Navajo Textiles: The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Navajo Textiles: The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

by Laurie D. Webster

ISBN: 9781607326724

Publisher University Press of Colorado

Published in Arts & Photography/Museum Exhibition Catalogs

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Consultations, Collaborations, and Curation by Navajo Weavers: A Celebration and History


In 1973, the Denver Museum of Natural History was among the first museums in the United States to establish a Native American Advisory Group and invite local Indian people from many tribes to participate actively in its exhibitions, programs, and policies. When visitors walk into the museum's Crane Hall of North American Indian Cultures today, a video greets them with a series of Native American people speaking their indigenous languages. As in insightful museums worldwide, first-person voice appears in text panels and artifact labels, presenting native views directly. This present volume reflects the museum's continuing dedication to involve Native Americans in interpreting its collections. It represents a signal effort to invite the expert views of two foremost Navajo weavers, D. Y. Begay and Lynda Teller Pete, who worked alongside Anglo textile specialists Laurie Webster and Louise Stiver to interpret the Diné textile collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Since the mid-twentieth century, connections among Native American weavers, artists, educators, and other leaders have grown. Many museums now share personal and tribal perspectives with their visitors. In museums across the United States, we have seen growing collaboration between native consultants and museums, hiring of indigenous staff members, and expansion of tribal community museums and cultural centers. The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 opened new lines of communication between tribes and museums. The establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on the Smithsonian Mall in Washington, DC, in 2004, following twenty-four years of planning, championed such networks. Some would say that museums still have a long way to go, and I agree that, despite some progress, there is surely room for further inclusion and innovation.

My intent in this essay is to explore connections between Navajo weavers and museums (including my own) and to underscore the importance of expanding these endeavors in the future. Three areas seem relevant to address. First, when and where have Navajo weavers responded to museum collections on their own terms and participated in curatorial processes? Second, how have museums and weavers collaborated on reaching their audiences, with more inclusive native perspectives? And third, what opportunities exist for weavers to meet with each other and share their work as part of a larger community of artists — away from their looms, off the printed page, and into assembly with one another (and with others)?

In this selective review of trends, my goal has been to document and celebrate significant efforts that champion Diné voices, views, and artistic efforts. The history of museum/weaver connections during the past half-century underscores significant changes in how weavers view themselves — from craft workers supporting their families to artists expressing their visions and making a creative living. It also parallels how consumers, curators, and other observers have treated the woven works through the decades — from anonymously made decorative items to titled works of valuable fine art.


The first suitcase held an indigo-blue woman's dress, a chief-style blanket, and a girl's red-bordered shawl. Seven women circled and cautiously drew out the biil, hanoolchaadi, and manta, hand-woven more than a century before. We spread each item on the sheet-shrouded tables in the Ganado Chapter House in Arizona. The weavers stood back to look at their ancestors' garments — then they stroked the fine fabrics, seemed to breathe them in, and gently wrapped the attire around their shoulders. Their daughters and nieces stood alongside, ready to translate, eager to see more. Some recalled their great-grandmothers' stories of the Long Walk and times of enforced livestock reductions. They conferred with each other about family and clan relations. From my field notes of that day in August 1979: "[One woman's] gr gr mo [great-grandmother] was at Bosque Redondo. She remembers hearing about Spider Woman's holes in center of some old blankets — people hid under those blankets and that hole was to watch their enemies thru." Connecting to the past brought tears and the flow of memories.

The contents of the second suitcase I brought out differed — rugs from the 1960s and early 1970s, bright with synthetic colors or subtly hued with vegetal dyes. Women who viewed them remembered themselves, their mothers, and their grandmothers making such items. They named native dye plants, described patterns and techniques, traced flaws, and admired ingenuity. Wordplay revolved around certain designs. Jokes emerged about the Indian traders known by many weavers and depended on by some.

For that summer of 1979, the Navajo Tribal Museum had hired me to document its collection of several hundred Navajo blankets, garments, and rugs. According to the original grant agreement, "documentation" meant closely analyzing the textiles with magnifiers and measuring tools, compiling and studying the museum's written records, and comparing the pieces with others in well-known museums and books. What evolved, however, was an invitation for reservation-wide weavers to view the museum's treasures in Window Rock, Arizona, and my travel to Navajo communities with textile-filled suitcases like those I shared in Ganado.

In most Navajo communities at the time, the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) was sponsoring weaving work programs. Through my visits to chapter houses, many CETA participants saw museum-quality blankets, dresses, and rugs for the first time. At weavers' homes, relatives and neighbors often gathered to see the museum's rugs. Wanting even more impact, we advertised in the Navajo Times and families visited us at the Window Rock museum.

Considering the estimated 12,000 Navajos who wove during the 1970s and 1980s, relatively few sought the limelight or consorted with urban art galleries in those days. Many spoke articulately in Navajo but used little English. Most extended weaving families worked in relative isolation, apart from other communities and from eventual owners of their rugs. Few knew about museums and their collections. Still fewer had seen nineteenth-century blankets woven by long-ago relatives. The oldest textiles most had seen dated to the early twentieth century — rugs made in their grandmothers' and aunts' generations. Exposure to other woven work was generally limited to the "rug room" at a local trading post and to book and magazine illustrations. Although the nationwide 1960s arts and crafts boom opened the Southwest to tourism and wider public attention, most weavers still depended on nearby stores to market their rugs. Indeed, weaving served as an essential source of income for many Navajo families, and weavers contributed significantly to the Navajo economy well before outsiders viewed the craft as investment-grade fine art.


The first major exhibition of historic Diné blankets shown in Navajo country occurred in 1972. The Navajo Tribal Museum (NTM, now the Navajo Nation Museum) hosted "The Navajo Blanket," organized by Mary Kahlenberg, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator, and Tony Berlant, a private textile dealer and artist. This mini-blockbuster presented a survey of nineteenth-century weaving unlike anything previously seen on the reservation. Dozens of weavers and their relatives viewed the exhibit in the Navajo Nation's capital, Window Rock, Arizona. Among them, Glenmae (Glee' Nasbah) Tsosie visited the show many times because she also worked at the NTM, demonstrating her weaving skills in the galleries. Her close viewing of several wedge-weave blankets from the 1880s prompted her to adopt this rare technique in her own creative work. No one has documented the impacts this traveling exhibition made on other weavers, but influences surely occurred.

Five years later, the Ned A. Hatathli Culture Center at Navajo Community College (NCC, now Diné College) in Tsaile, Arizona, hosted the first textile exhibition prepared by a Navajo cultural specialist. Harry Walters, an esteemed Navajo medicine man and curator, had grown up in a weaving family and consulted often with native weavers. He brought together historic Navajo blankets and rugs from five southwestern museums and several family collections at the Hatathli Center. Completed in 1976 and renovated in 2013, the center looms tall above the piñon-juniper forest that surrounds the college campus. The hexagonal building covered with reflective glass looks like a cross between a Navajo hoghan and a NASA space station. Inside the galleries, Diné traditions are mixed with modern trends, and Walters titled his 1977–78 exhibition "Navajo Weaving: From Spider Woman to Synthetic Rugs." His mimeographed catalog acknowledges the help of Mabel Burnside Myers (1922–87), longtime instructor of weaving and dyeing at NCC, and her daughter, Isabell Deschinny, listed as "weaving specialist" on the staff roster. In keeping with the times, their approach focused on the historical and technical evolution of weaving among the Diné, seen as masters of "acculturation and assimilation." During this same period, Ruth Roessel, one of the founders of Navajo Community College, became a noted museum and college lecturer, often speaking about the cultural foundations of Diné weaving. Talks and publications by this dedicated Diné educator have contributed enduring insights from a weaver's perspective to her audiences. Her balanced emphasis on indigenous origins, techniques, economics, and designs moved some observers and rug buyers to consider new cultural facets of Navajo weaving.


Since 1978, Harry Walters has curated and hosted other exhibitions that feature Navajo weaving, notably one in 2002 that focused on men who weave in collaboration with Diné activist Roy Kady. Male weavers were also the subject of "Weaving in the Margins: Navajo Men as Weavers" at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1999. For this exhibition, Wesley Thomas, Diné consultant and writer, and Joyce Begay-Foss, MIAC Diné staff exhibition educator, worked with Anglo curator Louise Stiver (featured in this book). A 2004–5 exhibition followed at the Navajo Nation Museum — "Diné Dah' Atl'ó, Men Who Weave: A Revival in Diné Bikéyah," organized and co-curated by Diné staff curator Clarenda Begay and Roy Kady.

In 2002, Diné educators Joyce Begay-Foss and Pearl Sunrise contributed to the catalog and planning for "Navajo Saddle Blankets: Textiles to Ride in the American West" at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. For the subsequent MIAC exhibition "They Wove for Horses: Diné Saddle Blankets," Begay-Foss, as director of MIAC's Living Traditions Education Program, served as curator. Begay-Foss also co-curated "Spider Woman's Gift" with MIAC director Shelby Tisdale in 2006 and contributed an essay to the exhibition's companion book.

These collaborations and curatorial responsibilities contrast dramatically with earlier artist-weaver demonstrations, such as the Fred Harvey expositions staged along the railroad route and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, in which weavers served primarily as mute icons of stereotyped cultural roles. Many craft demonstrations continue today as a limited way to connect artists and public audiences. The best of these presentations are augmented by interactive events to share more about weaving. Most notable are the long-standing and informative demonstrations by master weavers featured at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado, Arizona, since the 1960s. In another early effort, Marsha Gallagher, Anglo curator at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, inaugurated a project to follow rug making from sheep to finished product. While Diné weaver Margaret Grieve was the focal subject, she also became the de facto co-curator of the exhibition and coauthor of the accompanying article.


In 1986 Eulalie H. Bonar, Anglo curator at the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, and Diné weaver D. Y. Begay (featured in this book) began discussing an exhibition of historic Navajo textiles. Originally from Tselani (Salina Springs), Arizona, Begay was then living in New Jersey and working part-time in the museum's education department. In 1990, while "the Heye" transitioned to Smithsonian ownership, Bonar convened a week-long collections consultation in New York with Begay, Anglo textile scholar Joe Ben Wheat, and me, in which we examined and discussed technological, cultural, and aesthetic features of several hundred historic textiles (figure 1.1). After years of bureaucratic delays, preparations resumed in 1994 for the long-awaited exhibition Bonar envisioned. The next phase involved bringing two dozen museum textiles from New York to Tsaile, Arizona, where thirty weavers and family members examined and commented on them in a workshop setting (see below for further description of this 1995 event). Finally, after Diné consultants D. Y. Begay, Kalley Keams Lucero, and Wesley Thomas joined Bonar's team in New York as formal co-curators and coauthors, "Woven by the Grandmothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian" opened in January 1996 for one year at Manhattan's Customs House/Heye Center. Ultimately, more than a dozen staff members and consultants who share Diné heritage joined others to complete the Tsaile workshop, the New York traveling exhibition, and the Smithsonian-published catalog.

The exhibition's format, themes, and content reflected the diverse views of the three co-curators and other native staff members. They selected forty-plus textiles and advised on the display sequence and presentation methods, including three-dimensional shoulder mounts with blankets draped as garments. They advocated for the use of the Diné language throughout. Their text for exhibition labels and catalog entries personalized and humanized historic Navajo weaving. These achievements, first seen in New York City, influenced many exhibitions and catalogs that followed and prompted curators, collectors, and others to recognize the artistic and cultural significance of Navajo weaving.


Two years before the NMAI blockbuster opened in New York, four weavers became bona fide curators of a 1994 exhibition at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. "Hanoolchaadí: Historic Textiles Selected by Four Navajo Weavers" brought together Grace Henderson Nez, Mary Lee Henderson Begay, Gloria Jean Begay, and Lenah Begay — a grandmother, mother, and two daughters from Ganado, Arizona — along with me as organizing curator (figure 1.2). Following earlier artist-as-curator models such as Andy Warhol's Raid the Icebox and Eduardo Paolozzi's Lost Magic Kingdoms, we examined the textile collections in the museum's storage rooms for two weeks during the summer of 1994. Two Native American student interns, Davina Two Bears and Christine Gishey, assisted the five of us as we unrolled several hundred textiles from the museum's permanent collection and peered at them through magnifiers. Discussion proceeded in English and Navajo, resulting in lengthy tape-recorded commentary.

In the "Hanoolchaadí" galleries, where twenty-nine textiles were displayed, a soundtrack added Navajo voices along with ambient home sounds: the beat of weaving combs, the slide of a batten through warps, sheep bleating, goat bells ringing, wind blowing through rafters. While the weavers' statements wafted through the air, they appeared in print on wall placards. Photographs showed the family members weaving in their homes, herding sheep in nearby fields and woods, and working in the museum.

The four Diné curators created thematic sections and titled them in the Diné language: Bizaad: Hanoolchaadí (chief blankets), Yisht'lo (to weave it), Dzool Hali Biyázhí (moving along/flashing along/small eyedazzlers; also, falling rapidly and somewhat haphazardly), Beeldléí Lichíí (red blankets), Bee 'adzooí dóó K'osíshchíín (combs and clouds/checkers), Dzool Halí (eyedazzlers), Beeldléí Dootlizhi (blue blankets), Tó bich'osh (waterbugs), Biil (woman's traditional dress), Yishbizhi (herringbone twill weaves), and 'Akidahinilí (saddle blankets).

Excerpted from "Navajo Textiles: The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science" by Laurie D. Webster. Copyright © 2013 by Laurie D. Webster. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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