When Lynda Pete or Barbara Ornelas greet you with the naming of their clans, they’re greeting you on behalf of their extended family: grandmothers, aunts, children, grandchildren. Their clans wrap them in the warm blanket of their history and culture, their lives.
I’ve been thinking about the Elder women of their clans who appear in their book, Spider Woman’s Children. Ruth Shorty Begay Teller, Susie Tom, Margaret Yazzie, Mary Louise Gould, Irene Hardy Clark, Martha Gorman Schultz, and others. I’m thinking of them because of the pandemic stress the Navajo Nation is suffering from—with the highest infection rate of any group in the United States—and how these women, past and present, are precarious guardians of the spirit of Navajo weaving. Weaving is so much more than a craft; it is the fabric of their lives and of their people.
Read the story of Irene Hardy Clark and you’ll see.
—Linda Ligon, publisher
IRENE HARDY CLARK
Born of The Water’s Edge Clan, Tábąąhá
Born for One-Who-Walks-Around Clan, Honágháahnii
Irene was born in 1934 and raised in Crystal, New Mexico. Her mother was master weaver Glenabah Hardy; Irene weaves in the same Crystal style as her mother and grandmother. Irene didn’t start weaving at an early age. Instead, she herded the family’s flock of sheep. But when she returned the sheep to the corral, she would watch her mother weave, and these visual lessons stayed with her.
Irene attended Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma, where she met her husband, Jimmy. When she returned home, she finally began weaving. For her first rug, she asked her mother to just watch her and to point out weaving errors. With no hands-on lessons, she had basically taught herself by watching, listening, and figuring out the challenges her grandmother and her mother encountered in their weaving. She sold her first rug to a trading post for 400 dollars.
Irene learned the traditional way of weaving, first preparing her materials, carding, spinning, collecting plants for dyeing. Finally, with the proper Navajo weaving songs, she would start weaving. Songs, prayers, and good thoughts are associated with every step of her weaving. She is mindful that each rug has to be finished, each rug teaches her something new, and she never leaves her loom empty for too long.
Irene said, “I do my blessing before each rug. I thank Mother Earth for the plants that give color to my wool, for the sky above me, the air I breathe, for mother earth for grounding me. All this gives me a good feeling to weave.” Irene explains, “Everything is in the weaving, it’s in your hands, it’s in your weaving tools, and it’s in your mind. Design and dyeing are related to how you think of yourself, and it will show in how you weave your rug. Good thoughts, prayers, songs are what you need.” Irene’s rugs tell her stories; some tell of her struggles to succeed, but all tell of her connection to the harvested plants that provided the beautiful dyes for which she is known. Dyeing is in her family.
Irene’s mother, Glenabah, was known for a particular design she often wove in her Crystal rugs—two inverted triangles with a square in the middle of the triangles, a design that would please algebra and geometry teachers. The design element represents tsiyéél the hair bun worn by Navajos. After her mother passed, Irene has continued to weave this design to honor her mother.
Irene is a well-traveled weaver. We first met in 1992 at the opening of Reflections of the Weaver’s World: The Gloria F. Ross Collection of Contemporary Navajo Weaving at the Denver Art Museum. As the exhibit traveled, we met in museums in other cities, the most memorable being the George Gustav Heye Center in New York. Irene wore Navajo clothing and her jewelry was beautiful. The rotunda at the Heye Center was filled with Navajo weavers, many in their most elegant clothing, and you could hear the Navajo language bouncing off the walls, creating an echo that sounded like songs. After meeting Irene many times at different Navajo weaving events, we finally had quality time to talk about weaving when we both attended the Navajo Weaving Now! conference in Tucson in 2005. We are of the same clan, Water’s Edge Clan, Tábąąhá, so we are related; after we talked about our weaving, we became family.
Irene’s weaving accolades are many, but the ribbons for those countless weaving career achievements she tucks away. Still humble about her work, Irene says, “My current rug always teaches me something new; I am going to challenge myself to do better.” Because she has this relationship with each rug she weaves, Irene feels like she has given a piece of herself away when she sells a rug, having put so much of herself in the weaving. Sometimes she even misses a rug after she sells it.
Irene also has been an important weaving teacher—it is one of the many ways she has passed on the heart of her Navajo traditions. She encourages her students to remember their prayers and their songs. “We are carrying on the Holy Ones’ work,” she reminds them. Irene is a weaver who honors the Holy Ones and Spider Woman in all her work and in all her words.
—Barbara Teller Ornelas & Lynda Teller Pete
Learn more about the lives of the Navajo weaving elders in Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today
How to Weave a Navajo Rug and Other Lessons from Spider Woman, also by Lynda Teller Pete & Barbara Teller Ornelas is available now for pre-order—ships in September.