Navajo (Diné) blankets and rugs are world-famous for their beauty and technique. Here are two videos that tell about them. The first one is a lovely montage with no narration, just restful Native American music in the background and the other is Wally Brown, a Diné elder, talking about his mother who was a weaver. Following that is an excerpt from Chapter 24 of “The Curse of Dead Horse Canyon: Cheyenne Spirits” where the main character, Charlie Littlewolf, reminisces on when he helped his amasani (Diné for grandmother) weave a very special blanket.
RURAL FALCON RIDGE
June 9, Saturday
Charlie sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace, wool blanket draped around his shoulders. In two days he’d start work with Lone Star Operations.
Was there any other way he could make that kind of money?
No. Absolutely not.
The prospect, however, shadowed his mind like a storm front. In response a random thought tickled his psyche.
This is something you must do.
The justification, however, remained buried beneath any conscious awareness.
Besides the industry itself, what concerned him most was the thought of living with those people. Like when he left for college.
Harassment stories along with the racist views that characterized the industry constituted modern tales of cowboys and Indians. Working with them all day would be bad enough. But bunking with them as well? He didn’t want to think about the pranks he’d be subjected to.
He pulled the wrap closer, fingers entwined in its soft texture. June or not, nights were brisk at seven thousand feet. Its earthy scent, including a hint of lanolin, unfurled memories of three decades past, when he was living on the Diné reservation in New Mexico.
His very first job.
An assignment he resented.
He could still see Littlebear leaning against the horse corral, arms folded across his chest.
“No, son,” he’d said. “You have only six winters. You are too young for the javelina hunt. You must stay and help your mother and amasani.”
Charlie hung his head, thinking he’d sneak away somewhere for the remainder of the day.
“Look at me,” his father commanded. When he obeyed, his intent collided with the probing eyes of a knowing parent. “When I return you will tell me what you did and they will tell me if you did it well.”
He pouted, looking back at the ground. Not hunting with his father was disappointing enough. That edict made it even worse. The teasing he’d suffer from his cousins and friends for doing the work of squaws would be merciless.
Moccasins shuffling in the dirt, he trudged back home to find his mother. As soon as he stepped inside their hogan she took one look at his sour face and shooed him away.
Outside again, he stifled a smile, vindicated to pursue his original plan. Then he remembered. His work was subject to review. His grandmother, one of the tribe’s weavers, was his other option. He’d watched her work a few times, but progress was slow and tedious—far too boring to hold his interest for any length of time. With luck, she wouldn’t be busy and would tell him one of her wonderful stories. He especially liked those about mischievous coyote.
But when he got to her little house, she wasn’t there.
It sounded like a big commotion over by the training corral. Sheep bleating along with people talking and a variety of other unfamiliar sounds. Curiosity tickled, he headed that way.
The characteristic smell of sheep was strong with so many confined to a small area. That, along with all the dust, evoked a giant sneeze. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, then climbed up on the fence to watch the antics of one of the lambs. That held his attention until he spotted his grandmother a short distance away.
What was she doing, poking around what looked like dozens of flat, dead sheep?
Then it a registered: Shearing time.
He watched one of the men use clippers to peel away a year’s worth of wool from one of the ewes. It came off in what looked like a solid piece. His grandmother spotted him and waved him over.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“I’m supposed to help you today, amasani,” he said.
Her weathered face, round like the moon and likewise bearing the grooves and craters of life, broke into a broad smile. “I’m so glad, grandson. What think you of all this wool?”
“I think it smells funny.”
“I like it,” she replied. “Sheep are almost as important now as buffalo were long ago. They give us meat and they give us wool. This is one of my favorite days, when I pick the fleeces I want before the rest go to market.”
“Aren’t they all the same?”
“No. Each is very different. Certain parts are better than others, too.” She took his little hand and led him over to those she’d set aside. “Let me show you.”
She pointed out the different parts of the animal from which the fleece was removed. Some areas were much cleaner and the fiber longer.
“I have a very special project I must do. I need you to separate the shoulder section from the ones I’ve chosen. Do you know why?”
He looked closer. “Because it is cleaner?”
“Yes. It is also the longest, which makes it easier to spin.”
That task finished, he thought he was done. Little did he realize his work had only begun. The raw wool needed to be prepared for spinning. She showed him how to tease each lock by pulling it apart.
His reverie paused as he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, remembering how they squeaked when coated with lanolin. To his surprise back then, it also softened the callouses he’d earned practicing with his bow.
Next came combing the teased wool with a pair of carders that looked like giant-sized dog brushes. The resulting bats went into a reed basket, miniature clouds of fluff awaiting his grandmother’s skilled hand.
As the day wore on, his arms ached and he couldn’t card quickly enough to keep up with her spinning. She prodded him to work faster, her hand moving the spindle relentlessly as she twisted the prepared fiber into yarn.
As it turned out, the project lasted into summer. By then he earned her name for him, Naalnish. Once enough yarn was spun, the fun began. Now he could do some exploring while he gathered the dye materials needed to produce a variety of warm colors. Best of all, the collection process for some required a knife or ax, a worthy task for a young brave.
Cottonwood leaves, yarrow, and oak bark were some of the things she requested. Among the most challenging were cochineal beetles which, when dried and ground into powder, yielded shades of red. It took an entire day or more to collect enough from their cactus homes for a single batch. To both him and his amasani, however, it was time well-spent.
When shewas ready to start the dyeing process, he hauled water from either the iron-rich spring north of their village for reds, or the alum-rich one to the east for yellows. The resident minerals affected the final hue and were necessary for the fiber to retain its color—the ‘”why” of which planted the seed for his interest in chemistry.
When she had sufficient dyed yarn, he helped warp the loom constructed from tree trunks, tie the warp rods that helped create the pattern, then wind the different colors on smooth sticks that served as shuttles.
Then, at last, weaving began.
He marveled day by day as she lifted the warp rods and alternated shuttles, colorful geometric patterns emerging with each row, until their collective labors produced a finished blanket that was not only functional, but a work of art.
His heart swelled as he remembered the day it came off the loom. She folded it carefully, hugged it a moment, then handed it to him with a sparkle in her eyes.
“Where should I put it for you, amasani?”
“In your hogan, Naalnish. By where you sleep.”
“Because it is yours.”
Only now, as a grown man, did he appreciate the love and wisdom of that experience. Especially when he discovered that most blankets, at least those offered for sale by members of the tribe, were not made the old way, but with commercial dye and machine-spun yarn.
This was one like none other, made expressly for him with his amasani’s love and his reluctant assistance.
It was far more than the work itself. It was what it taught him. Not only about the old ways, but of cycles. Of going full circle from the vegetation the sheep ate to grow wool to dyeing the yarn with some of those same plants. The process was tedious and long, yet the result was priceless.
From that first bat of carded wool to its liberation from the loom, it instructed him in the ways of life. It taught him patience, perseverance, and appreciation—for hard work and simple things.
The Diné believed part of their soul went into such creations and always hid a loop somewhere in the tight weave for their soul to escape. So far, it was so cleverly hidden he’d never found it. His fingers caressed the soft fiber, wondering if he ever would. It felt softer each year, improving with use, unlike so many things that didn’t last. Analogous to the earth itself and his connection to it.
All thanks to the wisdom of an old woman, who at the time was not much older than he was now. Whose kind heart would forever live in a cherished wrap that kept him warm for what would soon be thirty haigos, including many spent in the frigid Colorado Rockies.
How many white men had such a treasured possession?