Rugs and Hangings Play Dual Role As Art and Commerce for Navajos

An exhibit of modern textiles at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery reveals the variety of design among native American weavers

SOME bold and simple, some subdued and earthy, others intricate or pictorial: Modern Navajo textiles are as varied as the women and men who weave them. Each rug or tapestry is an illustration of its creator's history, environment, family tradition, and individual creativity.

For 350 years, Navajo weavers have perfected wool-rug weaving, a skill passed from generation to generation, primarily from mother to daughter. Today, more than 28,000 women and men weave on the Navajo reservation spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

``Contemporary Navajo Weaving,'' a collection of 38 rugs and tapestries, is on display at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery until Aug. 21. The collection is complemented by a short video featuring interviews with weavers. Rugs range from large geometric patterns to small works by young artists to commissioned works based on the art of Kenneth Noland.

``More than anything else, contemporary Navajo weavers want others to know that they put concerted thought and hard work into their rugs and tapestries,'' writes anthropologist Ann Lane Hedlund, who with Gloria Ross commissioned and acquired rugs woven between 1980 and 1992 for the Denver Art Museum.

The weaving itself is an involved process. Some weavers raise and process their own wool for the rugs, dying it with natural substances like tea or lichen. Others combine home-grown wool with commercial yarns, sometimes re-spinning the commercial product. The rugs are woven on an upright frame, working the yarn from bottom to top. Tapestries have become popular, as well as rugs used for display or wall hangings.

Rose Owens, one of the weavers Ms. Hedlund interviewed, said, ``When you understand weaving, it's like being university-educated. Good weaving is an advanced study.... It's like you start in the low grades and work your way up to the 12th grade, and then go to the university. As you weave each rug, you learn about your mistakes, and you learn more each time. So, it means I'm like a college professor.''

Though a delicate art, weaving can be learned at an early age. Children often start with simple striped rugs and then graduate to making their own designs.

Over the history of Navajo weaving, a variety of influences has altered the art's course. During the Classic period (1650 to 1865) of weaving, the Navajos learned techniques from Pueblos of the Southwest, after the Navajo migration from present-day Canada. Blankets of stripes, stepped triangles, and geometric patterns were used at home and for trade.

As Navajo life changed immensely during the Transition period (1863 to 1895), so did the people's weaving. As Navajos felt the pressure of the westward expansion of American settlers and the military, they joined the consumer economy, Hedlund writes. Rugs were sought by Easterners, and Navajos altered styles to fit the demand, incorporating Spanish designs and changing from weaving clothing to rugs.

During the first half of the 20th century, as Navajos adjusted to life on reservations, weaving became even more of a commercial enterprise. Traders sometimes encouraged certain designs or suggested new ones that were more marketable. ``With the occasional exception of saddle blankets and traditional two-piece dresses, few hand-woven textiles remained in the Navajo homes,'' Hedlund writes. Rugs were now made `for external use only.' ''

Since 1950, weavers increasingly ``approach their work as professional artists,'' Hedlund explains, noting that they use new materials, dyes, and designs. Galleries and individual collectors are replacing trading posts as buyers of the textiles.

Generalizations cannot be made about the rugs or their weavers. Each rug is individual, reflecting the weaver's history, tastes, and affinity for design. Surprisingly, the rugs are not laden with symbolism that viewers might assume are implicit to native artwork. In her research on weaving, Hedlund found that weavers do not use color in shared symbolism and do not have standard names for rug styles of geometric patterns.

Weavers do not talk about the meaning of specific designs. When asked to interpret another weaver's work or guess about her plans, the response Hedlund often received was: ``It is up to her'' - a phrase Hedlund explains is not meant as indifference, but is used out of respect for the autonomy and individuality of others.

The motivation for many of today's Navajo weavers is most often for income, though many weavers that Hedlund interviewed also value it as a means of creative expression. Weaving offers many women the opportunity to stay home while providing a primary or secondary income: Large rugs can fetch thousands of dollars.

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