THE ART OF THE LOOM


Coming into Southwest Indian country for the first time some fifty-five years ago was a revelation in many ways. We drove through the hot desert land of Chumash, Hopi and Navajo before arriving in New Mexico, home of the Pueblo people. My own art had taken a turn toward the Southwest, and we had begun collecting a few pots and pieces of jewelry from indigenous artists.

I was fortunate to have my good friend Georgia Abeita Oliver as my companion while I accompanied her “home” for the summer. Wherever we are born, home-going is a special occasion which never gets old. There were friends and relatives to meet and greet, and a cultural education for me as a guest.

To be steeped and accepted into the culture of another is a privilege for which I have been grateful these past many years.

The domestic skills such as weaving, pottery, jewelry and basketry seem to be practiced primarily by individual villages. Pueblo and Hopi pots, but Navajo weaving and jewelry.


Two Grey Hills rug, Navajo

My husband was staying in the La Fonda hotel in Albuquerque several years before my trip, where he saw a very large Two Grey Hills rug on the wall. The story goes that a customer wished to buy the rug, and he was sent to the Two Grey Hills village to bargain for it. He came back dismayed because though he offered them twice its price, they refused to sell to him. I had a similar situation a few years later when I commission a rug after I was back home. When it arrived, the rug’s colors were not what I had wanted, so I returned it with the hope of another more suitable rug to come; but did not hear from them again. We are, after all, two separate cultures with different views on what is important. I did not make the same mistake again in all my years of travel in Indian country.

Why is it that the Navajo are the master weavers? Why not the Pueblo? The Hopi do weave lovely small runners, though and the men weave their prospective bride a burial shawl. I always thought that was either a threat or a warning.


“How the Navajo Got The Rug” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

My own interpretation of how the Navajo got the skills to weave is that maybe it just came down from the sky. That is as good an explanation as any. We met an old weaver just outside Taos, patriarch of the Trujillo family, who had been weaving since he was a boy. He made us a nice large room size rug which is in my studio.

It is easy to imagine how so much of the architecture got its beginnings; the whole desert terrain with its mesas and sculptural forms is ever present. Making use of natural materials like clay, wool, and natural dyes keeps people connected to the land. I have always preferred to work with clay for that same reason. It connects me also with my own forebears who were potters for over 200 years in England. It just feels natural to me when I think of the generations before me who made their living through love of clay.

The Saturday markets are crowded with people bringing everything from pickups full of wool to homemade tamales. In fact the best tamale I ever ate was at a flea market in Gallup, New Mexico. In the days I first visited New Mexico and Arizona, one frequently saw the wife’s mother sitting in the bed of the truck with the bundles of sheep skin for sale. She usually was in a large chair like a queen surveying her subjects.

I bought a cradle board made by an old woman who had brought only one to sell. A young pregnant girl was trying to decide if she had money enough to buy it for $40. Seeing me waiting in the wings, she graciously offered it to me. I said I noticed that she might need it more than I did, and she said “But YOU want it.” I have yet to see someone in our society be that generous of spirit.

Native people, whether Southwest or Northcoast, as somewhat suspicious of strangers, but through the years I have known and cared for people from both cultures, I have always found acceptance and love.

THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES Kate’s Journal


Navajo Grandmother“Navajo Grandmother” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

In the early days in the Southwest, I saw many Navajo grandmothers, many looking much like this lady, sitting comfortably in a large chair in the back of a son-in-law’s pickup truck. I was told by this lady that it was the custom, as she didn’t have a lot to do with her son-in-law. In fact, she did not speak with her son-in-law.

Women owned and cared for the flocks of sheep, and these sheep were owned by her daughter. After shearing, the fleece was taken to market in their pickup, with grandma in the back.

Sheep near Taos“Sheep Grazing on Reservation” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

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In our euphemistically imbued age of political politeness, the middle years are referred to as the youth of old age. We are urged to “get it while you can”. “The end is near.” “From now on it’s all downhill.” To a certain extent that is all true. But we still have energy, imagination and inclination to do great things. The middle years are a whirlwind of work, creativity and preparing for the inevitable.

When you leave middle age you bump into other unexpected adventures. Children leave and get married which brings lots of other experiences, that of becoming grandparents possibly being one of the most pleasant. You have been cautioned to do your traveling early because when old age strikes you may have the time and the money, but you no longer have the inclination. You become an appreciator rather than a participator. As an inveterate collector of other people’s art, I have become an admirer rather than an acquirer.

As you leave the middle years you realize that in the early days you fight because you don’t understand each other, but as you grow older, you fight because you do. Either way, marriage has a certain amount of misunderstanding and disagreement, some of which may cause you to wonder how you ever got into it. But you persevere and realize that if you were being graded on your performance, you probably flunked. Luckily, there is a do-over; it’s called apology.

The bright side of marriage, especially that of long standing, is that you understand that you are not alike and never have been. This person who attracted you at an early age may have done so precisely because he or she was different from you. Marriage can become a home schooling effort, each learning from the other.

NAVAJO CODE TALKERS


How the Navajos Got The Blanket

How The Navajos Got The Blanket” watercolor painting by Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen
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The reservation is a private world, a world of beauty, of great silences, of contemplation. They are a people steeped in myth and mystery. In that beauty and silence one’s whole world and way of looking at the world would be changed.

Many miles from the peaceful reservation, World War II erupted in the Pacific with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Along with young men all over America, Navajo boys rushed to the nearest recruiting office. I know of one underage boy who walked 25 miles from his remote home to enlist, only to be turned down because of a lack of a birth certificate. (Many babies born at home in those days did not have birth certificates.) This boy returned to the recruiting office the next day, and through the use of a forged cetificate of some sort, suddenly became 18.

During the early months in the Pacific, Japanese intelligence experts broke every code the United States devised for combat messages. In any war situation, the rapid and accurate transmission of messages is essential. Japan was learning in advance, the time, place and direction the American attack forces would be deployed. Something had to be done to enable the American forces to communicate freely and secretly in the Pacific.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a group of twenty-nine volunteers left the tranquil canyons and mesas of their Navajo homeland. Little did they know of the crucial role they were about to play in the U.S. war effort.

These twenty-nine volunteers were the direct result of an idea presented to the Marines by Philip Johnston. His idea, born from his childhood days as a missionary’s son living on the Navajo Reservation, was ingenious.

The idea was to devise a code utilizing the complex unwritten language of the Navajo. Knowing the complicated syntax and intricate tonal qualities of the language, he convinced the Marines it would baffle the best of cryptographers. This language sounds different to the Anglo ear. Through the years I used to hear it, I called it “twisted tongue”; impossible for an Anglo to pronounce unless he had been raised around it. Johnston said the language could be used as the basis for a code to transmit vital information and battle plans.

With the help of the twenty-nine Navajo volunteers the task of creating code terms was underway. Words from their native tongue were selected to describe complex military equipment and operations. Instead of changing at a scheduled period of time, the code was changed constantly, often several times a day.

At full strength there were about 400 Navajos who were “Code Talkers”. These men were considered so valuable each had been assigned a personal body guard. The Navajo Code Talkers were so effective the Japanese were completely baffled and their master cryptographers never broke the code. In the words of Major Howard Conner, signal officer of the Fifth Marine Division at Iwo Jima, “during the irst 48 hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore position s, I had six Navajo radio networks operating around the clock. In that period alone, they sent and received over 800 messages without an error”. Conner went on to say that “were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima”.

MY SHEEP AFFAIR


Having been born and raised in a large southern California city, I had no opportunity to meet any sheep face to face.  I saw  them while on road trips, when they were lazily grazing in a field, but we were never formally introduced

In the Southwest, where the raising of sheep is a big part of the Navajo economy, sheep are guarded like children.  They give so much and receive so little from the arid land.  I came upon this peaceful scene with grazing sheep and their young shepherd early one summer evening.   Their wool coats are so lush it makes you want to hug them.  It may have been time for a haircut!

The sheep at the left are residents of Grasmere in the Lake Country of England.  Their restaurant opportunities are somewhat different, but the outerwear is no better than their uncomplaining relatives in Navajoland.   Of course, the meat may be a bit more tender.

For awhile I seemed to collect sheep things wherever I went, and then I found two friends who loved them too, so gradually I have parted with a few for the sake of friendship.  In Cornish country I saw a great painting of sleepy grazing sheep in a local gallery which now hangs in my dining room .  My friend Kay likes it, but I’m not selling it to her!  She’s from Idaho, and they have a lot of sheep of  their own there.  We went to a cousin’s funeral and she collected small sheep figures which her daughter offered to anyone who wanted a memento.  I took one and think of her when I see it sitting in my studio.  Maybe Kay will take my sheep painting one day at my funeral!

We stayed in an old castle in Wales one year.  Exploring around the gardens, I came to a stile at the side of a pasture which I climbed over and it took me into a wonderful area which seemed to hold the ruins of a mini-Stonehenge.  Large tumbled rocks formed convenient jumping-off places for a small flock of snowy sheep to play on.  It formed one of those “memorable moments” I’m always talking about!  I spent the rest of the afternoon getting acquainted with these little guys and photographing them.  Have you ever just sat and watched them play?  They paid no attention  to me as I snapped photo after photo and laughed at their antics.

                                                                                                                                                   Sheep in Navajoland Arizona

Castle in Cardiff, Wales                                                                                                                                                                                        Stonehenge, England

Seeing the setting sun peeking through the ancient stones of Stonehenge is reminiscent of the equally old stone formations in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.  Rather mindboggling when you think tht ancient man was in the same time warp at the same time.  What is it they were trying to do?  Determine the time of day, month, year?  Something far different?  One of life’s mysteries.  And I also wonder if there were sheep grazing somewhere in that dry, hot country.

LITTLE RUNNING DEER


Little Running Deer  sculpture by KSR

The little Navajo boy  seemed to be beside me wherever I moved.  He was about five years old with a crippled right leg which caused him to use a little crutch.  Rather like

Tiny Tim of Dickens’s Christmas Carol fame.  We were in Gallup, New Mexico for the annual Indian Market and I was sketching some of the colorful booths and people while Dr. Advice was conducting business elsewhere.

After about twenty minutes or so of the child’s following me, I leaned down and asked his name.  His large dark eyes looked straight into mine and, true to Navajo suspicion of strangers, he said nothing.  I asked him how old he was, and he held up five grubby fingers.  His parents didn’t seem to be around, but there was a small group of boys a little older who apparently were occupied in watching after him.  I motioned to them to ask if he belonged to them, but their reply was the same solemn stare.

Since most children like to draw, I asked him if he would like some pencils.  He briefly nodded, so I fished out a few colored pencils and offered them.  When he didn’t take the, I thought perhaps he had nothing on which to draw, so I found a small empty notebook and held it all out to him,  He looked over to the other boys as if for permission and then pocketed his loot before giving me a happy sparkling smile with two missing front teeth.

Continuing my sketching, I became aware of a young Navajo woman in a long flowered skirt watching us.  I asked if she were his mother, and she gave a slow nod.  She looked very poor but around her neck she wore a lovely turquoise squash blossom necklace.  I took a five dollar bill from my pocket and asked if I might photograph the her son.  She quickly took the money and nodded again.

It took a few minutes to have her move the little fellow to a different location for a better backdrop.  Of course when I took his photo, all the other boys came forward for their “turn” in front of ther camera!  Fortunately, there were only three of them by that time.!

I never knew his name, but knowing a bit about Navajo family clan names, I thought maybe he could be of the Deer clan, and I named him Little Running Deer in my heart.  I like to think that in his future he would be able to run and play with friends, an perhaps even be an artist who could put his tribal legends with paint onto canvas.

 

THE CIRCLE


All is a circle within me.  I am ten thousand winters old.  I am as young as a newborn flower.

I am a tree in bloom.

All is a circle within me.

I have seen the world through an eagle’s eye.  I have seen it from a gopher’s hole.

I have seen the world on fire and the sky without a moon.

All is a circle within me.

I have gone into the earth and out again.  I have gone to the edge of the sky.

Now all is at peace within me.  Now all has a place to come home.   (Nancy Wood)

 

Navajo Grandmother

kayti rasmussen

ALTRUISM


The supposedly virtuous act of giving is often instead an act meant to create an obligation, an act whereby the giver measures himself against the receiver and requires a repayment, even if that repayment is gratitude.

A  Navajo couple in New Mexico had a child after hoping for one for many years.  The child died, and the mother was plunged into a deep chasm of grief.  She became reclusive, and could not gather enough strength to do even basic tasks.  She was told that she would never bear another child, and her family despaired that she would ever be the same.

Her much younger unmarried sister suddenly disappeared, which made the woman’s melancholy even worse.  No one knew where she had gone, or with whom.  No one else was missing from their village.

One day nearly a year later, the sister reappeared with a tiny baby girl.  She gave no explanation as to what had transpired during her absence, but later it was learned that she had met a Yaqui Indian man who had agreed to be the father of a child with her.  This was the child that she brought to give to her grieving sister.

This then, was a very high form of altruism.   (This is a true story of people I have known.)

Navajo Mother & Child  by KSR

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