Navajo weaver Irene Clark sits before her loom, her fingers gently weaving weft through warp, beating the thread with a comb that belonged to her mother. As she shares her life with us, pointing to photographs of rugs she’s woven over the decades, piles of wool dyed with lichen and sage, battens made by her father, I keep watching her hands at the loom. They tell the story—row by row, rug by rug. A story she shapes by heart drawn from generations of her family.
Irene was just one of nearly a dozen weavers Linda, photographer Joe Coca, and I visited with last week, as we drove several hundred miles across the Navajo nation. Our guide was fifth-generation Navajo weaver Lynda Teller Pete. Lynda and her sister Barbara Teller Ornelas are working on a book about Navajo weavers that Thrums Books will publish in the not-too-distant future. I can’t say too much about that just yet, but for those of you who’ve spent time in this part of the country, you know how it grabs hold of you and how it may not let go. The stories of the weavers—and their hands—they’ve grabbed hold of me, too.
With traditional textiles, the maker and the made and the land are beautifully interwoven. Irene’s son talked about how Navajo stories, songs, and symbols, as well as the earth and air are all woven into a rug. “Powerful medicine,” he said. I am beginning to understand that maybe as much as the land and its stories are woven into a rug, so is family. As we met people on the road, Lynda was sometimes asked, “What’s your clan?” She would identify her mother’s clan and her father’s—honor, identity, tradition.
We met young men who had learned to spin and weave from their grandmothers, daughters who proudly told the story of learning to weave from their mothers, who had learned from their mothers. More than once we met up with three generations of weavers in one family. Family connections and traditions are deeply valued in the lives of all the Navajo weavers we met. It may be the strongest thread in the stories passed hand to hand.