Magazine article Insight on the News

Navajos Struggle to Keep Weaving Tradition Alive

Magazine article Insight on the News

Navajos Struggle to Keep Weaving Tradition Alive

Article excerpt

Although there's a bull market for American Indian rugs, weavers earn little and few young people are learning the craft. Some say the tradition will die with this generation.

Dressed in a traditional purple tribal dress with long sleeves and a flounced "broomstick" skirt, Nanaba Aragon is on a one-woman crusade to pass on the art of rug weaving to the children of the next millennium. "While I weave," she says, "kids sit very still, watching me. I tell them stories, how to string the loom, which colors to use and what they mean."

Aragon also has produced a how-to video, Basic Navajo Weaving, a radical notion for a craft where apprentices are expected to learn the art by sitting at the elbow of an experienced seamstress. But Indian weaving, like many traditions, is having to forge new paths to survive.

"So much of the culture these days has been commercial culture, producing things for ready consumption," says Mae Lee, a coordinator for the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association in New Mexico. "There now seems to be a greater appreciation of things that are handmade."

Well over 90 percent of all Indian weavings, jewelry, sand paintings and other crafts pour into trading posts and rug auctions in Gallup, N.M., located quite conveniently near Interstate 40, one of America's major east-west travel routes. The city, which stretches 14 miles long and five blocks wide along the railroad tracks, has become the Southwest's center for Indian culture. An hour before the first gavel fell on a recent Friday, for example, tourists were pawing through piles of Indian jewelry, baskets, pots and rugs ranging in price from $25 to $12,000. "We did this to develop a market for quality Navajo weaving," says auctioneer John Hornbeck. "There was nothing available for the upper grade."

Everything Indian is hot this year. Collectors fear American Indian culture will die out with this generation -- most of the weavers making the intricate rugs are well over 70, and the younger generation is slow to pick up the slack. As a result, woolly tapestries are enjoying a "bull market," according to Business Week, which reported a 200-year-old Navajo rug auctioned off for a record-setting $76,750 on May 26 at Sotheby's in New York. "They've been collector's items for years but more and more so as we see fewer weavers picking up the craft," says Mark Wilson, owner of rug galleries in Santa Fe and Newcomb, N.M., in the heart of the Navajo reservation.

Despite the bull market, weavers typically make less than $1,000 a month. The winner for best rug at this year's Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial -- a 4-foot-by-6-foot tapestry by weaver Virginia Deal containing more than eight miles of hand-spun yarns -- netted her a mere $15,000. She worked on it for 18 months.

Indeed, rug making takes a long time. Weavers must shear their own sheep; clean, card, spin, wash and dye their own wool; and construct a loom, all before starting the actual weaving. If they use natural vegetable and plant dyes, they will make about $1.30 an hour, according to the book Rugs and Posts.

For her weaves, Lee uses wool from Churro sheep, a Spanish breed known for its long wool, and makes dyes from plants: olive green from walnuts, orange from wild carrot, gold from the Navajo tea plant, tan from sagebrush, blue from indigo, magenta from prickly pear and red from boiled cochineal bugs. …

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