Men who weave
In William Whitehair’s family, everyone weaves rugs, except for his sister. Despite the prevailing Navajo perspective that weaving is for women, the story goes that Whitehair’s father supported his career choice. He said, "If you’re going to weave, do it well."
In the last century, weaving has been considered a "woman’s job," but it’s a perception that today’s Navajo weavers believe was introduced by Europeans. Spiderman, the legendary figure said to have introduced weaving to the Navajo, was male, reflecting the natural gender role of the insect. Male black widows, not the females, spin the web.
This year’s 18th Annual Navajo Rug Show and Sale at Deer Valley Resort, presented by the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program, will pay tribute to the renewed pride of male weavers. The show is entitled "A Mother’s Legacy, The Male Weavers," and printed on every poster of the event is a photo of Whitehair, his brothers Travis and Martin, and his mother Arlene. They are framed in William’s dusty brown and turquoise rug, tightly woven into a traditional storm pattern speckled with salmon accents.
Whitehair, 36, lives in the company of 70 sheep he nurtures and shears to make his tightly-woven rugs. He considers herding part of the process, though he could make more money if he focused on weaving rugs alone.
At a Tuesday screening of the documentary "Men Who Weave," Rodger Williams, co-founder of the Adopt-A-Native program, explained that Whitehair is a member of his Navajo clan, the Split Rock. "I call his mother my mother," he said. "I call his brother my brother."
Williams explained that Whitehair was sent to Tuscon, Ariz., for boarding school and later attended the University of Arizona to study architecture a period that has left a lasting impression on his rugs, which often hint at a western structural design.
However, Whitehair regretted leaving the reservation to be educated in the "white man’s" culture because it meant he lost precious time learning from his elders. According to Williams, the feeling is not uncommon, noting that he grappled with similar issues. "My parents didn’t want me to go to school," he confessed.
"Men Who Weave," shown at the library Oct. 30, was made in conjunction with the Navajo Nation Museum 2004-05 exhibition, "Men Who Weave: A Revival in Dine Bikeyah," an exhibit that inspired the rug show’s theme.
"Before the exhibit, I had never seen a gathering of men who weave," admitted Linda Myers, executive director of the Adopt-A-Native Elder program. "I felt I needed to bring attention to it."
The exhibition suggests Myers and others had not heard about the male weavers because for several years it was an underground practice and its practitioners were misunderstood.
Before attempts were made to gentrify the Navajo Reservation in the 19th century, weaver Hastiin Klah had a respected and honored reputation on the reservation for his ceremonial rugs. Klah was included at the Worlds’ Columbian Exposition in 1892 in Chicago. Nearly 25 of his sandpainting tapestries can be seen at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M.
"There came a time when men weaving went underground male waving was done in dugouts, it was all done in secrecy," explained male weaver Ron Garnanez, part of the 2004-2005 exhibit and subject of the documentary.
"You were considered a ‘nadleeh.’ The meaning, the actual meaning of the word it does not mean homosexual, it does not mean gay," he continued. "It means that the true nadleeh is a person who does not reproduce, a person that is neither male nor female; they are a two-spirit person. Their purpose is to teach. This message has all been lost to the new generation."
According to Garnanez, the Navajo’s traditional mythology and wisdom does not distinguish between sexes. "In the world of the Navajo there is no gender, so that means we are able to relate to the nadleeh story," he said. "We all come from First Man and First Woman."
When Americans began to introduce their ways of life to the Navajo, including schooling, the gender roles shifted, according to the film. Chores indoors went to women; chores outdoors were reserved for men.
But many men continued to be taught the tradition of weaving as young boys at home. The weavers in the film speak highly of the female influence and instruction, recalling the close relationships they had with their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The rug show this weekend is titled "A Mother’s Legacy: The Male Weavers," as a nod to the profound impact of women on male weavers.
Weaver Robert Tohe, featured in "Men Who Weave," is not nadlee. He weaves alongside his wife, he says, and in the film, confessed he only recently began to share his passion with others. He used to hide his rugs when company came to his house, he said.
Like many in the film, Tohe emphasizes the act of weaving as a spiritual experience and a ceremony, not just artwork
Tohe said his initial inspiration to weave came from a dream. "This rug portrays that dream and that vision I had," he explains in the film. "The dream was so powerful that the next day I tried to think about how it could be portrayed. I am a sculptor and a woodworker, but I couldn’t paint because I’m not a painter and I couldn’t sculpt this dream So my wife said, ‘I’ll help you set the loom up and then you can weave it.’"
Weaver Roy Kady has been instrumental in the Navajo movement to recapture the pastoral way of life. He made a significant contribution to the documentary and exhibit, and will be featured at the rug show at Deer Valley Resort on Friday, Nov. 9.
In the film, Kady explains, "My grandmother, my mother, my aunt and some of the other elderly ladies I’ve gotten to know talk about the Creation and when we were given the gift to weave, the gift to sew baskets, the gift to make earthenwares and the designs that we use," he explained. "The [Navajo] don’t really have a word for art."
18th Annual Navajo Rug Show, ‘A Mother’s Legacy: The Male Weavers’
The rug show will take place at Snow Park Lodge at Deer Valley Plaza at Deer Valley Resort from Nov. 9 to 11.
*Friday, Nov. 9
6-10 p.m. -A special private preview and sale event for Navajo rugs, jewelry and crafts. Tickets are $30 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under. Hors d’oeuvres and refreshments will be served.
7-8 p.m. – Live entertainment
8-9 p.m. Auction
*Saturday, Nov. 10
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $5 and/or canned food. The event will include the sale of rugs, jewelry and crafts, but also the Navajo Children’s Princess Pageant and weaving demonstrations.
*Sunday, Nov. 11
10 11 a.m. – Navajo Code Talker George Willie will speak following a Navajo veterans ceremony and Weaving demonstrations.
3 p.m. Ceremonial dances and powwow.
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When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.