The Pendleton Problem: When Does Cultural Appreciation Tip Into Appropriation?

Designers weigh in on the fine line that divides the two when it comes to home decor.

Growing up in New Mexico, Venancio Aragon (Diné) remembers that a Pendleton wool blanket was one of the most precious gifts you could give or receive. Though his family has been practicing Navajo weaving for generations, he puts on a Pendleton for special occasions. "They’re part of our cultural landscape," says Aragon, who does polychromatic, non-traditional weaving. "Pendleton blankets become synonymous with Native Americans, I guess, although not being made by Native Americans at all."

Pendleton blankets with Native American–inspired designs 

And for many, that’s part of the problem with Pendleton Woolen Mills. It’s a company that’s profited from Indigenous designs for more than 100 years, though for six generations, it’s been owned by the Bishop family, who are not Native American. Today, some activists and designers are calling out companies like Pendleton, along with Restoration Hardware and Urban Outfitters, for their habit of taking designs and motifs from Indigenous cultures around the world and copying them for profit.

Cultural appropriation—when people from a more powerful or more affluent culture profit by taking symbols, arts, and ideas from historically disenfranchised groups without credit or compensation—is a widespread problem.

Indigenous Hawaiian motifs, for example, are often borrowed and reimagined. "Martha Stewart and Tommy Bahama both take our quilt patterns and they will modify them somewhat…and call them Hawaiian quilt patterns," says Jalene Kanani Hitzeman, a Hawaiian designer who runs Noho Home based in Honolulu.

Young Huh, a designer based in New York City, says a cultural or religious object, like a Buddha sculpture, can make a design meaningful. But she can’t understand why, even today, so many designers and leading textile firms embrace the fetishized Asian images in chinoiserie, a Western European rip-off of authentic Chinese and Japanese motifs.

"Where the cultural appropriation gets uncomfortable is when you have modern-day depictions of Chinese people in coolie hats that are supposed to be reminiscent of the 18th century," Huh says. People would be horrified at wallpaper showing African slaves dancing. "But for some reason, people find it perfectly acceptable to have Western depictions of Asian culture."

Malene Barnett, an artist and activist, also founded the Black Artists + Designers Guild.

Malene Barnett, a ceramicist, textile designer, and activist, says acquiring artifacts you love or want to study is one thing. But she wonders what’s driving so many non-Black collectors to hold the largest collections of African art. "History knows the Europeans have the best collections of African art, but it was stolen," says Barnett. "When I see white individuals who have such large collections, it’s just a reminder of the injustice and inequity."

Pendleton’s Past 

For more than 100 years, Pendleton and Native American communities have enjoyed a complicated symbiotic relationship. Direct sales to Native American organizations only account for 30-40% of Pendleton’s business, says Kathy Monaghan, a spokeswoman for the company, which also makes popular striped national parks blankets and plaid shirts. But it’s an influential segment and source of inspiration that’s driven the company’s design aesthetic since the beginning. 

A Pendleton wool blanket adorns the bed of a Mercedes Sprinter van.

"I don’t think there’s actually another company in America at all like Pendleton because we have such a longstanding relationship with the Native American tribes," says Monaghan. "We look to our customers to tell us what they want and what they don’t want."

That relationship began in the early 1900s, as white settlers’ westward expansion ended. Native American tribes that had once traveled freely and bartered with one another were mostly confined to reservations. Non-Natives opened trading posts where Native Americans exchanged their animal hides, handmade baskets, rugs, and jewelry for food, household supplies, and colorful commercially woven trade blankets. Native Americans wore blankets as robes to keep warm, and they were prized status symbols in many communities.

In his book on trade blanket history Language of the Robe, art dealer Bob Kapoun notes the industry thrived from the 1880s to 1930s, thanks to abundant local sheep wool that supplied blanket makers, including Racine, Oregon City, Capps, and Pendleton. Part of Pendleton’s secret sauce was Joe Rawnsley, a British textile designer who spent time studying Indigenous designs of tribes in the Columbia Plateau. He later spent six months in the Southwest, collecting ideas while living among the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo.

Rawnsley "interpreted" the colorful symbols and patterns he saw on Native American clothing, homes, and parfleche hide bags to weave blankets on Pendleton’s looms. The company’s two oldest designs are Chief Joseph, an homage to Nez Perce Chief Joseph the Younger, and the Harding Blanket, first presented to President Warren G. Harding in 1923.

Kapoun says it’s likely both were heavily influenced by Native American motifs. And he doubts that those tribal artists, or Chief Joseph, were compensated. "There’s no copyright type of situation," Kapoun says. "The design elements were out there in the world," he says.

Cultural Questions 

Monaghan calls Rawnsley’s work research. "We would go out and basically do market research: what colors do you like, what shapes are important, and we would design for the looms we have," she says. "We were making a functional object Native Americans desired and bought from us." 

Pendleton began hiring actual Native American artists in the 1990s. The company licenses designs from the artists, but they don’t pay royalties, Monaghan says. The partnerships allow the artists to make a living and reach a wider audience. "The people we’re working with, they’re telling their own stories," says Monaghan. "What we don’t want to do is pull a design and separate it from its meaning and its background."

Currently, they’re working with 11 Indigenous artists including Bunky Echo-Hawk. The Pawnee, Oklahoma, artist says he used to dream of designing for Pendleton. "It’s amazing and humbling to see the blanket I was able to design stacked up in my family’s homes," he says.

Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) with the Pawnee Promise blanket he designed for Pendleton Woolen Mills. Proceeds benefit the American Indian College Fund. 

Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) knows about Pendleton’s past, but he believes they’re doing better by artists and the Native American community: "It’s not really binary and cut and dried. It does bother me, but at the same time, I see that they have been making these attempts and contributions to changing some of their approach."

"It’s not really binary and cut and dried. It does bother me, but at the same time, I see...attempts to changing some of their approach."

—Bunky Echo-Hawk 

His Pawnee Pathway blanket uses colors representing all races, stars that signify where life started, and where the spirit goes after death. Paint drippings in the center symbolize the meandering path we take through life. Through an endowment, and proceeds from his blanket and others, Pendleton has raised more than $1 million for the American Indian College Fund.

Erin Martin, a Napa Valley designer known for pushing boundaries, says learning more about Pendleton’s history is unsettling. A few years back, her St. Helena, California, gallery sold a series of jackets made from Pendleton blankets. With the current political climate encouraging more caution and discourse, she says that after learning more about the company’s design practices, she might think twice. "Stories like that, knowing the back story is ridiculous," says Martin. "The old way of doing things is over. You can’t rip people off. Not cool."

In 2013, Pendleton settled a complaint that their blanket named Sioux Star violated the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which bars non-Natives from selling goods falsely labeled with tribal names or as Native American–made. In the settlement, Pendleton renamed the blanket Plains Star, agreed not to use tribal names without permission, and made a $41,000 donation to the Red Cloud Indian Heritage Center in Arkansas. Per the settlement, they deleted the "Native American" category from their website. Now they have a section for Native American Artists.

A Different Path 

Responsible sourcing and informed buying is a big part of the solution to cultural appropriation in design. "Be thoughtful about who you buy from," Barnett says. She only buys African art and textiles from Black dealers, and she wishes more people did the same: "I think that will help change the inequities of the world." 

Eighth Generation Wool Blankets by Jared Yazzie (Navajo) and Bethany Yellowtail (Northern Cheyanne and Crow)

Eighth Generation, a Seattle company owned by the Snoqualmie tribe, uses the tagline "inspired Natives, not ‘Native Inspired’" for their wool and cotton blankets, towels, and jewelry. Founder and CEO Louie Gong (Nooksack), a self-taught artist, wanted to honor a spectrum of Indigenous artists and support them in building businesses. Since 2015, Eighth Generation has sold blankets 100% designed by Indigenous artists, including Bethany Yellowtail and Jamie Okuma.

"It’s not just about the aesthetics. It’s the stories about who Native American artists are," Gong says. "When you buy something from Eighth Generation, you’re engaging with products controlled by Native people from beginning to end."

Eighth Generation Cotton Blanket designed by Gail White Eagle (Muckleshoot)

One of Eighth Generation’s most successful artists is Sarah Agaton Howes (Anishnaabe), who started out selling earrings from the trunk of her car and has worked with the company for six years. They shared information on building a business, and they still consult weekly on strategy. Now, Agaton Howes has two employees, a production facility—and a six-figure business.

Eighth Generation’s new urban manufacturing initiative to make woolens in Seattle will help them empower more Indigenous artists. "It will be so much more for consumers to know their money is going to Indigenous people," says Gong.

Kim Lewis, an Austin-based interior designer, always tries to import artisan goods directly or source fair trade items for her residential and commercial projects. Her go-to’s include Ghanaian Bolga baskets from from Connected Goods, pillows from Made Trade, and hand-loomed rugs from Adopt a Native Elder. "I feel like my job with design clients is to engage with these stories and educate them," says Lewis. "Even if it does cost a little more or take more time, they’re going to have pieces in their home that are much more special."

Casita Coyote, an Airstream by Kim Lewis Designs, features textiles sourced from fair trade companies. 

The bedroom of Casita Coyote, an Airstream by Kim Lewis Designs, with a pillow from Made Trade. 

Hitzeman says she works with architects and builders to source authentic Hawaiian art and create thoughtful design narratives to underpin decisions. They might ask: Was this a sacred place? Was taro grown here? Who inhabited this land before? "We’re just starting to celebrate and tell stories of these cultural practices and motifs and imagery," says Hitzeman. 

Aragon doesn’t think anyone should feel guilty about owning a Pendleton; they’re beautiful blankets given with love, and they last for generations. Babies are swaddled in blankets from the Oregon mill; so are brides and grooms. And when some Native Americans die, they’re wrapped in a favorite Pendleton one final time. 

Venancio Aragon, a Diné weaver, at his loom. He’s the 2020 Rollin and Mary Ella King Native Artist Fellow at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, where he’s creating textiles that explore rare Navajo weaving techniques.

The narrative threads tracing how design evolves over time and across cultures can be hard to untangle, but it’s vital work. "People have to take a minute and think about the ethical dilemmas of cultural appropriation concerning those images," he says. "I don’t think we do that enough these days."


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