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.