Encounter the People
According to Navajo oral tradition two holy people, Spider Woman and Spider Man, introduced weaving to the Navajo. Spider Man constructed the first loom, which was composed of sunshine, lightning, and rain; and Spider Woman taught the people how to weave on it. Spider Woman was discovered by the Holy Twins, the culture heroes of the Navajo Creation Story, in a small opening in the earth surrounded by an array of beautiful weavings. Entering her dwelling, the Holy Twins descended a ladder made of yarn, whereupon Spider Woman offered them knowledge of the world of weaving.
Non-Navajo scholars offer a different story regarding the origins of Navajo weaving. They tell us that, upon their arrival in the Southwest some time between 1000 A.D. and 1525 A.D., the Navajo learned to weave from their Pueblo neighbors. According to this version, Navajo women most likely learned from weavers at Zuni Pueblo or from one of the western Rio Grande pueblos such as Jemez. Numerous Pueblo and Spanish cultural practices were adopted at this time, including weaving techniques and methods of livestock management.
It is not known exactly when the Navajo became weavers, but by the 1600s, they had become the dominant figures in Southwestern weaving. Originally, weaving in the Southwest was done with farmed cotton. But with the introduction of sheep by the Spanish in 1698, wool became the mainstay among weavers. Since the advent of this important art form, textiles have come to serve as a central source of Navajo cultural identity and economic revenue. Navajo weaving has evolved over time to incorporate different patterns and motifs, materials, dyes, and techniques.
With the coming of the railroad to the Southwest in the late 19th century, an East Coast market in Navajo weaving developed; and, when trading posts began to open on the Navajo
Reservation, Navajo weavers started to produce work in trade for foods such as flour, sugar and coffee. Traders quickly sought ways to influence production of Navajo weaving, suggesting designs that they thought would be more marketable and offering new commercially dyed yarns that would speed production. This solidified the development of regional styles of weaving—such as Ganado, Chinle, Teec Nos Pos, and Two Grey Hills—that bore the names of the trading posts through which they were marketed.
The Navajo, living at a crossroads of Native, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures, have been in touch with outside materials and markets for centuries. These interactions are manifest in Navajo textiles, whose creators have resourcefully and resiliently incorporated new materials introduced to the Southwest.
Navajo weavers have adapted and flourished over many centuries of change. Finding inspiration from everyday life, they have balanced tradition and innovation to shape the processes and products of weaving.
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