Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
In the time I have spent with the Navajo I have seen numerous large rugs either finished or in the process of being woven, but I have never seen one being strung up. One day Old-Mexican's-Son tells me that Hastin-Gani's-Wife wants long poles so she can start a large sand-painting tapestry. Before he gets them she finds some herself, and on the day scheduled we make our way to her place.
There is no difference in the manner of stringing the rug, which is fourteen feet square. There is merely added difficulty of manipulation. All four poles are fifteen or sixteen feet long. The weaver uses the same ones for the temporary frame and for the permanent bars. It is not to be expected that she can run the warp ball over the end bars of the temporary loom alone. She sits at one end and throws the ball to her daughter at the other, who in turn adjusts the warp properly and throws the ball back.
Perhaps the most difficult part is to keep the large mass of warp from tangling from the time it is taken from the temporary frame until it is fastened to the permanent one. All of this Hastin-Gani's-Wife achieves with perfect skill, and with what seems to be ease. The whole effect of her behavior is that of complete control. She does not hurry, but her work proceeds unbelievably fast.
She has decided to have the entire length of her warp stretched instead of rolling it around the warp beam at the top as many women do. Her loomframe therefore juts far above the shade where she plans to work. Her son helps her to adjust the loom to the loomframe, and he, like his mother, works with exact knowledge of what he is to do and how. A small ladder leans against the outside of the shade, and by means of it he reaches the top beam of the loomframe. As he stands on top of the structure his mother throws the rope which regulates the tension up to him from inside. He runs it over the stringer so that it remains an even distance from the last coil and throws it back to her. They proceed thus until the warp stands high and loosely stretched in place.
Hastin-Gani's-Wife now pauses to make some two-ply cord. I have never seen this done either, but luckily Marie has shown me how to make three-ply just the day before, and the twisting is the same. In the midst of it Hastin-Gani's-Wife is called out. She hands the spindle to me in the most matter-of-fact manner. I am flattered at her belief in my ability and fearful lest I fail her. But she stays quite a while, and by the time she gets back I have the knack of this spinning on the thigh. It involves only twisting, has nothing to do with splicing.
I help her a little about fastening the edge cords which we have just spun. She sits before the loom to make the heald loops. As I watch her I pick up a spindle on which someone is spinning warp. I have never spun warp, but the first thick rove is so evenly made that I am surprised to find myself doing very well. This Sunday, during which everything has gone so pleasantly and quietly, seems to be the day for my comprehensive examination in rug-making.
As she passes her loops over her rods Hastin-Gani's-Wife remarks: "You can make the diamond saddle blanket. Will you show me how to do it?" She does not know that this innocent remark is more precious to me than my degree from college. She, acknowledged among the best weavers of the tribe because of her skill and dexterity, asking me to show her how to make a saddle blanket!
The Twins'-Mother and I have dyed only a sample of each color we tried. By the time we cease our experiments I have many small skeins, no one of them of much use but altogether a goodly amount of yarn. I decide to weave them into a kind of Joseph's coat cushion top. All summer Marie and Atlnaba have been threatening to put up a loom. Before their mother's death there was no time; since, they have wanted to do so but somehow lacked the will to get at it. Marie mentions again her desire to learn the saddle-blanket weaves. One day when I am ready, I announce: "This would be a good place for a loom, don't you think, between these two trees? I want to make a cushion top and put all these colors in it. But first I am going to make you a sample of each of the fancy weaves. We will put them on the sticks and then leave them unfinished so you can always count them when you need them. This will be your notebook."
We get the poles from White-Sands. Curley's-Son is working only two miles away this week, so he comes home every night. He makes the lower beam of the loomframe rigid and fastens the topmost one firmly to the two trees. We can manage the rest.
I start with "braided," the simplest of the diagonal weaves. I count off the warps for the first heald and find them wrong.
[paragraph continues] I start all over and again make a mistake. I finally think I have the counts for one heald right and count off those for another. Mistake follows mistake until I am impatient and cross. I continue, however, and finally have the counts for the four healds correct. I weave a few rows to show Marie, and then she tries. After she has woven a little it is time for dinner, and we both take a rest. When we try it again in the afternoon we both find it wearing and difficult. The sun has moved over the piñon and is shining through our warps.
I hang a plain dark blanket behind the loom, and our troubles are over. They were due to the light. I now feel more tolerant and understanding of Mrs. Kinni's-Son. Perhaps this is the reason she had such a bad time counting the warps when she was showing me. We keep the blanket behind our loom, and when I count out the diamond I experience no unpleasantness or delay.
When we take out the heald loops of one harness to prepare for another we substitute a string for the healds and push it up to the top of the loom. This will remain the permanent count for Marie to refer to. As I count the warp for the diamond I explain to her the general principles I have worked out. She grasps them and uses them at once although she cannot formulate them. I sit beside her and spin. She thinks it is hard to keep track of the healds and the weft reeds and to get them in exactly the right order. I do not wish to bother her and speak only when she asks, "Which one is next?" She weaves about four inches of "diamond" on top of about the same portion of "braided." I look at it, and to my great satisfaction it is drawing in. This part of the weaving must be at least an inch narrower than it was when we began.
Gloatingly I say, "Look at your edge, Marie!"
She jerks her hand, still holding the comb, over her mouth as she gives vent to a hearty chuckle. "I was so interested in getting the weaving right, I forgot all about the edge." This would have been balm to the troubled soul of my first summer but even now does not pass me by unappreciated.
This is an appropriate time for Marie to learn because there are constant interruptions which make it impossible to accomplish much. It is the corn season; there is an excellent crop, and Atlnaba spends long days making a corn confection whose name I cannot translate. I call it "green-corn macaroon." Marie helps her as does Ninaba when she is not out with the sheep.
When the women husk the corn, they lay aside the tender light green inner leaves, placing them carefully so they do not accumulate sand, ashes, or other dirt. Someone cuts off huge dishpanfuls of the milky kernels. Another of the group grinds them on the metate, which has been set on a clean sheepskin, smooth side up. After a large mass of the thin batter is ready, all set about preparing it for the baking. The worker transfers a handful to a clean curved cornhusk. She gets it all in the husk—there is none dripping around the edges. She folds it over, places another husk on top, folds it back, then secures the whole by lapping back the pointed tips. She lays the "macaroon" on a board which is fast becoming heaped with the fresh neat luxuries.
Meanwhile Atlnaba has had a hot fire burning over a space with a large circumference. When the confections are ready she shovels away the unburnt wood and the coals and digs out a shallow place for an oven. Everyone now takes up a position near this and lays the filled husks in accurate rows until the
space is filled. Atlnaba shovels the sand over them again, distributes the coals evenly over it, and keeps wood burning at the side so she will have fresh coals when these burn out.
The sand oven is left with but occasional attention to the fire for about three hours. Then the stuffed husks come out, golden brown in color, solid where they were soft before. Whenever we are in doubt during the corn season we eat one of these confections. They have much the consistency of a macaroon, they are slightly sweet; the flavor is between that of baked and parched corn. After eating one I feel as if I should not need food again for a whole day at least; it is completely satisfying.
Everybody eats as many of these as she wishes. These bakings are, however, primarily to preserve corn for the winter. The bulk of them, therefore, is placed to dry where the goats cannot reach, then stored away against the winter, when they will be cracked up and boiled for a staple dish.
Atlnaba superintends also the preparation of great quantities of corn baked in the same way but in a deep pit. The labor connected with this is in creating a fire hot enough to penetrate three feet or so in depth and, after the corn has baked for perhaps a day or longer, in husking the savory ears. The children are almost always chewing on an ear of corn. If Djiba gets tired of hers before she has eaten it all she lays it aside until she wants it again. If, by that time, it has disappeared—perhaps Dan or Ben finished it!—she stands and screams vociferously.
Marie comes to my home and I expect her to weave as usual. Instead she says: "My father is singing the Bead Chant over there where we went the first year you were here. They
are having the sand-painting today." And she adds wistfully, "I have never seen it."
"Do you want to go?"
"When should we start?"
I remember this is the place where several girls live of whom Marie is very fond. When we arrive Marie falls onto the bosom of her favorite, and for twenty minutes at least they cry together. Another one cries with Atlnaba. This is the first time they have seen one another since the death of Maria Antonia. Our own callers have shown me that after a death, women greet relatives, and even friends, with tears. The tears are shed with each in proportion to the closeness of the friendship.
Red-Point concentrates on the songs for this painting very carefully. He keeps his eyes closed most of the time. Although he does not hesitate, neither does he joke or banter, and it seems as if he pulls the ritual from the remotest cubicles of his memory. The confidence and assurance of the Shooting Chant are noticeably absent. The songs are so different that even I notice them. Later, as we eat in the adjoining shade, he complains: "It is very difficult for me to sing this. I don't sing it very often, and I don't even know it all. I have to think hard about it all."
On our way home, Marie elucidates further: "Poor Leo! He is sick again. They are just trying this for two days to see if it does any good. In a few weeks he will have the War Dance. Then if he gets better, they will have the whole nine days of the Bead Chant next winter. They can't have it in the summer."
Interruptions are not confined to the daytime. I lie sound asleep about eleven-thirty one night when I am gently awakened by Marie. She scares me nearly to death by this visit at what to me is the middle of the night. I can see there is a woman with her. As I come to a sense of realization, Marie explains: "This is one of our relatives from over near where Tom's brother is working. Her daughter is awful sick. She rode over here to get help. She wants you to take her to Ganado to get her husband, Black-Moustache, to go for a singer who lives up on the mountain."
I can think of nothing I should less rather do. I argue for a time, then, knowing that the moment is impossible for civilized medical treatment, agree to go. I do not know how ill her daughter is, but if she is riding like this at night, she must be greatly alarmed. Even if it does no good, she will feel she did all she could.
We drive to Ganado, Black-Moustache's-Wife sitting erect and tense in the back seat, Marie in front to direct me. No one is home at the first hogan we try; at the second we get the report that Black-Moustache has gone up to the mountain for the medicine-man. We return home and to bed. The woman rides alone into the night.
The next morning Marie comes with the announcement, "Black-Moustache's daughter died before her mother got home, at midnight."
Spinning is as suitable as weaving miscellaneous patterns for these days filled with harvest activities and emergencies. I spin more than usual this summer, and I find my yarn becoming constantly more satisfactory. Marie remarks this and points with pride to what I have done, calling it to Atlnaba's
attention. She adds, "I couldn't spin real nice until I was nineteen."
Whereupon I naturally ask, "How old were you when you began?"
I reflect that she has spun continuously, that the hours I have put in on it are actually very few, in the wintertime none at all; and I see no reason to be discouraged.
When Marie thoroughly understands the "diamonds," we substitute strings for healds, and I count off the warps for the "double-faced." Between times Marie says repeatedly: "I am so glad to know how to make these weaves. My mother knew how, and I have always intended to learn but somehow we never got at it."
I am weaving at the "double-faced" when Djiba's-Mother comes to see us. She remarks to Marie, "She is beating us."
"No," I reply, "if you were weaving the same thing yours would be more even, and your edge would be better. I just know the way to do it, you know how to make a good blanket."
To Marie I add, "That is always the way with a good teacher; she learns from her pupils."
Marie then confessed with a kind of wistful satisfaction, showing this was her examination as well as mine: "You remember that day when Old-Mexican's-Son brought you up here and said we must teach you to weave. I didn't sleep very well that night, and I worried: "What if we shouldn't be able to teach her? Maybe we can't."
Marie and her sister will doubtless never realize how I bless them for the conscientiousness with which they accepted the
responsibility thrust upon them: if I had failed, they would have acknowledged the failure as theirs.
One day I tell Marie how enthusiastic some of my white friends are about weaving. I add, "But they will never really learn to weave because they don't stay with it. It is like anything else: you can't learn it without practise, and you must be willing to give it time."
"I know," says Marie. "Mrs. C., for whom I worked in Los Angeles, said she wanted to learn. She tried it once and then said she couldn't. That is what we all thought you might do."
I then tell her the story of Mrs. Kinni's-Son and her fear of white women as competitors. At this Marie only laughs and says her own experience trying to teach white women reassures her on that score. Even though I have learned she is sure I will not become a rival because it takes me too long to spin and weave. I could not earn my living at it.