Return of the Holy People

A remarkable exhibition of figurative Navajo weavings graces Nizhoni gallery in Sonoita

On a warm Saturday in late February, Elsie Bia was outdoors in Sonoita, hard at work at her loom. A basket of woolen yarns was at her feet, dyed in the rich earth colors of Dinétah, the Navajo homeland: maroon, green, tan, white and black. Bia, 64, was deftly threading the colored strands through the taut warp yarns.

"Since I was 14, I've been weaving," she says. "My mom taught me. I'm from a long line of weavers."

She had already spent a month on the piece, weaving abstract patterns around the bottom of the tapestry and starting on the deep red background. The next two months would be devoted to the centerpiece: a tall, thin human figure rendered in an angular geometry.

It was to be a woven image of a Yei Be Chei, one of the human dancers who portray the Yei—Holy People or gods—in traditional Navajo ceremonies.

"I've done different kinds of these," Bia says, adding that the first weavings she ever made, under the tutelage of her mother, Annie Bia, were Yei Be Cheis.

Bia works on commission for Steve Getzwiller, a trader who owns the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery, weaving works that he later sells. Normally she weaves at her home in Chinle, the Navajo town at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly, but this day, with the help of her daughter Ramona and grandsons Kevin and Dylan, she's hauled her loom to Sonoita, and set it up on the Getzwiller's porch.

Her demo of her ancestors' art helped kick off Woven Holy People, the gallery's remarkable exhibition of traditional Yei Be Chei weavings.

The show has some 65 weavings total that depict Holy People and other figurative images. A few of them are fresh from the looms of Bia and other contemporary Navajo artists, but the bulk are prized historic works from the first half of the 20th century.

Displayed on every wall of the gallery/ranch house where Getzwiller and his wife Gail live (one even covers the big-screen TV), the weavings abound with images of feathers and corn, birds and clouds and stars. Most distinctively, they're peopled with the Yei Be Cheis. The long, tall Holy One vary.

They're dressed either in traditional garb or stylized modern-day dress. Their heads are bare or ornamented with feathers. Yet all of them stand in horizontal rows across the weavings, dancing in honor of the Holy Ones.

One prize specimen from the 1930s, "Storm Pattern/Yei Be Chei," stretches 9 feet along the gallery wall. It has a border of small storm-pattern figures in black on gray. The center is a gorgeous red that's a stage for the Yei Be Chei dancers.

Three women are in the middle, clasping feathers in their upraised hands, two groups of male dancers flank them on either side. One of the men, wearing five feathers on his head, is the medicine man, according to a catalog written by the Getzwillers, and the whole blanket depicts a healing ceremony.

A number of the weavings are once-taboo "sand painting pictorials," exact images of temporary sand paintings used in religious healing ceremonies. As part of the ritual, a sick person was placed on the sand images created by a medicine man. Afterward, Getzwiller says the laboriously created painting was "thrown to the four winds."

These weavings typically have rows of spiritual figures placed against a tan background representing the sandy earth. One of the earliest, "Guardian Snake," has a lineup of snakes, lizards and human "snake guards" colored in pale greens, grays and tans.

Getzwiller, a collector and trader of Navajo arts for more than 40 years, said that's it's rare for a weaving exhibition to be devoted to single style, in this case the figurative Yei Be Cheis.

After all, Navajo have been weaving for about 300 years, and their designs have varied dramatically, ranging from the boldly striped Chief's blankets of the early 19th century to the to "eye dazzlers" of the late 19th century, laced with diamond shapes and dancing zigzags.

By the early 20th century, Navajo weavers began moving away from the pure abstraction and geometries of the 19th, and "we began seeing figurative stuff," Getzwiller says The dancing Yei Be Chei soon began to appear, woven out of the wool of the churro sheep.

Most of the early works are by unknown artists, but Getzwiller dates them by examining the wool, he says. The quality varied wildly decade to decade, in tandem with the tragedies wreaked on the Navajos, from the deadly Long Walk that forced the Navajo into exile in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico in the 1860s to repeated government slaughters of their cherished sheep.

Getzwiller fears that nowadays the high art of Navajo weaving is endangered not by government pogroms, but by the fading away of Navajo language and cultural traditions. Like other indigenous groups, the Navajo find their practices being eroded by global culture.

"Grandkids can't converse in the native language of their grandparents," he says, "and all the traditional ceremonies are in Navajo." He tries to stem the tide by commissioning pieces from the best weavers. Yet, he fears that "we're in the last generation of great Navajo weavers."

Bia, whom he calls a master weaver, is a case in point. She had nine children, and none of them has taken up the weaving passed down by a long line of their ancestors. Most don't live on the reservation.

Bia speaks both Navajo and English. Her 30-something daughter Ramona, who lives in Phoenix, can still speak a bit of Navajo, with the aid of a smart phone. Her boys, though, don't know the old language.

Traditional weaving, Ramona acknowledges, is "slowly going down," and weaving has gotten harder for Elsie Bia as she's aged.

"My eyes get tired, and my fingers get sore," during long hours at the loom, she says, and often her back aches. But she keeps on keeping on.

"It's my income," she says. Plus, it gives her pleasure to follow the path of her ancestors, making the diyogí—or rugs—that they once crafted.