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Explore the History and Culture of Navajo Weaving

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A beautifully woven Navajo wool rug—along with silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery, and dried red chile ristras—is one of the more enduring and unique symbols of the American Southwest. But the Navajo rug’s ubiquitous-ness on the shelves of trading posts and highway gift shops across the region can sometimes obscure its rich (and sometimes complicated) story of nearly 800 years of cultural adaptation and survival.

Nobody is really certain when the Navajo first took up the art of weaving. Some anthropologists believe that it may have started when the Navajo first arrived in what is today the Southwest in approximately A.D. 1300. The Navajo (or Diné – “The People”) are an Athabaskan people who trace their language and history back thousands of years to northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska.

They were originally a nomadic hunter-gatherer people. But according to some anthropologists, after arriving in what is today the Four Corners region, the Navajo encountered the Ancestral Pueblo people from whom they learned to cultivate crops like corn, beans, and squash–and who may have taught them how to weave cotton into clothing and blankets.

Other experts, though, believe that what you might be able to clearly identify as Navajo weaving didn’t begin until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors (and their sheep) in the 16th Century. The general lack of surviving pre-Hispanic Pueblo textiles may make the question as to when the Navajo started weaving nearly impossible to answer with any certainty.

In any case, the history of modern Navajo weaving is generally accepted to have begun with the arrival of Spanish sheep in the late 1600's. The Spanish conquistadors brought flocks of Iberian Churra sheep with them as they made their way across the region—a particular breed of sheep that was well-suited to the arid region, and produced wool that could be easily spun into long, useful yarns.

Prior to the middle of the 19th century, the primary colors for Navajo weaving were mostly natural brown, white, and indigo. By the middle of the 1800's the palette expanded to include red, black, green, yellow, and gray—all obtained either from natural sources on Navajo lands or via a circuitous trade route that stretched all the way back to Europe.

Weaving plays an important role in the Navajo creation myth, in which a spirit known as "Spider Woman" taught the Navajo how to build and use the first loom from sky, earth, sun, crystals, and lightning. But Navajo rugs aren't part of Diné religious ceremonies (so beware of items labeled as "Navajo Prayer Rugs"). In fact, there remains a long-lingering controversy among some over the use of traditional religious symbols and motifs in rugs made for commercial sale—especially to non-Navajo people.

The first examples of existing Navajo blankets and rugs often featured straight lines, or occasionally diamond or terrace designs. With the greater arrival of white settlers—first after the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1822 and then the arrival of the railroad (which brought in cheaper synthetic dyes) in the 1880's, the designs became decidedly more colorful.

In terms of design, while many Navajo weavers have taken their inspiration from traditional Navajo cultural motifs, they have also pulled inspiration from many outside sources. In fact, a popular design found on many Navajo rugs found around the turn of the 20th century actually originated (via trading post operators) in the Caucasus region of far southeastern Europe, where traditional weavers worked with many of the same resources as their Navajo counterparts on the other side of the globe.

Today, there are several different "schools" of Navajo weaving—each with their own unique designs and colors based on where they are made in Navajo country. These schools include Ganado Red, Two Grey Hills, Red Mesa, Tec Nos Pos, Klagetoh, Chinle, Crystal, Burntwater, and Dilcon.

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center's Navajo Weaving Workshop—part of our Cultural Explorations Travel Seminars—will take participants to meet world-renown 5th generation master weavers Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete, who specialize in the Two Grey Hills school of weaving. This particular style is identified by a intricate double-diamond geometric design, which the Teller sisters learned while growing up at the Two Grey Hills Trading Post, where their father Sam Teller worked and their mother, Ruth, demonstrated traditional Navajo weaving.

Participants on this once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity (which is also available for college credit) will not only get to meet the Teller sisters, but can create their own weaving masterpieces to take home.

There’s still time to sign up for this incredible opportunity to learn from the Teller sisters—but spots are filling fast! For more information on Crow Canyon's Navajo Weaving Workshop, click here or call 800-422-8975, ext. 457.