Like many of you who are staying at home during this pandemic, I am catching up on home projects that never seem to get done. This week I went through my collection of textiles to make sure there were no signs of pest (mostly moth) damage. If you have Navajo or other handwoven wool textiles in your collection this is something you want to do on a regular basis. As I was going through my cedar chest, I came across a small weaving that I had made years ago that brought back memories of one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. The storyteller that I am, I would like to share this with you today.
It was the summer of 2001 and I was the Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I traveled out to the Navajo Reservation to take a five-day weaving class from a young woman by the name of Valencia. There were five women from a weaving guild in California, and me, in the class. I was the only one who had never done any weaving before, so needless to say I had quite a lot to learn. We were provided with a small upright loom, yarn and traditional weaving tools. We set our looms up under a large ramada next to the hogan and were given instructions on how to do the tapestry weave. We were free to create whatever design we wanted. While the other students started weaving beautiful colorful designs, I decided to keep mine simple and do a burgundy pine tree on a gray background. After a while I started getting the hang of it. While teaching us traditional Navajo weaving techniques, Valencia shared a lot of information about Navajo culture and language.
On the afternoon of our fourth day an elderly Navajo woman and her young granddaughter pulled up in an old pickup truck. She talked with Valencia and her sister for quite a while and then she came over to me and asked me in Navajo what I was weaving. Her granddaughter translated for us. I told her I was weaving a pine tree and she asked me why? I told her that the tree represented my clan from Ireland. My ancestors were called Woods and so the pine tree was representative of my clan. She nodded her head up and down and then gave me a big smile. Later that afternoon Valencia told us she and her sister were supposed to have a Beauty Way Ceremony the week before, but it had been postponed. The woman who had come that afternoon was the medicine woman who was going to do the ceremony and she decided that it was going to start that night. We were told that we wouldn’t be able to sleep in the hogan that night because the ceremony was going to be held there. We were going to have to sleep in our cars. We were also invited to join in the ceremony that evening, which would go until about midnight. I was the only one from our class to attend. There was no way I was passing up an opportunity to observe a Beauty Way Ceremony. We were also told that if we wanted our weaving tools to be blessed by the medicine woman that we could leave them in the hogan that night.
The next day we all worked on finishing up our weavings. This was the last day of our class and we would all be heading home the next day. Throughout the day Valencia and her sister were busy preparing for the all night ceremony. At one point that afternoon Valencia approached me and said that the medicine woman specifically asked that I participate in the ceremony that night. I was deeply honored and immediately accepted the invitation. I finished my weaving, packed my car, and went into the kitchen to help prepare the food for both the students’ dinner and for the ceremony.
When the medicine woman and the singers arrived Valencia’s aunt and I spread out the bowls of food on a cloth on the floor in the middle of the hogan. The first to eat was the medicine woman and she requested that I serve her. Again, I was surprised and honored. Even though I didn’t understand the Navajo language we were able to communicate with each other. After everyone ate, the ceremony started. I sat on a sheepskin along the north wall of the Hogan, next to Valencia’s aunt. She explained what was going on throughout the night and what certain songs and rituals meant. The two sisters had their hair ritually washed with yucca suds from a ceremonial basket to songs and prayers. A pouch with corn pollen was occasionally passed around and everyone took a small pinch in their fingers and raised it to their forehead and then put it on their tongue. This went on throughout the night until dawn. I was amazed that I never fell asleep. At the end of the ceremony Valencia came over and took my hand and asked me to join her and her sister as they greeted the dawn. As we went out the hogan door we saw the sun coming up and it was sprinkling a little bit. Slowly a beautiful rainbow appeared on the horizon. I don’t think I have ever felt more at peace.
During these unprecedented times, my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone on the Navajo Nation as they experience first-hand the devastation of the COVID-19 virus as it spreads throughout the reservation. May you always walk in beauty…Stay Safe and Stay Well!
Shelby J. Tisdale. Ph.D.