For the longest time, it has been generally thought that women were the only weavers in Navajo society. The idea is stated in written text and documented in journals of military men from the previous century. From the Navajo perspective, male weavers have always been part of traditional Navajo history and culture. Male weavers are mentioned in our creation stories in the underworld, but this is not mentioned in the English versions of our Navajo stories. To hear of a Navajo man weaving draws questions and sometime blank looks from non-Navajo people and also from some contemporary Navajo.
Today, a handful of young boys and men continue to weave as our male ancestors did in the past. We are continuing the stories of our histories through weaving. Not only are we doing it because it is part of our history, but more importantly we weave because we have the urge and desire to express our creativity through weaving. Other men present their artistry through jewelry, painting, pottery, basketry and so forth. We do it through textile weaving, simply another form of continuing an artistic tradition.
Our stories are similar to those told about how Navajo women began weaving. We learned these stories from early childhood and through various stages of our lives on the Navajo Nation, and through trial and error. We learned how to weave with the help of our maternal kin: grandmother, mother, sister, female cousin and aunt.
Each one of us in this exhibition comes from a family where a female relative is a weaver. It is unusual for a male to be the only weaver within a Navajo family unit. Recently, the traditional extended Navajo family, headed by a female member, has been changing because of modern influences. Some families now incorporate paternal kin or have abandoned the extended family tradition, forming nuclear families.
Today, the size of the family now dictates what level of Navajo moral and ethical values we use to clarify the quality and quantity of our cultural beliefs. For example, if a monolingual elderly person is part of the extended family, the cultural values are considered to be strong and it certainly helps to define a place for a weaver, especially a male weaver.
Within the confines of these values and ethics, our places as male weavers are created, nurtured and maintained. We function by the same strict rules established for Navajo women as weavers through the stories of Spider Woman and her entourage when the Navajo world was first created. For example, our weaving tools are created with songs by our parents or grandparents. On a seasonal basis, our weaving tools and looms are blessed and re-blessed at Blessing Way ceremonies as our family members surround us. Moreover, most of us do not weave at night as the culture forbids it. It is believed, by traditional people, that Navajo weaving is personified and that our textiles are entitled to their nightly rest, similar to living beings. Nor do we use our weaving tools for anything except for what they were created: to weave textiles.
Due to the continuous changes in our culture, many of the younger male weavers are confronted with different sets of rules. Today, the weaving tools are readily available and are marketed at social gatherings throughout the reservation. If not, they can be purchased in border towns where they are mass-produced. These are some of the struggles we are faced with in our attempts to retain our sacred cultural traditions and knowledge of weaving. Despite the rules changing around us as we sit at our looms weaving, we simply continue laying each weft and continue to tell our stories. These stories tell of the Navajo past, present, and our future.
For this exhibition, we as Navajo male weavers are speaking for ourselves and about our experiences in creating Navajo textiles. We are talking about ownership of our art and ourselves. Our parents, grandparents, clan members and other relatives gave these privileges to us. Just as our stories are told and handed over from one generation to the next, the art of weaving continues to travel the same path. Along the way, we bring in new designs, thoughts, and tools to integrate and adapt to produce a better textile. Still the method of weaving stays the same.
We still take from the earth to make our tools, the wool off the backs of our sheep and mohair from our goats to make the threads. We carry on the process of cleaning, carding, dyeing and spinning the wool and mohair, as our ancestors did. In our time, modern technology has helped to speed the process of bringing the wool to its final stage of being woven into the warp. Some of us still hear from our parents the stories as we weave, and a few hear the songs that accompany the various stages of weaving from our grandparents. Both bring more appreciation to what we do as weavers: the perpetuation of our culture.
In our stories we hear of men weaving in the past, some carrying the name or simply being called "The Weaver." Through erroneous translations of Navajo stories into English, it was believed that only women were the weavers in Navajo culture. In actuality, there has been a fine line between gender occupations within the culture for a long time and it continues to be so. A fixed space or occupation does not define gender roles in Navajo culture. Gender definitions clarify a space for each person within the culture. Due to that flexibility, the culture gives Navajo men permission to weave. Today, we weave to demonstrate our desire and to express our artistic needs, as any artist does. The occupation of weaving tends to enthrall our minds on a daily basis. Our environmental surroundings are captured in and presented through our finished products. The cultural permission has also moved Navajo weaving from being classified as a craft to that of an art form.
This legitimization has further empowered Navajo male weavers to be seen in public, much more than in the past. Before, our textiles were handed over to one of our maternal kin to sell on our behalf due to gender role stigmatization. Now, we weave and sell our products in public, along side our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts and so forth, or with other men.
Since only a handful of men are weaving now, this brings us into the sphere of exoticism. We are no different from Navajo women weavers. We carry out the process of weaving just the same as the women do, except that we are not restricted from weaving at certain times. Other than that, we, as male weavers, share the same laborious tasks of weaving as we have in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Wesley Thomas, Ph.D.
Wesley Thomas is a Navajo weaver and received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Washington.