The book is a fascinating story of the daily lives of a Navajo family both at, and away from the loom. Spider Woman's picture of daily life goes far beyond rugs to describe trips to the trading post, tribal council meetings, curing ceremonies, and the deaths of family members. Spider Woman is valued today not just for its information on Navajo culture but as an early example of the kind of personal, honest ethnography that presents actual experiences and conversations rather than generalizing the beliefs and behaviors of a whole culture.
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A Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters
Gladys A. Reichard
© David De Angelis 2017 – all rights reserved
6. MARIE LEARNS TO WEAVE
8. AT THE WELL
9. TAKING COUNSEL
16. SHEEP DIPPING
17. HOUSE GUARDIAN
19. SHOOTING CHANT
20. COMMUNION OF SUFFERING
21. THE GODS INVITED
22. THE HOLY TWINS
23. SUN'S HOUSE
24. THE GODS ACCEPT
26. THE KINNI'S-SONS
28. WHITE-SANDS DESOLATED
29. WAR DANCE
30. KILLING THE GHOST
31. MARIE'S LITTLE LAMB
34. COLLECTING PLANTS
35. FATHER'S SISTER
36. DEGREE IN WEAVING
The Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters is self-explanatory as to characters and circumstances. The only distortion of which I am conscious is a slight one of time and sequence. There is no twisting of facts; if there is of interpretation it is because of lack of understanding rather than of the will to understand.
My acknowledgments must be necessarily feeble in proportion to the harvest I have reaped of good will and kindness. The first are due to the Southwest Society, which had enough faith in a dubious undertaking to start me on my way. I thank next the Council for Research in the Social Sciences of Columbia University, which kept me going once I had started.
When I consider the service, spiritual and physical, rendered by the members of the J. L. Hubbell Trading Post, Ganado, Arizona, I am overwhelmed with the inadequacy of my vocabulary. Mr. Roman Hubbell, Old-Mexican's-Son, understood in a flash my somewhat difficult problems, and when he suggested Red-Point's family as the one with which to work he put the stamp of success on my project. He himself is a constant source of stimulation and inspiration as he follows my progress with evereager interest and coöperation. The sentiment applies equally to Mr. Lorenzo Hubbell of Oraibi.
My thanks to Mrs. Goodman, Mrs. Parker, Mrs. Hubbell, and their children are of the kind the lone stranger must have mentally accorded to the Good Samaritan when he came to.
The debt I contracted when I accepted the generalized information collected by Mr. Lloyd Ambrose (Mr. Little-Man-with-the-Spectacles) and Mr. Horace Boardman (Mr. Short-Pants) is one which can never be canceled since it is measured in the saving of that most rare and precious commodity, time. Mrs. Laura Armer (WhiteHaired-White-Woman) made the same sort of contribution. I am indebted to Franc J. Newcomb for the double sand-painting.
Can words express the satisfaction the acquisition of the friendship of a family like Red-Point's can give? I have tried to let Spider Woman make my declaration for me.
To Ruth M. Underhill, Charlotte Leavitt Dyer, and Elizabeth Howsare I waft gratitude for constructive criticism of the manuscript, and to Adele Froehlich for "walking happily" amidst the mechanical drudgery necessary to its preparation. There are many others who have helped by their interest and suggestions; I have not forgotten them, nor am I unappreciative.
I cannot sign my name to this and leave out the word "hospitality." I find the Southwest ever hospitable and, in emphasizing my feeling of well-being there, must refer back to the residents of the Southwest previously mentioned as largely responsible for it. This includes all their families and many others which the exigencies of space forbid me naming individually.
Gladys A. Reichard
Barnard College, New York City.
White-Sands lay silent and motionless in the dead light of mid-afternoon. Here and there a soft, capricious wind stirred up a tiny whirl of dust. A muffled lazy cluck came from a contented huddle of feathers where a hen leisurely gave herself a dust bath. Even the decrepit horde of mongrel dogs was scattered, asleep, or at least indifferent. The few houses with their covering of clay merged into the dull background of the clearing apparently devoid of life. A few yards north of the largest hut was a queer structure. An indeterminate arrangement of odds and ends of sticks and boards from packing boxes was stuck upright in the ground, forming an uncertain circle beginning at the trunk of a gnarled and northward-leaning piñon which served as a roof to this thing. For want of a better name it must be called a shade, because it served as such; but it is strictly individualistic: there was never a structure like it before, it would be impossible to duplicate it. Across the entrance of this affair two boards were laid as a barrier—against what, it is hard to say, for animals could gain ingress at almost any crack. If one crack were too small, a larger one could be found with ease, or the boards could be nosed farther apart at their loose upper ends. The barrier showed, however, that the people who used the shade were elsewhere.
A large dome-shaped hut appeared to be the center of the small settlement. The door was closed but the lock hung loose in the hasp. A cursory glance through the crack above the door showed that it, like the shade, was empty. We opened the door upon a neat silence. There was a broad expanse of carefully swept sand floor, hard and smooth from use, around two sides of which sheepskins, freshly shaken and fluffy, were laid. A large loom occupied the entire height and width of the north side of the house. A blanket five feet wide, about one-quarter finished, of gray, black, white, and tan was strung on it. A small packing case stood on the floor at the right. It contained the worker's yarns, weaving combs and the other small implements of her craft. Her batten was neatly laid between the top cords that fasten the movable part of her loom to the loom proper. All these signs told us of a good weaver who had left her work temporarily.
Carefully closing the door upon the cool silence, we sought further for the inhabitants. At a considerable distance to the south and slightly west is another hut, like the first in all but size, for this one is smaller. It, too, is dome-shaped and blends into the sand background of the clearing. But the door of this one, at the east as was the other, is open, and from its interior comes a dull thump thump, the sound of the comb pounding firmly, regularly, and rapidly the yarn which is becoming a Navajo rug. We stand respectfully at the doorway for a time, looking in and allowing our eyes to become accustomed to the dimness of the light, a contrast to the harsh glare from which we came. The woman, sitting on the floor before the loom at the west side continues thumping her comb, as if we did not exist, her way of greeting us respectfully.
This house bulges with life. Bursting sacks of wool hang from its sides. Long, clean, brightly colored skeins of spun yarn hang from the beams and loom posts. The box on the floor at the woman's side has strands of pink and red, orange and green, brown, gray and black yarn fringing its edges. Each one holds itself in readiness to be pulled by its mistress' skilful fingers. A cat rubs our legs, by way of investigative greeting, and returns to her litter of kittens behind the loom. A white dog with a black ear, no larger than a puppy herself, gives a warning yelp notifying us to keep clear of her two pups behind the flour box.
Now Old-Mexican's-Son, the trader, who is introducing me, directs a witty greeting to the woman at the loom. She, for the first time, shows awareness of our presence. We enter. The trader, who is at home in this Indian family, after pushing aside several dogs, uncertainly tolerant, and removing a pile of wool set out for the carding, finds himself a place on a soft sheepskin where he half reclines, lighting his pipe. The woman interrupts her weaving long enough to turn on me a gleaming smile and to indicate a strong low box on which I, being a stranger, may sit. As we talk and smoke, the woman weaves, her swiftly moving fingers causing the blanket to grow visibly. As I watch, I am consumed with envy mingled with admiration, for this is what I have come to learn.
The talk first locates the members of the family. The old mother, whose blanket stands upright in its loom, quiet and unfinished, is hoeing corn about half a mile away. Her husband, Red-Point, the head of this family, is at Ganado, six miles away, directing the irrigation of his fields. The woman, with her lips pursed toward the west, indicates that her sister, Marie, whom we came to see, is at her own home.
Conversation between the trader and the weaver continues, he sometimes interpreting for me, as the afternoon drones on. A lamb bleats at the door, comes in and smells us all, takes a drink from a basin near the entrance, walks over to her mistress for petting. Various goats and sheep, all pets, and dogs stalk in and are chased out by an unconvincing "Su! Su!" A baby, just able to walk, peeps shyly around the doorpost and backs away. Her sister, two years older, somewhat bolder, comes in and settles between her aunt and the trader, not daring to take her position near the strange white woman, to whom she is nevertheless attracted. The trader has learned where everybody is, that Marie will doubtless sell him a sheep, and he now comes to the main business of the day.
Here is a white woman, peculiar in many ways, who wants to learn to weave. As he tells the weaver this, she darts at me a pleased but quizzical look. Furthermore this white woman wants to live right here with the Indians. She wants to have a shade like theirs. She wants a loom anchored to the ground at which she can sit as they sit, on the ground. She wants to learn to weave as Navajo women weave. This particular Navajo woman is interested, but she cannot help being amused. The white woman had shown she liked the weaver from the moment she saw her, the weaver had reciprocated. But, if Marie is to teach her, we must see Marie.
The weaver finishes thumping down the row of yarn she has just laid in along her carefully parted warps, removes her batten, and lays it carefully along the upper cords of her loom. She then winds into its respective ball each thread of the variegated fringe hanging over her wool-box. We all rise, and with a comprehensive "Su! Su!" at the various animals who do not belong in the house, we go out into a different world.
White-Sands has come to life. The sun is on its rapid way to the west. The sand, no longer dull brown, has turned to rose, the piñons and junipers, in mid-afternoon dark dots on the landscape, now cast long purple shadows over the rose-colored earth; shadows draw the scattered objects—trees, houses, corrals, even bunches of grass—into a mellow, homelike whole, a contrast of rose and darkness and over all a golden glow. From the south comes a bleating within a cloud of gold dust. The flocks are coming home. Along the road from the same direction the clatter of wagon wheels and the deliberate tread of horses. The dogs, now an active antagonistic band, make ready to meet the horses with ear-splitting barks. The driver, complacently singing in a high falsetto, patiently urges the horses on.
We go toward Marie's house, but the children—there are now five—indicate that she is at the corral behind her house. Here we find her smiling a shy greeting as she stands among the sheep and goats, animated bunches of wool milling around and around her. Old-Mexican's-Son bargains for his sheep amidst the moving, bleating, belching, coughing flock. In an offhand way he remarks that I am coming here Monday morning to learn to weave (today is Saturday). He wants Tom, who is driving in now with the filled water barrels, to make me a shade by that time, when I will move in. No one denies the trader a wish, much less this Navajo family, whose daughters grew up with him. In a more timidly offhand manner they acquiesce, and we with a "Well, let's go!" start back to the trading post in my new Ford, which now interests dogs, children and grown-ups alike. Monday morning I will begin to learn to weave.
Upon my arrival at White-Sands early Monday morning the dogs give me a vociferous and unfriendly welcome. I turn off the motor of Jonathan, my Ford, and wait until Red-Point quiets them. His few decided words cause them to slink in all directions, tails between legs, growling, disgruntled, thwarted. Several women, among them the old mother of the family, stand before the entrance of the shade, holding their hands before their mouths with shyness, ready to duck into the shade at a second's notice. This is not my first experience with the Navajo, and I have already learned to observe the short period of silence required by good manners when coming to a house. This over, I am not obliged to hunt up the family. Marie approaches from her home preceded by her husband, Tom, a lean handsome fellow smiling a welcome.
"We didn't build a shade. There is a storehouse up here. The old man thought it would be a better place for you to live than a shade. At this time of the year there are so many gnats. You can look at it, and if you don't like it we can build you a shade."
So saying, Tom leads off followed by me and the bevy of women and children who have assembled. He leads us to the apparent hole-in-the-ground which is from this time on to be considered mine. It is dug out of the earth about five feet deep.
To enter, we go down a step cut out of the ground, take two paces along a passage and down one more high step. Within, it is cool and comfortable. It has been neatly swept, and in some respects is more desirable than the ordinary Navajo hogan, or house. No one has ever lived in it—it has been used as a storeplace for wool in the winter. It is spacious, about twelve by fifteen feet in size and at least six feet high, and the light, from the large doorway at the east, is good—almost a studio light—at all times of the day.
It takes no time for us to move my possessions, modest as they are, into the storehouse. Tom shoulders the army trunk full of heavy books; Marie gets hold of the blanket roll; her sister, Atlnaba, the first one of the family I had met two days before at her weaving, takes hold of one end of the grub-box, and I of the other. The bustle is short-lived. Within a few minutes my baggage is in place. The trunk makes a good table, but Marie, accustomed to white people's ways, sends a young girl to RedPoint's house for a homemade table. She sends her niece to her own house for a wagon cover which she lends me indefinitely for a carpet. My house is furnished, and we view the prospects for weaving.
I convince them that I really want to learn, and, satisfied that the house suits me and assured that I want to start weaving, the sooner the better, Tom starts off to make the loom-frame. The south side of the house is an ideal place for the simple structure. He has only to measure the space with his eye, get his ax from his own house, and he is off to hew the necessary parts from trees on the place. During the time he is gone we women settle for a talk to get acquainted. While we talk, Marie's mother, Maria Antonia, comes in. She could not come while Tom, her son-in-law, was there, for Navajo women never "see" their sons-in-law. One of the children, with a word and a gesture, has informed her that he is gone for a goodly period of time and she may now come in to satisfy her curiosity.
The women visiting me at this time are my three teachers, Maria Antonia, the old woman who made her daughters famous; Atlnaba, who now with the energy of youth surpasses her mother; and Marie, a self-taught expert and my interpreter. Maria Antonia's smile is not less sweet because toothless. Marie is not less energetic or enduring because comfortably plump. With these exceptions every member of the family, male and female alike, gives a first impression of wiry leanness and of perfect teeth. Herding sheep and riding horseback keep down superfluous fat, constant chewing of freshly killed mutton makes teeth strong and white.
Marie, as interpreter, enumerates the members of the family and tells me their names, those given them by whites and their real Navajo names. She tells me also how old each person is. I, in turn, tell them how old I am, how many older brothers and sisters I have, how many younger, how I teach girls in winter, visit and learn from Indians in summer, and why I want to learn to weave.
Now a child, playing outside, gives a warning, and Maria Antonia disappears. Within a few minutes Tom comes in again with three freshly cut poles, perhaps four inches in diameter, on his shoulder. He has hacked off the bark but has taken no pains to smooth the surface. On the contrary, he has purposely avoided the smoothness of which his ax is capable, for the rough protuberances will prove useful to us. He brings also a smooth four-by-four stringer about seven feet long. He lays these materials on the floor along the side where the loom is to be. Accepting a proffered cigarette, he squats near the doorway, his weight on his right foot and on the toes of his left, for a short rest.
Red-Point, the patriarch, comes as head of the household to perform his duties of welcome. He admires the coolness and comfort of my house. It is cooler than his and the others because it is underground. For his benefit and Tom's I repeat details of my age, my interests, and my family relationships. Red-Point approves of Tom's choice of posts for the loom, and makes several suggestions about setting them up. He stays only a cigarette interval, saying he must find his horse to go to Ganado. The time is long enough, however, to make me feel thoroughly at home, to convey verbally the feeling which the women only smile, that they are glad to have me here. They are glad I want to learn to weave; they hope they will teach me to weave well.
Our first visit, during which we have become acquainted, has strung along. The sun, slanting diagonally through the narrow wooden ventilator in the center of my roof, shows it is long past noon. The women at last file reluctantly out of my house, leaving me for brief contemplation and realization of my surroundings. My house differs from the Navajo hogan in that it has no smokehole, hence no place for a fire. But even had there been one, I should hardly have used it in the summer. At the crude fireplace of stones a few feet from my door I boil some coffee to supplement my lunch menu of baked beans and cheese. I find an arrangement of army trunk as seat in front of which I place Marie's table quite satisfactory.
As I eat, I examine the details of my house, a matter for which I had little time when entertaining my colorful visitors. The walls and floor are of natural sand hardened by use. As a foundation for the roof, small poles, an inch or two in diameter, are laid with one end on a ridgepole, the other on the ground wall. The even rows of poles form my ceiling. Over the poles soft juniper bark lies, to hold the outer covering of sand packed on when it was wet. The house, though desirably cool, is also snug. Only when the rainy season begins can I tell whether or not it is waterproof. It is early June, and there may be a month before that test will come. As the afternoon wind blows the sand about my house and the flies buzz in the sunshine outside the open door, I consider how lucky I am not to have to depend on a shade, open on four sides, for protection. I consider also the disposition of the contents of my bags, but only briefly, for Tom and Marie are back, ready to erect the loomframe.
It is a simple affair composed of rough poles, a crosspiece fastened to the floor with wedges, and two uprights made firm to the roof at the top with balewire. Tom fits the parts in place, Marie holds them for him as he fastens them. It is not long before the loomframe is not only in place but also firmly supported.
Tom stays only long enough for us to approve and admire the loomframe. I thank him and he departs, for Red-Point has asked him to round up the small herd of cattle for branding, and he has to catch his horse. As soon as Tom is well out of sight and there is no reason to expect his return for some hours, Maria Antonia comes in to help Marie string up my first blanket. Marie has brought warp, a large assortment of string, and two pieces of broomstick, each about two and one-half feet long. Maria Antonia brings in two short heavy logs and sends her granddaughter, Ninaba, for the two slender poles which are leaning against the piñon tree north of my dwelling.
With these miscellaneous-looking materials they proceed to construct a loomframe, or temporary loom. After fixing it horizontally on the floor of the house so that it cannot move, they string the warp, keep alternate strands separate by means of reeds and bind the ends with a kind of braiding. My first effort is to be only modest in size, somewhat over three hands wide and five long. A hand is the distance between the end of the thumb and the end of the middle finger. Since the rug is small, it is relatively easy to string. As Marie winds warp about two poles, her mother sits by, and we talk.
Marie says the hardest part of making a rug is stringing the warp. Some women never learn to do it. Often blankets are so large that they cannot be set up in the house. Then the temporary loom is laid outside on the ground and the tedious stringing is done by several women who consider themselves specialists at it. A woman, though expert, may require help in setting up one only four feet wide by six feet long.
Our hand measures are quite different. We measure off a comparison. It takes six of Marie's to make five of mine. Marie never makes a blanket an exact number of hands long or wide, and she says no other Navajo woman does. She allows an extra inexact measure, slightly less than half a hand.
After the braiding has been put on both ends of the warp, the parts of the temporary loom are untied and put away, and the warp lies a mass of writhing curls which if carefully handled remains orderly.
To an accompaniment of quiet conversation the women perform the succeeding steps of the warp stringing. They fasten the curling mass to sticks. With a clothesline they attach the sticks wound with strings to the loomframe which Tom has erected. They use the stringer which he left on the ground as the top, and fourth side of their frame. It can be moved up or down according to the length of the warp they are using. The roughness he has left in trimming it keeps the rope from slipping.
The warp now stands upright, firmly but loosely fastened. Now with reeds and loops of string Marie makes a "harness" which henceforth will allow us to separate the alternate strands of the warp. This is called a heald or heddle. Every other warp strand is caught up in one of its loops, so that if we pull the reed forward alternate threads will move to the front. A second reed without loops lies behind all the strands which are not caught into the heald loops. By manipulating the heald and rod properly we shall form spaces, called sheds, between the warps through which we can carry our yarn.
All this time I am an interested, if somewhat bewildered, onlooker. The process seems to me very complicated. The hands of these women are so skilful that I despair of ever competing with them in dexterity. They can even talk while they twine and braid and loop. They do not seem to think about what they are doing. But, let one of them make a move out of order, the other laughingly reminds her of her mistake.
It has taken less than two hours to make the loom. For Marie not only strung the warps but also made her loom as she proceeded. Tomorrow we will begin. I can hardly keep my fingers off the loom. I am not overly successful at disguising my eagerness. I know no Navajo would exhibit this kind of enthusiasm, even though she had it. Nevertheless, it pleases Marie as she leaves me with a tolerant smile.
At last I am alone. So many new things, the minutest details of which must be observed, all casually done by Marie and Maria Antonia. I have the idea I must learn them all at once. I know very little Navajo but during the entire day I have kept my ear cocked for words I could understand and have tried to use such simple words as I have picked up. If I elicit a burst of laughter from my visitors, I know from previous experience that I have pronounced the words correctly. If they are not perfect I get a puzzled look of non-comprehension or a correction conscientiously and seriously made. It has all kept me on the qui vive, but now I realize I am utterly exhausted. Coffee and tobacco are reviving, as is food. Supper is simple and brief as possible, for I do not want to miss a moment of outdoors at this time of day. I take my bed roll outside my house, lay it on the gentle smooth slope of my housetop, a vantage point from which the whole settlement may be observed.
I have had scant opportunity to become acquainted with the exterior of my dwelling. Leaning against my bed roll, I have leisure to enjoy the panorama. At this, the hour of sunset, the Southwest condenses its charm. The desert addict may not know it, but this hour is the cause of his nostalgia when he is elsewhere—yes, even in a sense when he is here. My eye roves from the rose-colored sand still covered with graygreen grass because of late rains, to the hoar-green sagebrush and over the somewhat lumpy plain abundantly dotted with pine and juniper. It is too early in the season for clouds, and the clear turquoise of the sky blends with pure lemon, gold, and red. To the east, at my right, a piñon and a juniper mingle their branches so closely I am sometimes deluded into thinking the composite is a botanical freak.
There's a gentle tinkling of bells from the south and east. Shouts accompany a collective thud of little feet becoming louder as it slowly approaches. A schoolgirl twirls a rattle, a tin can in which several pebbles have been enclosed, on the end of a string, causing the flock to veer toward the corral. Ninaba's red velvet shirt is a jewel in a wiggling fuzzy white setting. The approaching flock is like a mob of impolite humans. The goats belch and cough; one stops to nibble a likely sage bush; another eats the lower branches of a piñon. Still another finds its way into my house. I think of chasing it out, but I am too comfortable to get up; and anyway there is nothing it can harm. The sheep munch digressively along, slowly as they dare, ever interrupted by their herders; a ewe calls her wandering bleating lamb, lost through curiosity.
Fire gleams through the cracks of the shade made of odds and ends fitted about the piñon tree where Maria Antonia does her summer work. She is out at the woodpile making the chips fly. Her beehive of activity is within calling, but not within talking, distance of me. The smoke of her cedar fire, mingled with the pungent odor of the sage stirred up by the chewing goats, and with the dust of their pawing, is wafted to me on the gentlest and coolest of breezes. Along the old road from the north a rider appears. He is Curley's-Son, Atlnaba's husband, Tom's brother. Tired with the day's farming, he sings a weird song for company as his white horse lopes through the gathering darkness. A dog, tail between legs, in sneaky quiet, makes a foraging tour of my fireplace. The sheep, protesting or conversing ever more quietly, snuggle contentedly into the dust of the corral behind me. I think of Joanna Godden.
Old trite phrases come to me—"witching hour," "peace that passeth all understanding," a Navajo group I never before fully comprehended:
With beauty above me I lie down,
With beauty below me I lie down,
With beauty before me I lie down, With beauty behind me I lie down, With beauty all around me I lie down.
The place I accidentally chose in my weariness has become my permanent sleeping porch. From it I may look into the Great Dipper all night. Queer how high they hang it out here. Perhaps because they have so little water they do not want anyone to reach it easily; he might spill it. These first nights I spend very little time star-gazing.
The next thing I am aware of is the sun's white light, a warning that he will soon peep over the horizon. This is the time a good Navajo gets up. But I am not a good Navajo, and I wink sleepily at him; he tolerates my blink as I roll over in my comfortable blankets for another hour of sleep. The branches of the freak piñon-juniper keep his rays from my eyes until the indecently late hour of six-thirty.
I am awakened a second time by a goat who wants to know what this new kind of grass is. Ghats always want to know things. Dazedly I twirl my blanket strap at her and look about me. Once more long shadows, but these are clear, taut, and energetic, not softly focused and relaxing like the patterns drawn by the setting sun. The sheep have begun their lively munching, the goats their eternal uncomprehending researches. Maria Antonia is at her wood-chopping again after lighting her fire of cedar. Women trail vigorously back and forth from the old mother's shade to their own houses, their full ruffled skirts billowing behind them. The children are teasing the calf, the dogs wait on the outskirts of all this activity for the least sign of a morsel.
I am scarcely through with my morning routine, simple and brief though it is, before Marie is with me. From my lookout on the trunk I have noticed that our warp is not straight. It is noticeably shorter at the left side than at the right. I call it to Marie's attention and she calmly says, yes, she noticed it yesterday before she left. She had measured with a string the distance on the two sides of the temporary frame when she strung it, but she must have made a mistake, or more probably a crosspole slipped before it was quite tight. She sits before the loom and begins at about the middle to pull each warp at top and bottom, working toward the left, until the whole looks more even. Her patience is matched only by my impatience at this delay. At last it is straighter, although even to my crooked eye, not absolutely so.
I have chosen to make first a blanket of stripes using the typical Navajo colors, black, red, white, and gray. Marie begins with black. She makes the start so deftly that I do not learn until we start our next blanket that the first rows are different from the succeeding ones. She pulls the heald with her left hand, flicks the warp with the spread fingertips of her right, inserts a broad smooth stick called the batten, and turns it. She throws her yarn through, pounds it down, and withdraws the batten. Now she presses the heald rod against the loops of the heald and she has a different shed, the alternate warps are forward. A casual flip of the fingers across the warp, and the weft throwing and pounding are repeated.
I at first think this flipping an unnecessary, possibly an aesthetic gesture like the elaborate motions of a bootblack's flannel. But when I take up the weaving position myself I find it serves a very useful purpose. The texture of the warp changes somewhat from the time it is first strung up to the time the blanket is finished. It is a hard-spun strong yarn, but still capable of much stretching. For this reason the warp must be tightened much more frequently at the beginning of the weaving than after it approaches the center. Furthermore there are wool fibers, so small as not to be easily discernible, which catch one another and prevent the sheds from being completely thrown. The swift light flip of the fingers separates such of these fibers on the forward warps as adhere to those behind. Constant friction of fingers, batten, comb, and yarn wears off these fibers so that as the weaving proceeds to the middle of the loom length, they are gone leaving a smooth tight warp.
Marie weaves about half of the narrow beginning black stripe, then, handing me the comb, tells me to try it myself. It is the moment I have longed for. All those things which are done so easily, so casually by the Navajo women begin to take on unsuspected difficulties when I try them. I have to think of the smallest details as if they were significant. I have for some years prided myself on being able to sit like a Navajo woman with both legs folded back at the right side and with no support for the back. But I now realize that sitting that way for a few minutes and changing posture is a different matter from remaining in the position for several hours with no satisfactory shift. And sitting is not the whole consideration. I am at the same time pounding down the yarn to the floor level and the resultant kink in the shoulder is quickly noticeable, or would be if I were not too interested in the details of my new craft.
I do not even know which way to hold the comb or batten. Marie, laughing at my awkwardness, shows me that the wide part of the batten is the top, the slightly concave side the front. I learn to hold it at the center with thumb at the front, two fingers behind it. This position allows sufficient control in inserting it. I know the principle of the sheds, but knowing and doing are different matters. I quickly learn how to alternate the heald and heald rod, but even now, after I have become proficient at weaving, the arrangement seems somewhat miraculous to me, and in those early days I had to think out each shift.
After I have my shed thrown and my batten in, Marie shows me how to hold the comb. Its tapering handle rests on the bone of the lower thumb joint; the comb is held loosely between the first two and the last two fingers. Since we are weaving stripes which extend across the entire width of the blanket, it is possible to throw the yarn or weft all the way across if it is wound on a reed about twelve to fifteen inches long. This is a crude shuttle. We have one for each color to be laid in stripes. In all other cases we carry the yarn through with the fingers.
After I have got as far as inserting my first weft yarn, I press it down with the batten, as I have seen Navajo women do, or as I thought I had seen them do. "Why do you do that?" says Marie. "I thought that's the way you do," say I meekly. "Never," says Marie emphatically. "Only poor weavers do that. You should pound it down tight with the comb."
I manage to do so, but in my concentration to handle the comb properly I have dropped the batten. It has turned over and I have to figure out its top and front once more. The next time I carefully pull out the batten and hold it in place only to find I have laid down my comb. I fumble for it and get it once more into position. Within a few days during which I not only weave but watch the others for hours on end, I learn by an almost imperceptible motion to shift the comb from the position necessary for pounding to the position of rest.
Theoretically the healds regulate the warp; actually one must be constantly on guard, especially at the beginning of the rug where the warp is rough and stretchy, against picking up a warp or a series of them from the wrong set. A little practice shows me such mistakes as I weave along, and I gradually get a feeling of intimacy for the strands.
I am now beginning to coördinate healds, batten, comb, shedding, inserting the weft and pounding it down. True I occasionally hit my knees with the comb, but my injuries have no interest for me except later in retrospect. In addition to all these matters I am bothered seriously by the heavy double binding strands. They are not a part of the loom, but are tied to the upper and lower sticks after the loom is complete. Nevertheless they are of primary importance. I learn from Marie that the test of a blanket is its edge. If it is bound in evenly it will not pull when the weaving is done, it will exhibit a pleasing purl at the exact center of the rug's thickness, and it will run exactly parallel to the opposite edge its entire length. In other words, the width of the blanket will be uniform throughout.
I must not forget to include these edge strands; I must twist them properly and give an additional twist at proper intervals.
As I throw the lumpy shuttle reeds from right to left and from left to right, I find that my stripe sags in the middle, in fact sags badly. I have noticed that expert weavers often place additional weft strands at what seem arbitrary places and for short distances. They know that an unevenness of only a thread's width will be a fault. I have allowed mine to become a veritable scallop before Marie suggests my filling it in. Had I been as discerning as she, one row would have done the trick. As it is, I must work with it for several rows and even then the stripe is far from straight. I have also a convex scallop at a different place from the sagging one. I can find no reason for this, but in her matter-of-fact way Marie tightens the warp; and after several rows of filling in, the difficulty is overcome. Once in a while Marie rescues the blanket from my blundering fingers. She tightens the warp, straightens the stripes, corrects the edges.
As I struggle along, learning to control unaccustomed muscles, Marie sits by my side watching carefully lest I make a mistake. We don't talk much, except about the points of the weaving. A child doesn't talk when he is learning to write. Besides, Marie does not "tell" when teaching. She "shows." The Navajo word for "teach" means "show" and is absolutely literal. As the minutes fly, Marie winds the colors on my reeds.
I have come toward the top of my second stripe, a red one, when Maria Antonia comes in. She shows Marie that the left edge is drawing in. Marie takes the comb from me, turns it, and with its sharp point loosens the weft on the left side by pulling it up and spreading the warp with strong horizontal movements which look dangerous to me. I have yet to learn that any blanket worth a continental will survive a greater pressure than this, that all calculations are made on the basis of this tremendous strain. Another row or so shows that even this treatment is not sufficiently drastic, and the women see the rug still drawing in. I myself see nothing to fuss about. I am to get the shock all at once much later.
Maria Antonia cuts out the sixth warp from the left, eliminates it entirely. I weave on for several rows as she watches. Marie has shown me how to lay the weft so that it will not pull in; she has also shown me how to manipulate my comb with a subtle twist so that the yarn will lie more loosely. But it is only much later, after I have practised alone considerably, that I rediscover this subtlety. I hit upon it accidentally and analyze it; from that time on it is mine. My attempts at laying the yarn loosely are unsuccessful, and now Maria Antonia, as a last resort, ties a piece of warp yarn firmly into the finished web and hitches it to the left upright of the loomframe. I have seen many a Navajo at her weaving, but never have I seen a makeshift like this. The feature most humiliating to me is that the edge does not look crooked to me, at least not very crooked.
The argument of the two women and their taking over the weaving for a few minutes have been an immense relief for me. I have become almost too stiff to move. They laugh at me and say, as I draw my legs slowly but lengthily forth from the folds of my skirt, "You are like a stick."
My hand feels better for the respite also, as does my shoulder. The comb, being heavy because of the notion this family has that the batten must not be used for pounding home the weft, comes down with the cunning torture of a minor inquisition on the bone of the second thumb joint. This particular point of the weaver's anatomy receives all the impact of the weft's reaction. Small wonder it is that many Navajo use light combs and rely on the batten for beating the weft tight, at least where it is laid straight. I am still feeling too inferior to mention this slight annoyance, but secretly I am pleased to stop for a moment.
I have finished four stripes, a little less than a hand, at the end of this my first day, a black, a red, a white, and a gray one. With standards not very highly developed I am quite pleased with the result of my handiwork as I, eating supper, view it from my trunk. The red stripe lies straighter than the black, the white deviates less than the red. With the gray I have had more trouble than with any, but its upper edge, although not completely satisfactory, is nevertheless acceptable.
I have sampled yarn of every color. The white is the most even, the red next because it is the white which has been dyed. Dyeing apparently packs the fibers, making them firm and even. I suspect that black is always uneven—a suspicion which learning to card later corroborates. The wool of the black sheep has a short staple; it is crimpy, and no amount of hand treatment will make it smooth and regular like the white. The gray I am using is a combination of white and black, blended in carding, and it has a lumpy texture which must continually be counteracted by filling in.
This second evening as I take account of my achievement I can only wonder where the day has gone. My legs are stiff, I have a knot in the muscle of my right shoulder, my hands are cramped, a hangnail on the index finger has been irritated by the warp, my head is weary from concentration.
But as I lean against my, blanket roll in the magic of the short twilight my fingers itch to do "just one more row."
Marie, arriving early the next morning, finds my hands decorated. I am wearing my favorite blue bandana folded thickly tied around my thumb joint and fastened about my wrist with a square knot I achieved with the aid of my teeth. A neat strip of adhesive around my index finger protects the hangnail, caused by the dryness of the air, from catching into the threads. When Maria Antonia comes in, she laughs quietly but mirthfully into her lap, covering her mouth with her hand. She shows me a thick callus on the bone of her thumb. I respect that scar—it is a monument to the scores of beautiful blankets Maria Antonia has woven. And now I know that I am not alone in my infirmity. The pain on my own blue-bandaged prominence is less poignant; it has become an honorable scar. I shall try to go forward to the callus ideal.
The next two days the adhesive rings advance progressively. If I haven't an index finger hangnail to catch into the warps, I develop one on my middle finger. Obstruct that one, and there is one on the third finger. At its most ornamental stage my right hand has a bandana and three adhesive rings on the first joints. Those of the family who drop in to see my progress—that means the entire family—smile sympathetically with me. Rarely do they laugh at me. I accomplish more each day, the work looks better; I achieve it with greater ease.
We stop weaving for several days because there is no more white or gray yarn. Marie and I take time to card, my contribution not adding much to the accumulating pile of fluffiness. The position necessary for carding has my hands cramped in less time than it takes to card a single portion. The next day, however, I can keep at it half an hour. Ninaba and Maria Antonia take their turns with the extra pair of towcards when they come in to visit. I try spinning too when Marie takes to it. It is not a difficult operation although it is not easy to obtain creditable results. Spinning, like bicycle riding, is an art which cannot be taught. It can be "shown"; after that only practise will bring forth a satisfactory result.
Marie tells me—for we have ample opportunity for conversation now—that not all women can spin, even though they are good weavers. They procure their yarn from friends, some of whom specialize in warp yarn, and others in weft. All, doubtless, know how to card, but it is not a favorite diversion. If carding cramps my hands, it is no different with theirs. They are more accustomed, but hands and shoulders become weary, for it is hard work. Besides it is dirty. Contrary to the common notion, wool is not usually cleaned before it is carded. Washing mats it and makes it difficult to card. The carding itself removes a great amount of dirt. Sand and other dirt loosened by the teeth of the towcards fall out of the wool. Before carding, it may be a yellow lumpy matted mass. It comes forth from the cards of an expert in a white fluffy shapely rectangular pad. I like wool in almost any state or form, but it is most attractive at this stage.
I try my little stint of carding and spinning but soon leave Marie to visit the other members of the family, who are doing attractive things. Red-Point is a chanter. That is to say, he knows medicine and can sing for days and nights on end the orderly rites which the Navajo believe cure disease, avert bad luck, and bring good. The chants which I think of as charms include singing, administration of herbal medicine, and application of sacred objects to the body. Among the most sacred are the sandpaintings, made at particular times during the chant, by artists allowing colored sands to sift through their fingers in the most incredible and regular manner. The result is an astonishing composition of symbolical figures in the softest shades of black, blue, yellow, white, red, and pink on a pale tan background. The artists themselves need skill, but they need not know the pictures. That is the duty of the chanter who directs them. The art, a beautiful and unusual one, is evanescent. Paintings which take hours to make are, by the rules of the chant, ruined in twenty minutes, removed in less than half an hour after their completion.
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