Growing up on the edge of the Navajo Reservation

In my last post I reviewed Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today, a new book by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas. As part of that post I found myself writing what follows but then felt my own experience was out of place when discussing that beautiful publication. So what follows is some thoughts about my own relationship to Navajo weaving today. You can read the blog post about the book HERE.

I grew up in Gallup, NM. That town on I-40 is perched on the edge of the Navajo Indian Reservation just south of where Lynda and Barbara grew up. Slowly, I came to know a little about Navajo weaving. My parents took us to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site whenever we had out-of-town guests they wanted to show around. Inevitably that was followed by a trip to Canyon de Chelly. I understood nothing of tribal/US politics as a child. Nor did I understand much about poverty or the roots of the struggles the Navajo people have experienced at the hands of the federal government.

What I did understand was that most of my classmates were either Navajo or Zuni, they could run WAY faster than me in cross country, and that somehow I was fortunate to go home to my parents every night when most of them had to stay in dormitories with “dorm parents”. Many did get to go home on the weekends and I knew that because we started school an hour later on Mondays to give the busses time to travel in from many hours away.

I learned some Navajo words in school, but I don’t remember learning much about Navajo culture.

I remember watching the Navajo women weaving at Hubbell Trading Post. My grandparents were weavers and they used large European-style floor looms for fabric and tapestry weaving. The Navajo looms made of 2 x 4s and sticks were something entirely different. As I got older and started playing with yarn myself, I appreciated the rugs in the trading post rug looms a little more and I understood that most of the weavers were not getting paid very much for this time-intensive labor.

As an adult I have had the good fortune to make friends with a few Navajo weavers. As when I was a child, I still feel a vast chasm between my understanding of how the world works and theirs sometimes. My sense of humor is stunted next to the constant laughter of their families, my psyche doesn’t know how to accept the way they pick on each other, smiles on their faces to gales of laughter, and the closeness of their communities is so beautiful compared to my own strained family relationships. (I am betting they have plenty of fights and miscommunications too, they have just learned to laugh about it and come together for the next feast anyway.)

The Navajo weaving way is centered in the concept of balance. Each piece leads to the next quite literally with a Weaver’s Path leading to the next rug until the weaver knows she or he isn’t going to weave another. The practice involves ceremony and the images often have a particular meaning to the weaver. There are regional styles from various parts of the reservation, some encouraged by the traders and developed by the weavers over time. And there are weavers who are moving away from regional styles into more contemporary designs. Often the traditional ways of preparing yarn from sheep to spinning to natural dyeing is followed.

I’ve had many conversations both with Navajo weavers and with non-Navajos who teach Navajo weaving about whether people who are not Diné should teach this technique. I don’t have any answer about that except that I won’t teach it myself. I feel that this tradition is so grounded in spiritual practice that I couldn’t begin to understand the nuance of it all. I do believe that studying and practicing the weaving styles of other cultures is informative and important to humans understanding each other but I will leave the teaching of it to the experts. From that perspective I would love to take a class from a Navajo weaver. Maybe THIS one?

DY Begay, Intended Vermillion, In the collection of the Denver Art Museum