“Weaving is a way of sitting still in the harmony place.”
High in the Chuska Mountains on a midsummer afternoon, Mary, a Navajo elder, sits under a juniper, carding wool for a Navajo rug and watching her sheep. The meadow grass is high, its verdant green dotted with purple, white and yellow wildflowers. From the time of her mother's mother, Mary's family has moved their flock from the searing heat of the lower valley to the cool pastures in the Chuska range; the bleating sheep winding their way along well trodden paths near the Crystal highway. Up go the sheep in the spring and down in the fall, in a treasured, repeated ritual.
Mary is a Navajo rug weaver. Her favored rug style the traditional Storm, popularized by JB Moore of the Crystal Trading Post, over 100 years ago. The influence of traders on Navajo rug patterns, color and design has always been strong. Weavers and traders share a long history of collaboration and support in their mutual endeavor to improve and market the weaver's craft.
Mary's weaving tools are gifts from those who wove before her: an upright loom (two poles lashed with crossbeams), shed rod, heddle rod, comb and smooth oak batten, oil rich in lanolin, deeply grooved from years of pressing against warp strings. Her wool preference is natural grey, cream and black, carded and handspun on a drop spindle.
Across the Navajo Reservation this picture is essentially the same. Navajo weavers carrying on the art and tradition of their ancestors, uniting warp and weft, Father Sky and Mother Earth, creating and maintaining hozho, the inner state of Navajo beauty and harmony.
Beyond the similarity in tradition and technique, however, various regions throughout the Reservation have created their own distinctive rug styles. Two Grey Hills rugs are prized for their fine tapestry weaves in natural shades of grey, black, cream and brown. Ganado Red rugs are sought for their boldness of color and geometric design. Lorenzo Hubbell introduced the vibrant red aniline dye at his Ganado Trading Post in the late 1800's. Wide Ruins and Burntwater rugs are outstanding examples of finely spun, vegetal dyed wool in intricate and interlocking patterns. Sage, rabbit brush, wild onion, parsley, wildflowers and numerous root stocks provide the source for the soft rainbow of colors.The Yei and Yei Bi Chei rugs of the Shiprock and Lukachukai areas are colorful weavings representing spiritual deities and the Yei Bi Chei dancers of the winter Nightway Ceremony. Other rug styles include Klagetoh, modern Crystal, saddle blankets, Tree of Life and the Chief rug with its wide bands of red, white and indigo blue.
One traditional feature in Mary's weavings, and common in many bordered rugs, is the Spirit Line, a thin thread of wool leading out from the central rug pattern to the selvage edge. The Navajo have many interpretations for this thread, variously calling it “the pathway, gateway, doorway or way out.” Mary believes her mind and spirit will be trapped in the rug if she neglects to put it in.
In the late afternoon Mary guides her flock back to the family homestead, a log hogan, summer cooking shade and sheep corral. The sun's rays strike the surrounding orange cliffs in a blaze of color. Tomorrow will be a repetition for Mary, a tradition for her, in weaving and walking the Navajo Beauty Way.