Weaving a Story

The "Sandpainting" weaving features a gray field, in the center of which is a cross done in black and white. The gray field is the universe; the cross is the Navajo symbol for the Spider Woman. Standing on the four principle sections of the cross, facing four different directions, are pairs of figures, done in red, white and black. These small figures represent the Navajos. Four large linear figures, the Yeis, form a frame around the central motif of cross and figures. Here, the Yeis have been conceptualized as being similar to the Navajos, but much larger and more resplendent.

This weaving is one of many in the Spider Woman show on loan from the Harmsen Museum of Art, the Lakewood facility that's yet to be constructed in the proposed Denver West development. The museum may not have a building, but it does have a large Western-themed collection that was put together over the last forty years by Golden millionaires Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, the founders of Jolly Rancher Candies. Other rugs in Spider Woman, as well as pottery and furniture, are part of the permanent collection of the CHM.

The "Sandpainting" piece is hung horizontally, unlike most of the other weavings in the show, which are displayed in the more traditional vertical way. The decision about orienting the rugs was resolved by the original weavers. "Navajo rugs are made in such a way that they are built up in little triangles, instead of having one continuous weft as European weavings do," McArthur says. So by carefully examining their construction, she was able to tell how each of the weavings in Spider Woman was attached to the loom in the first place, and she then hung them accordingly.

After this poetic introduction to weaving handed down by Spider Woman, McArthur gets down to prose in the next gallery by tracing the actual course of weaving among the Navajo. Historians and archaeologists believe that the Navajo learned to weave in the early eighteenth century from the Indians of the Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico. At that time, the nomadic Navajo who had wandered the southern plains came to settle near the Jemez Pueblo. "Interestingly, in the Jemez culture, the men are the weavers, instead of the women," McArthur notes. Why the Navajo women took to weaving instead of the men is unknown, but one advantage of this division of labor was that the women also had control of the sheep, which ultimately gave them independent wealth.

Originally, the Navajo created single-ply handspun yarn prepared from the fleece of each weaver's own flock of sheep. The palette of the resulting rugs and blankets was limited to the color scheme of the sheep, essentially white, cream, beige, tan, gray and black. "The Navajo weavers put a special status on rugs woven using naturally colored yarns alone," says McArthur. But beginning in the mid-1700s, the Navajo also began to use commercially produced yarns--and how they came upon it makes a compelling story.

Through contact with other Indian tribes, or with the Spanish themselves, the Navajo came into possession of red woolen Spanish trade cloth. The red color came from the cochineal beetle of Central America, which the Spanish shipped back to Europe to make dye. The cloth itself was made in a variety of countries, including Britain and France, in addition to Spain. It was then shipped back to the New World as woolen cloth and used as a bartering chit with the Indians throughout Spanish America. When the Navajo got ahold of this cloth, they didn't use it to make clothing the way many other tribes did. Instead, they unraveled it and recycled the yarn to make their own unique woven cloth.

The Spanish, who occupied New Mexico through the mid-nineteenth century and whose presence continues to be felt in that state, did more than provide the Navajo with some added yarn: They also influenced the design of the rugs. The 1875 "Wearing blanket" displays not just the red yarn from the unraveled trade cloth, but the serrate, or serrated motif, that the Navajo also took from the Spanish.

At the CHM, the "Wearing blanket" has been hung on the wall behind a display that includes two mannequins draped in the traditional way the Navajo wore them. One of the mannequins is clad in a "Bosque Redondo wearing blanket" made in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in 1865. This was just a year after the Long Walk, a forced march ordered by Kit Carson as a part of U.S. military policy, during which the Navajo were relocated with much hardship from their homeland. The "Bosque Redondo" blanket, made by a Long Walk survivor, is predominately red with gray stripes, with a bold black-and-white zigzag or serrated pattern running through it.

The Navajo not only wore these blankets but traded them, and they were considered to be, as they still are, valuable commodities. McArthur includes a reproduction of a Cheyenne ledger page that records in pictures the specific years when the Cheyenne traded for blankets from the Navajo.

Having laid out these many didactic concepts related to the impact of trade on the Navajo weavers, McArthur next displays a group of the most beautiful weavings in the show. And though she does not explicitly indicate it, all of them illustrate her points in some way. The "Two-faced, or specialty rug," made around 1885, probably on a commission from a wealthy white settler, is absolutely stunning. What's special about this rug is that it is finished on both sides, which is very rarely seen. Also striking is the forward-looking design: The checkerboard pattern and the elaborate color scheme of red, white, gray, black and yellow suggest a geometric abstract painting done a hundred years later.

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