March 2008

March 2008 already and here’s a blanket from one of the lesser known mills that occasionally made Indian blankets – the Portland Woolen Mills which manufactured not in Portland, but rather St. Johns, Oregon and began production in 1904.  Like the December 2007 Racine below this blanket incorporates the swastika in the design – a symbol that always guarantees a trade or camp blanket was made before America entered World War II.

Time for a history lesson. The swastika has been used for thousands of years and even predates the ancient Egyptian symbol the Ankh. The swastika was widely used in many cultures including those of ancient Troy, Tibet, China, India, Japan and southern Europe. The “twisted cross” even adorns Mayan temples. The word comes from the Sanskrit svastika “su” meaning “good,” “asti” meaning “to be,” and “ka” as a suffix. The swastika represented abundance and prosperity – depending on the cultural group it symbolized life, sun, power, strength, good luck and the four cardinal directions.

To Hindus, it is a symbol of the sun and its rotation. Buddhists consider it a diagram of the footprints of Buddha. Among the Jainas of India, the emblem is a reminder of the four possible places of rebirth: in the animal or plant world, in Hell, on Earth or in the spirit world. The swastika’s meaning to the Hopi people has been described as a depiction of the migration routes Hopi clans took through North and South America.

Until the Nazis adopted the symbol the swastika was widely used on all manner of items including cigarette and calling card cases, watch fobs, poker chips, coins, signs, postcards and even in American company names like the Swastika Cement Company. The symbol was popular as a good luck charm with early aviators – a swastika was painted on the inside of the nosecone of the Spirit of St. Louis.  Swastikas are carved into the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art and many historic movie theaters and hotels – there was a Swastika Hotel in Raton, New Mexico. 

During World War I the swastika decorated the shoulder patches of the American 45th Division. The symbol is often referred to as “whirling logs” or “rolling logs” in modern descriptions of pre-World War II American Indian items.  Native Americans used the symbol on  jewelry, souvenir spoons, basketry, rugs, etc. In 1940, in response to Hitler’s regime, the Navajo, Papago, Apache and Hopi people signed an anti-whirling log proclamation. It read, “Because the above ornament, which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries, has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples, therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika . . . on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings and clothing.”

I see my time is up so without further delay here’s the Portland Woolen Mills blanket…a wonderland of weft and warp.