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Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today. Photo by Jerilyn Forsythe

New Book Reveals the Secrets and History of Navajo Weaving

A Denver-based weaver and her sister interviewed 20 Navajo artists across the Southwest for this intimate—and heartbreaking—anthology.

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Like all legends, the story of Spider Woman changes depending upon whom you ask. The Hopis say she wove the universe using her silken web—they call her Spider Grandmother. A similar deity, Grandmother Spider, wove the basket from which life and light came forth, according to Cherokee tradition.

Sister Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, both Navajo weavers, tell another version in their new book, Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today. The Holy People, called “Diyin Dine’é,” instructed Spider Woman to “weave her pattern of the universe.” Spider Woman didn’t know how to weave, so she taught herself, then gave the skill to the Navajo people. “We were gifted the art of weaving to keep our families from starving, to be kept in good comfort, and to keep our families together,” the sisters write.

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Now, Pete and Ornelas pass that gift onward in Spider Woman’s Children. Published this month by Loveland-based Thrums Books, the non-fiction collection tells the stories of weavers all over the world. Pete says it’s one of the few books to share the history of Navajo weaving through the words of Navajos themselves. “We have a joke in our tribe,” Pete says, “that there are eight anthropologists assigned to every family. But we want to tell our own story.”

It’s a story that some have tried to erase from the United States’ collective memory. “They try to white wash a lot of history,” Pete says. “The general American public doesn’t know half this stuff that happened to the weavers.”

But the Navajo know. The sisters traveled through Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and other parts of the Southwest to interview living spider women and men, whose craft recalls the past and offers a path to the future. Some have won prestigious awards at prominent Native American art festivals like the Santa Fe Indian Market. Others are lesser-known artists who weave to keep the tradition alive.

Often, finding one weaver led to others. Florence Nez Riggs, whose work is on display in the Heard Museum in Phoenix, lives next door to her mother, Louise Y. Nez in Tuba City, Arizona. Nez taught her daughter the craft, and still weaves herself at 85 years old. Because the craft is passed down through families, Navajo tapestries represent more than a pretty pattern. Weavers lace stories and memories through each piece—and sometimes, those memories are painful.

Spider Woman’s Children tells several of these painful stories, including one about the harrowing “Long Walk.” In 1863, the U.S. military drove the Navajo 400 miles west to Bosque Redondo, a reservation in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. According to records kept by the Bosque Redondo Memorial, nearly two thousand died during the march and five-year-long imprisonment at the camp (food and water were often in short supply; disease was not).

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Pete, a fifth generation weaver herself who lives in Denver, says the Navajo did not stop weaving at Bosque Redondo. Far from it. “Navajos in prison camps probably traded those blankets for firewood or hunting privileges or clothes,” she says. “We believe so many people survived the prison camps because of weaving.”

The Navajo were allowed to return to their land in the Four Corners Region after signing a treaty with the U.S. government in 1968, but the tribe didn’t forget the suffering endured at Bosque Redondo. “All the historical trauma that sprang from that is still going on today,” the sisters write.

Writing the book was an emotional experience, says Pete. Though no one alive today was at Bosque Redondo, some of the weavers are several branches closer in the family tree to that trauma—they grew up hearing about life in the camp. The older weavers also remember other painful times, like the Great Depression, when the U.S. government ordered the slaughter of half the Navajos’ sheep—approximately one million—to prevent the erosion of grazing lands. Sheep were a key source of income for women in the tribe, and for years afterward, wool was scarce.

Through the hardships, the Spider Woman’s children persevered, honing and teaching their craft while creating tapestries worth thousands of dollars. Pete and Teller’s book both teaches and reinforces the historical and cultural context that make Navajo weavings works of art.

It’s a lesson everyone needs, says Pete, because she sees a systematic disrespect of Native American art. She says big corporations have stolen her designs and mass-produced them without giving her credit or a cut of the profits. Ornelas has faced the same issue.

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When designs are stolen, it’s a slap in the face to Navajo weavers, who toil for months or even years on each piece, often spinning their own yarn and dyeing it using natural coloring collected from their land. “There’s so much thought that goes into weaving,” says Pete. “There’s a lot of math, there’s a lot of geometry. The weaving is so precise. An ordinary person can’t just pick it up.”

Pete hopes the stories told in Spider Woman’s Children deepens readers’ appreciation for Navajo weaving and makes other craftspeople think twice before using traditional designs without credit or context. “There would be an outrage if someone took Picasso’s work and copied it,” Pete says. “Our work deserves respect, too.”

(Read more about the battle to end counterfeiting of Native American art)

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