PENDLETON, Ore. – Long before the Europeans arrived on these shores there were blankets – blankets made from hides or pelts of smaller animals sewn together; blankets woven from wool, feathers, down or bark; blankets of wild cotton colored with native dyes. Today mention “Pendleton” to any Native American over the age of five, and the colorful, Native design Pendleton blankets, robes and shawls spring to mind.
Pendleton Woolen Mill’s bright woolen Native-designed blankets, prized for their quality and designs, had their beginnings in 1909 when the Bishop family rebuilt the original woolen mill in Pendleton, Ore., a major railhead town overlooking the grand Columbia River and Columbia Basalt Plateau, creating an enduring Native legacy. In honor of that anniversary, Pendleton is celebrating 100 years with “Weaving America’s Spirit Since 1909.”
Pendleton’s relationship with Native Americans goes back to “day one,” says Bob Christnacht, division manager for their home line. “Our original designer, Joe Rawnsley, lived with the Native Americans for six to nine months at a time. From his early design work we developed our most enduring designs.”
Wool blankets had great trade value with the Native peoples. Pendleton’s salesman, Major Davidson, who spoke an astonishing 27 Indian languages, worked with Rawnsley and traveled throughout Indian country, introducing his designs. Pendleton’s popularity took off and soon their blankets were in greater demand than the traditional striped and plaid Hudson’s Bay blankets.
With their success the woolen mill expanded, creating designs that appealed to the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni peoples of the Southwest region. Railroad cars loaded with Pendleton blankets were exchanged for silver jewelry, wool and other valuables. All the designs in their most popular series, the Legendary Blankets, are based on Native belief and traditions.
The colorful-yet-practical blankets are widely popular with Native Americans, who prize them for their ceremonial use, and incorporate them into daily life. Pendleton in turn considers Native Americans their original and most valued customers. “We recognize how important a part our blankets play in Native Americans’ lives,” Christnacht said. “They are very much a large part of this company. More than half our sales are to Native Americans.”
When Susan Joyce Campbell, Potawatomi, performed a wedding for a young Potawatomi woman and her partner who wanted a traditional ceremony, the couple wrapped her in a Pendleton Legendary blanket in the Iroquois Turtle pattern. After the ceremony, “they gifted me with the blanket,” Campbell said. “I treasure it, and the memories.”
Barbara-Helen Hill won a Pendleton blanket at the Miss Mini-Seneca pageant. Her three-year-old daughter Monica won the title. “The next year at the parade Monica sat on that Pendleton blanket on top of a car, waving her little hand and smiling hard, before she had to turn the crown over to the next winner,” recalls Hill, of the British Isles Cayuga/Mohawk nations. “I still have the Pendleton blanket to give to her when I’m ready.”
Their most enduring design is the Chief Joseph blanket, designed in the early 1900s to commemorate the heroism of the greatest Nez Perce warrior, “Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kert,” Thunder Rolling Down Hills.
Pendleton founder Roy Bishop, the first director of the famous Pendleton Round-Up Rodeo-invited the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla. “No one knew they were coming,” Christnacht said. “A huge cloud of dust appeared in the east horizon. It was the Native Americans on their horses, with their travois and teepees.”
Native Americans still play a major role in the Round-Up, which celebrates 100 years next year. In 2001, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and the Nez Perce Nation honored fourth-generation Clarence “Mort” Bishop Jr. in a surprise ceremony at the parade, bestowing on him the Indian name Caacaa Kuta.
Pendleton plays a big part in the Native community; the company’s philanthropy extends to the American Indian College Fund and the National Museum of the American Indian.
Pendleton makes fabric, blankets and garments at its eight Oregon, Washington and Nebraska factories, and sells their products in about 75 shops, as well as through catalogs and online. The company is still privately held and operated by the fifth generation of the founding Bishop family.