Spider Woman's Children

In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
With beauty around me I walk.
With beauty below me I walk.
With beauty above and about me I walk.

When Lynda Teller Pete told me she and her sister Barbara Teller Ornelas were writing a book about today’s Navajo weavers, I knew I needed to get a copy. Lynda an articulate speaker and a spokeswoman for traditional Navajo weaving. I had the opportunity to look at some of the Navajo Textile Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with herself and DY Begay several months ago and her knowledge of this art form is informed by her personal knowledge as a weaver, her experience as a Navajo tribal member, and her study of Navajo textiles at the museum level. I knew the book, Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today, was going to be excellent. Plus it was published by Thrums Books and everything Linda Ligon touches in this business is magic. Photography done by the magnificent Joe Coca was icing on the cake.

If I had to say what this book is about in one world, I would have to say family. It tells a story of family, both the larger family of the Navajo Nation and the particular family of Lynda and Barbara.

We were gifted the art of weaving to keep our families from starving, to be kept in good comfort, and to keep our families together.
— Spider Woman's Children in the story of Spider woman

Much of the book is vignettes of particular weavers. Every one of these introductions starts by telling you who the person was in relation to their family. Most include clan affiliations. The circle of weavers that Barbara and Lynda have drawn together in these stories creates a thread you can trace through family and place. They’re describing a circle of family and how that family has learned and lived through weaving. They’re also describing a way of life. You can get the feeling for that in the words of Irene Hardy Clark, born in 1934 and raised in Crystal, NM. There couldn’t be a better description of the importance of connecting to your art.

Irene said, ‘I do my blessing before each rug. I thank Mother Earth for the plants that give color to my wool, for the sky above me, the air I breathe, for mother earth for grounding me. All this gives me a good feeling to weave.’ Irene explains, ‘Everything is in the weaving, it’s in your hands, it’s in your weaving tools, and it’s in your mind. Design and dyeing are related to how you think of yourself, and it will show in how you weave your rug. Good thoughts, prayers, songs are what you need.’
— Irene Hardy Clark as quoted in Spider Woman's Children

Image from Spider Woman’s Children, rug by Irene Hardy Clark

The book is organized into sections about weavers from different generations including stories of male weavers and tool-makers. There is some discussion of regional styles especially the Two Gray Hills style of Lynda and Barbara’s family. These sections are interspersed with sections about the history of the Navajo people, their traditions, and their fierce will to keep their culture intact.

We are the enduring Diné. We have persevered through warfare, starvation, and forced relocations. We are warriors. Most of us are given warrior names at birth; our umbilical cords are buried on our homesteads. We honor these warrior names by living each day, rising with the sun, giving our blessings, and being productive to the best of our potential, to be in Hózhó. Hózhó is our way of life, to live in balance and beauty. We do not separate the weaving arts from our culture, spirituality, daily life, or our connection to the earth. Weaving is a way for us to live in balance.
— Spider Woman's Children

Image from Spider Woman’s Children by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas

Stories give you a flavor for a people. Stories make you feel the building of the weaving and the arc of a life defined by this slow activity. Navajo weaving in its finest form can have as many as 130 weft picks per vertical inch. Imagine how long it takes to weave that many passes in each inch. Translate that into a large rug. Then imagine you purchase that rug at the Crownpoint Rug Auction for $2000. You’ve just bought yourself a large piece of someone’s life. The weaver is grateful for the payment, but never underestimate the life that that rug holds. Maybe next time you could bump the price up a little more and watch the smile on the weaver’s face bloom.

The stories of particular people remind me of my own drives across the reservation, visits to various trading posts, time with Navajo friends in their homes and growing up with my classmates in Gallup. The big-hearted descriptions of this way of life ring loudly from the center of this book. Weaving is life. Sheep is life. Beauty is the way.

Take to heart the lesson of the Diné weaver when you approach your weaving. Honor the process, respect the tools, weave when you are happy, and find a good home for the finished piece.

And of course, read this book.

Whenever I look at a rug, I always wonder, who was the person behind the loom? What was she going through when she made it? Was he a caretaker for his family? Was she self-taught? Was he far from home or surrounded by loved ones? Was she in the middle of hard times or her renaissance? Every rug tells a story, and these are ours. I welcome you to take a seat at our kitchen table and listen as these weavers share their histories and those of their families through the medium of my favorite American art form.
— Sierra Teller Ornelas in the foreward

I guarantee this book will leave you wanting more information about Navajo textiles and weaving traditions. Barbara and Lynda are teaching at Canyon de Chelly next spring on a Loom Dance Odyssey’s trip. You could join them. The Canyon is an astounding place. The National Monument is the only park service property jointly owned by the US government and a tribe. As such, you can’t just go into the canyon without a Navajo guide with the exception of the trail to White House Ruins. The opportunity as a non-Navajo to weave with two masters right in the heart of this sacred Canyon is rare indeed. More information HERE.

If you’d like some visuals of weaving and the reservation, here are three YouTube videos you might enjoy.

A Loom with a View: A short film from 2004 about contemporary Navajo weavers created by Sierra Teller Ornelas (Barbara’s daughter)

Master Artist Workshop, Navajo Weaving: Lynda and Barbara teaching at the Navajo Nation Museum in 2017

Craft in America segment featuring Lynda and Barbara weaving in Canyon de Chelly

Image from Spider Woman’s Children by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas