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Weaving a Navajo Blanket
By Gladys A. Reichard
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I learned to weave blankets while living with a Navajo family at a place on the Reservation called White Sands. The head of the family is Red Point. This old patriarch, with his wife Maria Antonia, occupied the central hogan (house) of his little settlement. Each of their three daughters had their own hogans nearby. One daughter, Marie, and her husband, Tom Curley, were my interpreters and teachers when they were home. I lived in one of the houses at Red Point's for four summers, during the second of which Marie and Tom were in Los Angeles. By this time I was able to speak enough Navajo to get along and Red Point's older daughter, Atlnaba, was my teacher.
I wanted to know how the Navajo women feel about their craft, how they themselves learn, how they teach and criticise. I have described their attitudes toward their work and toward me in an informal personal account, entitled Spider Woman. It is a tale of digressions. Preparation of yarn and the weaving itself are activities always on hand; only rarely, in the summer at least, do the women make a business of them. If the family needs the money secured for the rugs, if one of the women is a recognized artist, if circumstances are such that her labor may be spared from other necessary pursuits, she may be given the leisure to weave and is required to do little else. All these conditions are filled in only a few cases.
Most commonly all stages of the process from carding to weaving are in progress. A woman may have two, or even three rugs started. She will stop weaving to cook or superintend the flock, sometimes even to herd, if no young or old people are available. It is not the province of a successful Navajo matron to herd, but if necessity demands she will do it. She can take her spinning, especially of warp, with her if she must tend the sheep all day.
Even the home-maker is often interrupted. In the early summer she spends a part of each day in the corn-patch carefully coaxing the crops to withstand the dry winds and the cutting sands. Later, if her efforts have been successful, she works for days preserving the corn for winter by roasting and drying. Some days she will have visitors. At such times all may card or spin, or the hostess may quietly twist her own yarn as she sits and talks. Her weaving may be further hindered by her attendance at the ever-present "sings", religious rituals which vary all the way from an apparent social diversion with hundreds, even thousands, of guests to the most serious of emergency measures witnessed only by the members of the immediate family.
The purpose of a "sing" is curative or prophylactic, to cure an ailment or to prevent one. One may be held if a person suddenly becomes ill, or an individual who is slightly ailing may join with others who plan to hold a rite in order to procure for himself a blessing and protection from future evil. In either case the weaver may be present, in the capacity of patient, cook, or guest.
Once or twice a year the entire family moves for some days for the sheep dipping, a job which requires the efforts of old and young. It means that our weaver must remain away from home at least two or three days at the dipping, not counting the time it takes her to go and come. There is never any hurry about all this. Although the work is hard, it is done in a lively holiday spirit, as is most Navajo work. The dippers see acquaintances they have not seen for a long time, they meet new ones, they gossip and laugh. On the way home the weaver may stop at the store and trade for an afternoon, or she may visit one of her friends for several days.
The story of "my family" is one which records the responsibility Red Point's women took for me from the moment I arrived until the present time. A Navajo rarely commits himself to responsibility for a white man but once he does, it is as binding as his duty to his own, or so at least I found it. Maria Antonia and her daughters undertook to teach me to weave. Never once in the four summers I spent with them was their duty forsworn. Every sign of progress I made was a source of pride as great to them as to me. At the end of the fourth summer I learned that at first they had been as worried that they might not be able to teach me, as I was that I might not be able to learn. Since, however, they were not as much in a hurry as I was, and since my progress was immediate and steady, their apprehension was short-lived.
The Navajo word for "teach" is to "show", and that is exactly what they do. These women, "my grandmother and sisters", showed me, with unfailing patience and persistent good humor, each step in the long process of transforming wool from a sheep's back to the rug with complicated design accepted by the trader. At first I had to learn a dozen things at once, for tapestry weaving is a matter of coordination. My instructors laughed at my awkwardness, sympathized with my injuries, corrected my mistakes, criticised my results. They were never harsh in their criticism but they never allowed an error to pass unnoticed. They always kept me up to the highest standards.
During the period of my apprenticeship I was taught specific things. I mastered a great many details, no one of which may be omitted in the experience of a good weaver. With a few exceptions I learned as a Navajo girl learns to weave. My teaching differed from hers in intensity and concentration, and possibly in materials. Children learning to weave may be given scraps for their materials. I always had the best.
I have already told the story of the way Atlnaba and Marie learned to weave. Atlnaba wanted to weave when she was less than four years old. An older sister, Adjiba, allowed her to work a little on the blankets she was weaving and by the time Atlnaba was five (PI. I, a) she was weaving blankets accepted by the trader. She followed a course quite usual with Navajo children. She began with the last process, that of weaving, and gradually picked up expertness in the preparation of her materials and in making her loom after she had mastered the weaving itself. Her sister had given her good materials and at first she had no need to construct her loom.
By the time Marie, who was three years younger than Atlnaba, wanted to weave, Adjiba had died. Maria Antonia did not want the child to spoil her blanket by experimentation, she was not patient enough to teach her little daughter; furthermore, she wanted Marie to herd and the two activities are incompatible. Marie's desire was so strong, however, that she made her own loom and implements from such materials as she could procure, and bit by bit filched enough yarn from her mother to enable her to set up a tiny loom which she took with her each time she drove the sheep off to graze.
These two children exemplify the two extremes of training girls to weave. Atlnaba with all materials of the best, no loom to construct, and the gentle guidance of her older sister, learned quickly. At five her success was spectacular; it took many more years for her to become expert at the fundamental, but more prosaic, tasks which white men scarcely notice. Marie learned to weave in spite of her environment rather than because of it. She had to make her comb, batten and loom. Because she could take only a small quantity of her mother's yarn at a time, she had to learn from the very beginning to splice the separate pieces. Her achievement was accomplished to the accompaniment of tears, undaunted perseverance, and wrathful fits of discouragement. When complete, there was for her no glory, no approval, no praise, for she hung her first three blankets on a tree, where they could be seen only by the birds which pulled at their loose strings and by the sheep which shied at their flapping in the wind.
Many women are proud when their little daughters start to weave and encourage them by giving them good yarn and by "showing" them how to go about it. Usually the children make their own looms instead of working on those of their mothers. A small blanket, far better than my first one, brought to a trader, was said to have been made by a child three and one-half years old. She must have had much help, but even so I cannot conceive how her tiny hands had the strength to manage the healds even though they had the coordination. I believe the statement, even though I do not comprehend it, for I once saw Djiba, when she was only two and one-half — she has always been small for her age — fill a bowl six inches in diameter and four deep with water from a coffee pot twice as heavy. Three times she raised the full bowl from the ground to her lips without spilling a drop. Skill like this is possible although it seems incredible.
My learning was like Atlnaba's. I had good materials and implements, willing and patient teachers, and I started at the final process so that results were not too far distant. I have learned all the other steps necessary to preparation of the yarn and to the setting up of the loom, but I am far from expert at some of them, in none have I attained the expertness of any one of my teachers. This is not surprising when I consider that Marie spun for nine years before she could pronounce her yarn "real good".CHAPTER 2
The Navajo, particularly the women, are "sheep-minded". From the first white crack of dawn to the time when the curtain of darkness descends they must consider the sheep. Yes, and even beyond. For it is not unusual to wake at night to find the flock munching and belching just outside the hogan. A venturesome goat has nosed down a weak log of the corral, or has beaten a trail over the confines. The sheep, not original in blazing the trail, but gifted in imitating, have followed and made their way hoganwards. It is not necessary to get up and drive them back, but the owner sleeps with one ear open, and if they nibble their way out of hearing, it will save time and anxiety to drive them back.
What is this animal the thought of which occupies their waking and even sleeping moments? The origin of the Navajo sheep, like that of most of our valued domesticated animals, is really unknown. There is much speculation about it, but after all is said and done, the actual facts which survive a careful sifting are few. Two periods of influence must be recognized. The first may be called the pre-Ft. Sumner period during which the Navajo herded sheep on a comparatively small scale for their own use. It is possible that the breed of this period was related to the type described for the early French in Louisiana and Texas. It is, however, of little significance as far as the present-day sheep are concerned, for the imprisonment of the Navajo at Ft. Sumner for four years marked a dividing line at which some phases of Navajo life ended and others began. Such few sheep as may have survived from that early period would probably have had so little effect on the huge flocks of the present day as to be negligible.
The term "sheep" as used by the Navajo includes a great many features. We might perhaps speak of "sheep which the Navajo have" and "the Navajo sheep". The types belonging to the first category are practically limitless because they are constantly changing. There are white sheep with long hair, white sheep with wavy hair, black sheep, brown sheep, brown with black spots, black with brown spots, grayish brown sheep and brownish gray. As is true for the Navajo dogs, no combination seems impossible. The flocks will differ, too, according to the part of the Reservation where they roam, for the various districts have been influenced by as many theories of "improvement" as there are white men interested in them.
By "Navajo sheep" is meant a peculiar breed, the origin of which is mixed, but which is the favorite of the Navajo, especially of the weaver. It owes its survival to its smallness, and its resistance to hunger, thirst and sudden changes in weather, particularly temperature. Its smallness is no drawback in the Navajo mind and the toughness of the meat is, in his opinion, an advantage. He believes that tough meat is more sustaining than tender. So firm is this conviction that, not only is meat used shortly after killing, but it is intentionally prevented from long boiling. The Navajo say, "It seems like you are getting more to eat if the meat is tough."
The fleece of the Navajo sheep is light, averaging only about two and a half to four pounds as compared to an average of six to sixteen pounds of other sheep and even twenty-five to thirty of the Rambouillet. Its lightness is, however, of small moment to the weaver when she considers its other qualities, the character of the staple, and the relative freedom from grease. The staple is long and wavy in contrast to the merino and Rambouillet strains which have been introduced into the Navajo flocks, at first accidentally, later with the idea of consciously improving the wool and meat standards. The merino wool derives its popularity from its crimpiness, a quality which permits a heavier fleece than a straight or merely wavy hair. For marketing purposes a heavy fleece is desirable, for hand-carding and spinning, extreme crimpiness may be a severe handicap, for the craftsman must achieve with primitive implements and hand power that which our own wool manufacturers attain by means of complicated machinery run by electricity.
The black sheep of Navajo flocks has the crimpiness of the merino and no amount of carding, or skill in hand-spinning will create a smooth yarn comparable to that which is easily achieved from the white Navajo fleece. The wool from the Navajo sheep is relatively free from grease, a desirable quality in wool which is to be hand-carded. In the old literature it is said that the Navajo used to take special pains to keep their sheep from acquiring merino blood so as to prevent the wool from becoming oily and crimpy.
A white friend of mine who has been weaving for many years, who has learned many weaves of our white civilization, and who has experimented widely with different kinds of wool, avers that the Navajo wool I have, with all its burrs and sand, is freer from oil before it is carded than the English wools she has used after they have been hand-washed five times.
For many years numerous movements have been aimed at the improvement of Navajo herds. They have been disinterested to only a limited extent, but the general theory is that what will benefit the white man will help the Indian too. Even the worthiest motives have been based upon misunderstandings and ignorance, or perhapsignor-ing, of actual conditions, which are primarily geographic. Since the merino and the French merino or Rambouillet were good types for Europeans and for us, the Navajo were urged to breed for the qualities these sheep possessed — qualities, of course, in a white man's market.
Besides the disadvantages of the wool for weaving, the sheep bred from these parents have an additional handicap in their struggle for survival. The very weight of the much-folded fleece and its oiliness combine to hinder its wearer. Such a fleece, heavy enough in itself, gathers up all sorts of impedimenta present on a desert range. The herbs of the mesas, concerned with the same contest with drought as the sheep, have many prickles, briars, burrs and such excrescences which stick to the fleece and cannot be rubbed or shaken free easily. The oil of the pelt causes sand and dust to adhere for a long time. Consequently, the animal with the "desirable" fleece is carrying about with it much greater weight than is necessary. The result is that it is slower than its less highly pedigreed mates and must take the leftovers in pasturage when it at last reaches them.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a Navajo to sum up the disadvantages of the "better" breeds in this way, so for many years he said nothing, but quietly though firmly resisted the "improving" of his flocks. On the eastern side of the Lukachukai Mountains, however, sheep have been highly bred for weight of flesh and wool, the aim being to sell in the world market. Indeed, the policy has been so thoroughly followed in one locality that now very little, if any, Navajo wool is woven. For such weaving as is done, carded wool bought from the trader is used. The Navajo at this place have reached such "an end to a circle" as we ourselves are capable of.
But in the more "backward" regions of the Reservation where Navajo still live by their own efforts, the women have something to say about sheep breeding. Theywantwool, good wool, for weaving. They therefore select for their own work that from the "oldtime Navajo" sheep. I have seen wool of this kind so clean and long that it could be spun without carding. This is not a common occurrence, however.
A real improvement in Navajo flocks must be based upon an intelligent survey of what the breeding is done for. Let us assume, as some estimate, that ten percent of the wool is woven at home by the Navajo women. That is an important ten percent because it furnishes not only the cash resources of the family, but it is also the satisfaction of their creative ability. Twenty percent of the flocks is sold for meat, and twenty percent more is depended on for wool to sell; and at the same time that dealers demand flesh, they demand good pelts, and the qualifications for both go hand in hand. The problem thus becomes the age-old one of a close-to-the-soil, handcraft type of mind struggling to compete with modern business and manufacturing methods.
Excerpted from Weaving a Navajo Blanket by Gladys A. Reichard. Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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