CASE STUDY - In-Community Program with Ramah Navajo Weavers Association, 2012

As part of the 2012 In-Community Program organized for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) by Landis Smith, Cathy Notarnicola and Valerie Verzuh from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe, traveled to the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association in Pine Hill, New Mexico. They carried with them several nineteenth- and twentieth-century Navajo textiles from MIAC’s collection. Some of these textiles might even have been woven in the Pine Hill area by the ancestors of today’s Ramah weavers. On this day, the textiles were returning to the Navajo Nation for a visit with community members.

The textiles were carefully transported from the MIAC storage areas in Santa Fe to Pine Hill, where the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association was meeting in the community hogan (a traditional Navajo house). They were placed on tables inside the hogan, where the weavers, young and elderly, novices and masters, came to visit them.

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) conservators and Navajo community weavers examine a Navajo poncho sarape (1820–1840) from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s (MIAC) collections. Photo credit: Landis Smith

Deep respect was felt for the blankets and rugs. The weavers sat next to the textiles, carefully examining and commenting in Navajo and English on what they were seeing. Both whispers and laughter were heard as technical traits, such as the warps and wefts, color changes, selvage cords, and design complexes, were discussed, as well as more personal observations regarding the weavers of these textiles.

Observations included speculation as to what the weaver might have been thinking or feeling when she created a certain blanket or rug. How the textile was woven, the colors and designs she chose, and what was happening in her life at the time were all factors that were combined in these creations.

The main focus of the conversations was the processes, thoughts, and lived experiences of the women who wove these textiles. What were their lives like, and what were they thinking when they made these weavings? Were they patient and happy? What prayers and songs did they sing while weaving?

Ramah Navajo Weavers and staff members from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture examine a Navajo dress woven around 1850 and a Navajo rug from around 1940. Photo credit: Landis Smith

Ramah weavers dye yarn with lichen at the Ramah Weavers Association in Pine Hill, New Mexico.

The Ramah weavers expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to view these Navajo textiles, as most of them had not had the opportunity to visit the museum. Although many objects in MIAC’ collections can be viewed in its exhibitions or studied in storage, travel to Santa Fe for research is not always possible for people living in rural communities such as Pine Hill. The bringing of Navajo textiles to Ramah enabled many weavers, elders, tribal members, and youth to view these remarkable and important objects of deep cultural, artistic, and creative significance.

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This project was funded by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust with additional support from the National Museum of the American Indian.

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