Generations of Navajo women have sustained their families and their heritage through weaving. The Kennedy Museum of Art, in a new exhibit that draws from its Southwest Native American Collection, honors their work.
Oct. 19, 2005
By Mariel Betancourt
Weaving is (My) Life:
Weavers, volunteers and visitors reflect on weaving and the Kennedy Museum exhibit
Janeece Henes, MED '05, a student in Jennifer McLerran's Native American art history class last fall and a volunteer for the exhibit.
It was a profound experience to see and interact with the weavers who came to visit our art history course. And it was so moving to learn the history of these rugs, how they came to sustain their families and all that the parents -- the mothers, the grandmothers -- had to give up in order to sustain their families.
That's why the women who visited said they value education. Because they had to devote their lives to weaving. That's all they did. To make a weaving, it takes so many hours. And they don't always earn what it's worth, especially the first generation of weavers. So seeing them interacting with the rugs and remembering as children — "I remember my mom weaving that rug" -- or touching it, because it has a spirit to them and it has its own entity, was really amazing.
It really makes you look at your own family and history. Theirs is so different in so many ways. Their lineage. The matriarchy of the Navajo culture. How art is just a part of their daily lives, and there isn't even a word for art (in the Navajo language). How much the landscape is part of their culture and spirituality. Their weaving, their art, is a way of life. It's not really separated how Western culture is, where you go to a studio, and it's a separate place from where you live. It's all just part of their way of living, especially while they take care of the sheep. And they learn to weave by demonstration. Not talking. Not saying, "This is what I'm doing." They just watch. Time after time after time.
Robin White, a Belpre, Ohio, fourth-grade teacher who visited the Kennedy Museum of Art with his class
The students were a little surprised. They weren't sure what to expect -- I don't think any of us knew what to expect. We didn't do a lot of preparation before we visited, so it was a pleasant surprise to all of us.
They liked the Education Room, where they learned how the wool is processed. Even the technology impressed them! The museum had a cordless mouse, and the kids had never seen one before. A lot of them mentioned they liked the combing part. They used two combs and separated the wool, just like the weavers. They really liked that.
One group of students talked about a weaving a couple of kids made, and they were kids their age. That's something that stuck out to them, that kids their age could do that. And it was a good motivator. So many times the ability of kids is downplayed, when we talk about what they can do or can't do. And, at school, we sometimes don't have a way to spark that creative interest. So much of our curriculum is regulated. I do like the regulated curriculum; I think it's important. But I also think you have to find the balance of covering the curriculum and finding a way to engage the interests of the students, too.
Both times that I have visited the Kennedy with students, I have walked away with the same feeling: This is an organization that understands the beauty of art and how it can make an impact on our lives -- especially as children.
Lillie Taylor, mother of Rosie Taylor, of the Indian Wells community of the Navajo Nation
I am Kinyaa'áanii. Honágháahnii I am born for. The Tlááshchí'í people are my grandfathers. The Tótsohníi people are the paternal grandparents. My name is Lillie Taylor. My name used to be Lillie Thomas Taylor. This is where I was raised. This is where I was born. I wasn't born anywhere else, but was raised here.
Very young I became aware of weaving, and even at that young age I also took care of the sheep. That was my job. That's where I learned how to shear. I learned how to work with the wool, and my mother used to card, and I used to want to do the same thing she was doing, and this is how I learned how to weave.
A long time ago, we just had trees or just two poles that you stuck in the ground, and that's what I used as a loom. And that was my first loom -- just two poles that my mother set the warp on. And then she said, "Now you can weave."
My very first weaving I took to the trading post. No, it was taken to the trading post for me. I didn't go to the store, and I don't know how much it was sold for. I really don't know how much they were sold for, for a small weaving like that. Perhaps $3. Perhaps $5. That's my guess. And with my very first weaving my mother brought back a pair of socks for my weaving. So that was my earning, and I remember that day that I earned my very first socks, and I thought that was the greatest thing, and said, "Perhaps I can get another pair of socks."
Irene Hardy Clark, recipient of a Southwest Association on Indian Arts Fellowship, daughter of Glenabah Hardy
I was born here, right here, not too far from here. The name of the location is Gáagii tooh ch'ínílí. And I had a grandmother and a grandfather. That's where they all lived. My grandmother, Mrs. Yazzie, she's the one who gave us this piece of land here. She told her daughter, "My daughter, this is where you will live." And we built our first fire not too far from here under a tree, and that's where our home began.
My mother was doing all the weaving, and she didn't have time to teach me the weaving process because she wove to meet our needs, and that was her only income. I went away to school to Shalako. For six or seven years, I didn't touch weaving. I was away at school, and I didn't learn any more about weaving. That's when I met Mr. Clark, and we started a family, and we lived in Flagstaff.
We moved back home, and still I didn't know how to weave. And then I started buying all different weaving tools and buying some yarn. I kept buying them and put them away. "And maybe one of these days I'm going to learn how to weave," that's what I was thinking.
And I told my mother I was going to learn to weave.
My mother here, she is very thankful for my weaving. She said, "Thank you, my daughter. You learn to weave. This is going to be your life. This is going to be a life. That's your work. That's your job. Your mother is extremely thankful." This is what she told me. "I'm proud of you, that you learned this. Continue the weaving." She told me to keep learning. I'm going to remember my mother for a long time.
Forever I will remember my mother. I'm going to continue weaving. I'm a daughter, and I want my daughter to learn. I want my grandkids to learn.
This is what you call iiná. It is life. It provides many good things; it has money, good food. Weaving gives you good things. This is what it is.
Mariel Betancourt is assistant editor of Ohio Today. This story appears in the Fall 2005 Ohio Today. Susan Green, a writer for University Communications and Marketing, contributed to this story.