not do much of this work themselves; they obtained it by barter from the Utes. The embroidery was highly prized among the Navaho. For a coat, the versatile native blanket, either with stripes or a diamond design of indigo blue, bayeta red, black and white, was indispensable. The elaborate clothing of the Navaho warrior has been described in the section on War.

The native woolen dress of the Navaho women is very interesting. It was discarded after the return from Bosque Redondo, and now such a dress is a valuable museum piece. Amsden (p.97) states that it was "one of the most characteristically and completely native products of the Navaho loom, the more so for the fact that unlike many Navaho textiles, it was used only by the tribe that made it." He goes on to relate that it was copied from the Pueblo women, who were wearing a similar type of dress in cotton when the early Spanish explorers entered the Southwest .

The Navaho did not copy the Pueblo dress exactly; they wove two small blankets instead of one, as did the Pueblo weaver. The two pieces were fastened over the shoulders and sewed together from under the arms almost to the hem, which came just above the ankle. (The Pueblo Women exposed one shoulder as they fastened only a single shoulder seam.) At first the body of the Navaho dress was in black or blue, and bordered and tasseled in blue, with alternating stripes of black and blue at the top and bottom. This somber and dignified garment became very gorgeous when red bayeta was introduced. Stripes of red were added to the black and blue, and the women wove small, geometrical designs of dark color into the brilliant red background. A rod woolen sash, which might be ornamented with silver discs and other jewelry, held the dress around the waist. (See Plate VI, p.80.)

With this dress the women wore leggings of the kind still to be seen of dyed buckskin, the skin being wrapped around the leg from ankle to knee and adorned with flashing silver buttons. They wore many necklaces and bracelets like the men; but until modern times one did not see a married woman with earrings. The Navaho told Stephen (1893:356) that when girls married they took off their earrings and added them to their necklaces, because otherwise their husbands, when angry, might tear the earrings out of the ears. This may be only a story; yet, knowing the family and clan organization of the tribe, one's sympathies incline toward the man when his domestic discipline had its inevitable repercussions in his wife's family.

Both sexes wore their long hair in a fashion which is still maintained: it is bound up in an hour glass shape at the back of the head and tied with some woolen string. The hair is kept neat and shining with a small whisk broom made of rushes. The men bind a bright bandana or rag about their heads, sometimes tying a feather or a Navaho jewel into it. The earrings are sometimes so large and heavy that they jerk the ears painfully as the owner travels at his customary, break-neck speed across the desert; generally, therefore, they are turned up over the ears.

AFTER BOSQUE REDONDO When American forts were established in Navaho territory before 1863, the wealthy tribesmen who came in contact with the military officers began to wear coats and pantaloons of American style. Then Bosque Redondo experience definitely changed the styles and materials of clothing for the whole tribe. The buckskins and woolens continued to be worn as late as 1890, but more and more they were reserved for fiestas and chants, while cotton clothing made like the garments of the Americans and the Spanish became the popular fashion.

The tribe had always preferred to trade their blankets for the buckskin tanned by the Utes; now, with the boom period of weaving under the direction of traders in full swing, the blankets were sold at the trading posts for cash or in exchange for cloth from American factories. The women devoted their time to filling orders for blankets, and bought material, instead of weaving it as formerly, for their own dresses.

Whatever the Navaho have learned from the Americans, Spanish, or neighboring Indian tribes, they have transformed in terms of their own personality. The women made over the plain Pueblo dress into a two-piece garment fastened on both shoulders, which was then decorated with hanging strands of silver, shell, and coral beads. The simple weave was individualized with balanced lines of red, black, and blue. Similarly, the Navaho women re-created the gown with a full skirt and tight bodice, which was the fashion among Europeans and Americans of the middle nineteenth century, and made it into a style that is now characteristic of them.

PLATE VI. NAVAHO WOMAN'S NATIVE DRESS (Amsden, "Navaho Weavings").

The voluminous, flounced skirts of bright calico, which Reichard (1928) describes; have a width of twelve to fifteen yards. To make the skirt even wider, ruffles are gathered to the foundation with contrasting stripes of material. The skirt is ankle length, and ripples and flares gracefully as the woman walks or rides horseback. With it a brightly colored, velvet blouse is worn. This blouse has a snugly fitting bodice fastened with silver buttons or coins, and extends below the waist, where it is slashed at both sides. Moccasins of dyed buckskins and leggings decorated with silver and brass buttons are frequently worn even today, although American shoes are taking their place. The bright clothing makes a striking background for the necklaces of silver and turquoise, and the strands of coral, shell, and glass beads.

The costume of the men is equally colorful and picturesque: cotton breeches, slit along the calf in the fashion of a Spanish caballero; a long velvet or calico tunic, which resembles the blouses of the women; quantities of necklaces, rings, conchas, bracelets, and buttons; and a brightly colored headband as the ensemble's distinguishing feature. Many men, however, now prefer Americans jeans and broad-brimmed sombreros. In winter, both men and women wear a gaudy Pendleton blanket about the shoulders, and, for traveling, overshoes made from gunnysacks or animal pelts.

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