Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
It is about this period in my own weaving career that Marie tells me the story of her own struggles in learning. "You have good yarn and good tools," she says, "and we help you all we can. You ought to learn fast. When I learned no one would help me, and I had to teach myself." So saying, she tells me the following story.
When Atlnaba was little, an older sister who was an expert weaver was living. Atlnaba, a mere baby of four, earnestly watched her older sister at her work. Finally, Atlnaba said she wanted to weave too. The elders thought her desire amusing, but Adjiba was lenient and let the baby try to weave on her own blanket. The sister showed the child how to work; she learned remarkably fast. She had no loom of her own at first, but if she made mistakes her sister patiently ravelled the work and rewove it correctly. By the time Atlnaba was five she was a qualified weaver. She made blankets which the trader, making few allowances for an infant prodigy, considered salable and bought as he would from a grown-up.
Marie is only three years younger than Atlnaba, but when she was about six Adjiba died. Atlnaba was now an experienced weaver. Red-Point was proud of her, but the family took her skill pretty much for granted as they did that of her
mother. It was about this time that Marie began to yearn to weave. But now she was big enough to herd sheep. In those days, nearly thirty years ago, the flocks were not as large as they are now. There were no highways and dangers were few. Nevertheless someone had to drive the sheep to pasture in the morning, watch them during the day and herd them back to the corrals. Atlnaba was too expert at weaving to be required to do this work. Weaving is sedentary, herding is nomadic. The two activities are incompatible. It is possible to do one or the other, inconvenient to do both.
When Marie begged her mother, who was not indulgent like her older sister, now gone, to teach her to weave, the mother answered that she could not have her weaving spoiled by experimentation, nor did she have time to ravel mistakes. And besides, how could one weave when one had to herd sheep? After being thus ungraciously repulsed Marie was, if possible, even more fascinated by the looms and their equipment. During the time she spent at home she hovered as persistently as a goat about her mother's loom, sitting as near her mother as possible when she was weaving, now before the loom and now behind it when her mother was away from it.
Early in the morning the little girl drove the sheep out of the corral and away to the south. She loved the soft green of the sage through which she drove them, the aromatic fragrance it exuded when trampled by the goats, its poignant redolence when warmed by the sun after a rain. She found her own chewing-gum on the sticky branches of the hardy piñons which, with the gnarled junipers, clumped her pasture land. During the season for piñon nuts she ate them from the time they began to form in their pretty cones, until they were ripe, when she spent hours gathering them.
Sometimes she sat for hours under a juniper tree, still as a cat, but not menacing, watching the birds and listening to their chatter. She knew where two brilliant bluebirds, heralds of the dawn, had their nest. She had watched them build it, had followed the lives of the parents and the fledglings until they were large enough to fly away, when she missed them sorely. The bluebirds' nest was east of Marie's home.
Toward the sunset there was a pair of turtle doves which she knew as intimately as she knew her own baby sister. The well was at the south. On a ledge of the well was a nest of phoebes. Far to the north, in which direction she drove the sheep to water in dry weather, there was a hole in a rock wall. In this hole there was a family of field mice which she could not reach with her hand. But they were not afraid of her, and after the babies were old enough to look the world in the eye they came out and let her pet them.
In July and August there were showers almost every afternoon. Sometimes they were gentle and cooling, the kind her people called female rains. No thunder, no lightning, no wind, just a light curtain of refreshment which the sun had no difficulty in penetrating. When it did, there was a complete rainbow in the sky, or even two. Or there might be showers, long black streamers from sky to distant mountain, which she could see while basking in sunlight herself. Sometimes the sun caught a rain-streamer higher up than the rest and threw the end of a rainbow, a sundog, on the mountain. It was just like the little sun rafts on which the gods of her father's sand-paintings stood. During a female rain Marie did not seek cover but ran about in it, sounding the deepest puddles with her little bare feet.
As the season advanced the rains grew into storms. Male
rains, with wind, thunder, and lightning, gathered their fury. Marie was a good judge of weather, and if she thought a male rain was approaching she tried to get the sheep back to the corral behind her house before the storm broke. But there were days when she drove the flock six miles to water, and on these days a tempest might overtake her. All she could do then was to huddle under her blanket, becoming smaller and smaller in fear and loneliness, until the storm passed by.
During her wanderings, she found pretty, smooth stones brightly colored and oddly shaped. She made a little cache of these which she could always find, the days she drove the flock to the southwest. Wherever she went, she could find sticks with which to build tiny corrals, and plenty of adobe from which she modelled little sheep and goats, even cattle and horses. Yes, there was plenty of entertainment for a shepherd-girl, even for the long hours she was left alone. But the beauties and pleasures of the earth were as naught to the child who wanted to weave.
After a period during which her longing became intense, and after her mother's rebuffs, she determined to learn to weave. If her mother would not show her, she would teach herself. If she could not use her mother's implements, she would make her own. Accordingly she constructed a crude little loom of two uprights and two crosspieces. Her mother and sister used nice smooth broomsticks for their beams. She had only rough, tough sticks which she tried to make as smooth as possible with the knife she secreted in the folds of her skirt.
Her batten, instead of being carefully fashioned of hard oak by her father, was cut from soft pine. In her efforts to make a smooth one she shaved several down so thin she had
to discard them and try again. Her best batten caught into the warp and frequently tore it. Her mother had nice combs of all sizes, made of hard wood and smoothed with use. Hers were a hodgepodge of sticks tied together to simulate a comb. They too caught into the warp, pulled at the weft, or became so twisted that she had to stop weaving to make a new comb. They were all too flimsy to become worn by age. But, such as they were, she had her loom and her implements.
The loom, though small, was nevertheless an awkward object to carry about. Each time she brought the sheep home, daily at about noon and sunset, she had to carry it with her, for it was not likely her mother would order her to herd in the same direction twice in succession. She brought the loom each time near to the house and hung it on a tree out of her mother's sight.
Her greatest problem was to get materials. There were large quantities of wool about the place. She was learning to card and spin. But she had no towcards of her own, and she could not take away with her one of the two pairs the family owned. Neither could she, except by stealth, take the fruits of her own labor. Such behavior would excite suspicion. She solved her problem quite simply but with considerable risk. She filched small quantities of the undyed yarn she herself spun, giving her white and gray. Red and black she stole from her mother as she did her warp.
Her own spinning was far from good enough for warp. This was the most difficult to obtain, for her mother, like other women, cherished her warp and always knew quite exactly how much she had. So Marie was able to take only very small amounts each time she made a raid on her mother's warp ball. Her warp when accumulated, though well spun,
was consequently full of knots—square knots; she would take no chance with ghosts—because it was a mass of little pieces. The weft yarn, being in short lengths, was not so inconvenient, for weft is constantly and simply pieced throughout the weaving even under ideal circumstances.
It was not long before she could weave stripes, but she wanted to make designs. If her mother or sister were weaving when she was home, she watched intently, trying to see how the designs were made and wherein her own mistakes lay. But the skilful fingers flew so quickly there was no seeing which warp strands were forward or back, or how many forward strands were necessary for this triangle, or how to make the steeper sides of that one.
She was now adept at her thieving. When her mother stopped to cook, she stationed her younger sister before the door of the hogan. She was to warn Marie if their mother returned to the house. After Marie had stolen a supply of yarn, she had time with the pointed end of the comb to push her mother's pattern up, thus loosening it so she could count the stitches. After such a dissection she again tried her own design, but it did not look right. So the next day she crawled behind the loom while her mother was weaving. She seized every opportunity to do this like a puppy nuzzling a sleeping place. But Marie was far from asleep. When her mother asked in astonishment why she sat there, Marie answered that she preferred it as a place to sit. The men all teased her; but after all, if she wanted to sit there, what harm was it? She sat there so that she could count the warps as her mother wove.
So she continued the struggle. Sometimes she became so discouraged she threw the loom away from her in a rage and vowed never to go near it again. But its very crudeness fascinated
her; she gathered it up again, and with tears of disappointment tried "just once more." Finally the first of her blankets was finished. Instead of proudly taking it home, she hung it in shame on a tree as far from her hogan as she ever took the sheep. Three of her works of art became the prey of the elements before her mother found out that she could weave.