Intertwined Threads

An exhibit at the Arizona State Museum depicts Navajo weaving throughout its history

Way in the distant past, Spider Woman and Spider Man gave the Navajos the gift of weaving.

Spun out of the oral tradition, this story tries to account for the Navajos' uncanny ability to make bold and brilliant textiles, settling on the idea that it was a blessing from holy beings. Divine intervention is as good an explanation as any, I guess, for the extraordinary flowering of abstract fiber art among the Navajos over the last several hundred years.

For centuries, the mostly female weavers of the Navajo Nation have created sophisticated geometries in wool. In the 19th century, they reached their artistic apotheosis, crafting spectacular banded "chief's blankets" in black, white, blue and red; stunning "sarapes" studded with equilateral crosses and angular terraced motifs; and "eye dazzler" zig-zags in diagonals, and diamonds reverberating against stripes.

An extraordinary collection of some 29 of these historic pieces is now on view at the Arizona State Museum. Drawn from the museum's own repositories, these breathtaking 19th-century works are reason enough to go see the big show Navajo Weaving: 19th Century Blankets/20th Century Rugs/21st Century Views. The exhibition, up through April, also explores the continuation of the tradition. A separate room displays about 42 works by late-20th-century weavers, most of them still alive, along with video interviews and hands-on learning stations that help explain dyes, wools and the like.

Spider Woman and Man notwithstanding, this huge show demonstrates just how many sources Navajo weavers have had over the years. Apart from their own grandmothers, the traditional teachers who pass the craft down through the generations, Navajo weavers have borrowed techniques, materials and ideas from an epic cast of characters: Pueblo Indians, Spanish invaders, U.S. government agents, Philadelphia yarn manufacturers, white traders, Asian rug designers and even cartoonist Charles Schulz have had an influence, to a greater or lesser degree, on the phenomenon of Navajo weaving.

Schulz was one of the lesser, to be sure, but the show does include a woven Snoopy admiring a woven Christmas tree, a small pictorial rug no doubt inspired by the widely televised Peanuts Christmas special. If Snoopy seems like a grievous intrusion of pop culture into the realm of native aesthetic, he's not out of sync with the history of Navajo weaving. Navajo weavers have long been responsive to the market.

Even before Anglo soldiers and traders began flooding the Navajo land of Dineteh in the 19th century, clamoring for souvenirs and rugs to sell back east, the Navajos' "wearing blankets" were trade items highly prized by other Indians as far away as the Great Lakes. In fact, the term "chief's blanket" comes from the Great Plains chiefs' fondness for the boldly striped blankets. The exhibition includes a reproduction of an 1847 painting of a chief of the Piegan Blackfeet Plains Indians wrapped in a classic Navajo chief's blanket. It's striped in the black and white wool of the Navajos' churro sheep, along with a pale blue line dyed with Mexican indigo.

Curated by an unusual combo of Anglo scholar (Ann Lane Hedlund) and three contemporary Navajo weavers (Barbara Ornelas and her children, UA students Sierra and Michael Ornelas), the informative exhibition is arranged chronologically, a primer with examples of the history of Navajo weaving. Hedlund, an anthropologist who heads the museum's Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies, provides learned commentary in the wall text, while Barbara Ornelas tells tales of the trade.

The two younger Ornelases are given to sassy descriptions meant to make the older works come alive. For instance, a woman's fancy manta (dress), circa 1870-1875--a lovely specimen colored salmon pink, red and black--is "teenagery" in Sierra's view, the kind of thing a Marilyn Monroe might have worn.

The Navajos established a reputation as fine weavers as early as 1650, but the earliest piece on view is a "first phase" chief's blanket, dating from 1800 to 1850. Handspun from the wool of churro sheep, introduced by the Spaniards in 1598, it's a simple pattern of black and white stripes in varying widths. A wide band of black runs across the center, interrupted by narrow lines of indigo blue, an arrangement of shapes and colors worthy of a Rothko.

Early examples are scarce because they wore out. The first Navajo weavings were art to use--clothing for the body and blankets for the bed--not art for the walls, unlike today's high-priced weavings. "Wearing blankets" were wrapped around the body, their patterns ingeniously designed to appear completed when they were worn. A third-phase chief's style--a beauty in black, white, gray and red from 1880-1890--shows how it worked. A central diamond woven in the middle would go on the chief's back, but the half-diamonds along the sides would form full diamonds only when the chief pulled the edges around his chest. Women's dresses were two flat pieces of woven cloth stitched together at the top and partly along the sides, leaving openings for the arms and wiggle room for the legs.

These styles most likely came from the Pueblo Indians, who had been weaving cotton cloth for centuries before the Navajos arrived in the Southwest around 1350. If the Navajos learned the Pueblos' weaving techniques, modeled their upright looms on the Pueblos' and even borrowed some of their styles from the Pueblos, it was the Spanish who gave them their wool. This kind of cross-cultural adaptation turned out to be hallmark of Navajo weaving.

Cultural clashes--and some cooperation--intensified in the 19th century. The opening of the Santa Fe trail brought new commercial dyes and cloths to the Southwest. Before long, the weavers were combining the natural colors of the sheep with commercial yellows and greens, and unraveling imported cloth from the East and from Europe and reweaving the manufactured yarns into their own creations.

Even the catastrophic Long March of the 1860s had an impact on weaving styles, during the so-called late classic period, 1865-1880. The U.S. Army forced the Navajos to walk to Bosque Redondo in southeastern New Mexico, where they were confined for years. But during their captivity, the U.S. government issued them commercial woolen yarns spun in the factories of Germantown, now a part of Philadelphia.

Despite the tragedies of the Navajo dislocation--hundreds died on the march and in the camp--Navajo weaving, ironically, prospered. The captured weavers made gorgeous blankets, along with a strange bit of cultural history, with the brightly colored yarns made by urban immigrant factory workers filling the hand-woven blankets of traditional Navajos.

Once the railroad arrived in the 1880s, the demands of a new tourist market triggered still more shifts, with traders like J.L. Hubbell of Ganado pushing weavers to make what would sell.

The final room of the exhibition shows off some of the results of these changes, 100 years in. Blankets evolved into rugs to decorate Victorian homes, and Oriental rug patterns took hold with considerable force. Weavers added borders for the first time, and plenty of decorative elements in the middle. The Two Grey Hills style for which Barbara Ornelas is known--colored in the natural sheep tones of gray, white, brown and black--has intricate designs that would be right at home in India.

Other weavers gave up abstraction altogether and moved into pictorial rugs, depicting native dancers, trucks, sheep, houses, Snoopy and other elements of contemporary reservation life. Some contemporary weavers borrow the aesthetic of the temporary sand paintings created for curing rituals, and use their wool yarns to craft portraits of spiritual beings.

All these weavings are beautifully crafted, and weavers rightly make a good living nowadays selling to a thriving market. But to my eye, the new works don't have the power of the old--the astonishing chief's blankets and sarapes whose patterns and colors apparently sprang from a felicitous mix of great materials and folk genius. Which is another way of saying that Spider Woman and Spider Man sure knew what they were doing when they invented weaving on the rolling hills and mesas of Dineteh.

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