“The People’s Tapestry”

By: Tara Beresh, Museum Curatorial and Collections Manager
This Q&A initially appeared in the Moab Sun News in June, 2023.

Exhibition Significance

The Moab Museum consults with regional tribal members to learn how to better serve a portion of our community that has been inaccurately represented, with regard to Museum environments. My primary question to our Native community has been “What would you like to see at the Moab Museum (and museums in general), especially with regard to Indigenous artifacts?” A common response is, “let The [Native] People tell their own stories.” Additionally, some tribal members emphasize wanting the local community to realize that Native Americans are not only a part of the past. Museums tend to exclusively focus on showcasing artifacts that were looted from Indigenous gravesites, which can be painful and offensive for their descendants to observe (resulting in many avoiding Museums). While interpreting history is typically a Museum’s MO, history paints a picture of how certain events across time influence one another, and ultimately, our present. It is important when we are exhibiting elements from the past, that we acknowledge their impact on the present. Curating Hopi Katsina: Evolving Styles, Enduring Meanings, and hosting Hopi carvers in 2022 provided an opportunity to highlight a colorful tradition for the regional Hopi; similarly, The People’s Tapestry: Weaving Tradition in Navajo Culture is a chance to host Navajo weavers and showcase the long tradition of weaving among the Navajo People.

Displaying historic alongside contemporary textiles demonstrates the ways that weaving traditions have changed, yet also remained consistently symbolic, vibrant, and most importantly, an essential aspect of life to the Navajo People. What better time than now to listen more and curate better?

The Historic and Cultural Context

The fibers, dyes, and designs all reflect the impacts of resource availability, oppression by the U.S. Government, and/or successes from Trading Post commerce that have predominated different time periods. Foundationally, Navajo textiles embody the spirit and intention of each weaver, but these additional elements shaped the evolution of rug aesthetics, size, and texture.  For example, during what’s called the Late Classic Period from 1850 to 1863, (150 years after the outset of weaving among the Navajo) what began as a craft to produce simply patterned garments for wearing evolved to include diamond and broad, wavy band motifs that were inspired by Mexican-Saltillo serapes and Spanish market interests. The Navajo were incredibly skilled at weaving, and their talents did not go unnoticed. In short, the opportunity to prosper through commerce introduced an ever-changing demand for demanding designs and brightly colored textiles, including rugs.

 Consider this important excerpt from The Livestock Conservancy:

“During this period of Spanish colonization, people indigenous to the Americas were either enslaved or hired to herd livestock and weave textiles. The Spanish exploited the skills of indigenous weavers who had been using cotton, feathers, and other fibers for centuries in the Southwest. Through the work of exploited labor, Spanish colonists were able to develop a robust textile industry. 

Many Diné, as the Navajo people call themselves, lived on the edge of Spanish occupations—acquiring Spanish sheep and goats through trading and raids. Following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against Spanish oppression, the Diné expanded their flocks on their vast traditional homeland where the sheep thrived on excellent forage.

Navajo-Churro sheep are commonly known to the Diné as Dibé dits’ozí, meaning “long fleeced sheep.” Traditional Diné refer to Navajo-Churro as T’áá Dibé, “the first sheep,” as Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined. Diné culture reflects the ebb and flow of traditional shepherding and weaving practices. The sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. For centuries their pastoral lifeway with sheep and goats provided economic self-sufficiency through fiber, milk, and meat products they developed and traded with other Indigenous Nations, the Spanish, and subsequently American and Mexican traders. Conservation of the Navajo-Churro sheep is essential to the continuance of Navajo pastoral lifeway.”

Photos from the Louisa Wetherill Collection and Harvey Leake. Sue Bradley photo [bottom, center].

The Exhibit Layout

By exhibiting a large variety of textiles, both historic and contemporary in a way that feels less like an art show and more like a trading post, visitors will be immersed in the power and beauty imbued in these works. Additionally, when a guest seeks to purchase a textile as a memento of their travels in the North American Southwest, they will consider the intention and meaning woven into each. These textiles are more than an artistic expression to Navajo weavers; they reflect the Navajo concept of Hózhó, or balance and harmony, which brings with them beauty and a sense of well-being. Weaving is a spiritual activity for each weaver, and the designs are symbolic of historical and cultural experiences. 

The prevalence of Navajo communities in Moab and across the region remains, and visitors will be left with a broader and more nuanced appreciation for The People’s cultural traditions. This exhibition is meant to highlight The People, and the cultural implications of Their weaving, not Euro-American affluence, commerce, or collecting. Weaving is a way of life and a form of survival. The Navajo say “Sheep is life” because the weaving tradition was birthed out of necessity and flourished amidst and in spite of hardship and oppression. These rugs are truly a testament to the resilience of the Navajo People.

Upcoming Programs

The Moab Museum’s mission is to “share stories” … but more precisely, it’s to host storytellers…to provide a welcoming space for the tellers of stories, which means, we aren’t here to dictate what is discussed or shared by a guest demonstrator or speaker. We have invited Navajo weavers and local experts in sheep rearing and wool processing to demonstrate their craft(s) and to answer questions about how and why they weave. The stories they decide to tell and what they chose to share will be determined by each, and will likely vary widely in breadth and depth.