Maybe I had altitude sickness from the Chuska Mountain Pass, but the moment I exchanged smiles with the Park Ranger on the steps of the Hubbell Ranch Visitor Center, I felt I’d known him a lifetime.
Inside the door, I filled a cone with water from the cooler and read a sign near a large loom: “Mary Begay, Master Weaver. If you have any questions please ask the Rangers. Some of these women speak only Navajo.” A woman in a long sleeved jalapeño-green velvet blouse and flounced calico skirt knelt on a cushion, her hands moving effortlessly in and out the weft of the loom. I stood behind her and watched three black squares emerging from a field of blood red.
A parched plaza led me to Arizona’s historic Ganado Trading Post. For months I had waited for this visit to the Hubbell Ranch which, in addition to being the oldest operating trading post, had brought the artistry of Navajo weaving to light.
The dark century-old store was pungent with mementos of piñon wood smoke, worn saddle leather, and sage. Cases of Coca-Cola, Navajo tea packets, canned goods, silver and turquoise jewelry, guns and drums, Hopi Kachina dolls, silver adorned bridles, and bolts of velvet and calico filled the room. The precious Ganado rugs were stacked ceiling high in a smaller lowslung room at the back.
John Lorenzo Hubbell bought land from Ganado Mucho (Chief Many Cattle) and settled at the heart of the Navajo Nation in the northeast corner of Arizona. Rather than dispossess the Indians as other ranchers of his time, twenty-three year-old Lorenzo learned their language and hired them to raise sheep and work the fields. They called him “four-eyes” for his glasses and “shrewd-eyes” for his uncanny vision at spotting an opportunity and turning it to his (and their) advantage.
Hubbell built a modest Trading Post where Navajo women could trade home-spun serapes and saddle blankets for food. In the 1890s mass-produced New England textiles and Turkish-style carpets flooded the market, but they lacked quality.
Seizing on the obvious talent of Ganado weavers, he gave Mexican bayeta flannel and Oregon Pendleton blankets to the women. In return he asked each woman to unravel a bundle of red cloth, and gave her indigo dye and natural wool yarn. The women took to these colors because they frequently were used in ceremonial sand paintings—black and blue for north/south; white and red for east/west.
Next, the enterprising rancher chose Saint Andrew’s cross as a defining rug icon. This also pleased the women. The plus-shaped cross reminded them of Spider Woman who appeared to the Navajo on an 800-foot pinnacle in nearby Canyon de Chelley. Spider Woman entreated her mate to build her a loom. Immediately he set to work, using cross poles of earth and sky and a warp of sun rays. From then on, when a Navajo weaver found a spider on her loom she never harmed it, knowing it had brought the eventual design of the weaving.
Spider on my loom,
there’s room for both of us.
Soon the women were weaving small spider crosses at the edge of the larger motif, and as they explored their freedom within the Ganado framework, they perfected their technique. New color-fast dyes and imported sheep with finer wool enhanced the overall quality of their rugs.
Before long, Lorenzo Hubbell owned two dozen trading posts, each offering a unique rug design and color scheme. Part of his success came from joining Fred Harvey who, like Hubbell, had capitalized on the talent and industry of women. The famous “Harvey Girls” who waitressed at Harvey restaurants along the Santa Fe Railroad lines were fast lining his pockets. Harvey and Hubbell put their heads together and by the turn-of-the-century, Navajo rugs were being sold at whistlestops across the country.
Other communal cooperatives were forming across the country. Marian MacDowell gave coast-to-coast piano recitals to raise funds for The MacDowell Colony founded in 1909 to give her composer husband, writers and artists the freedom to create. Writer and Gurdjieff disciple Jean Toomer followed suit, setting up spiritual study groups and communes in the Midwest. These early communes and colonies engendered a sense of community and exchange of artistic ideas in the midst of the industrial revolution. A few decades later, Paul Engle instituted the Iowa Writers Workshop, promoting post WW II and Cold War international exchange. Unfortunately, the Quonset hut prototype for cross-cultural ferment gave way to institutional clones.
I will leave you so Spider Woman
can decide the weave she’ll spin inside my head.
Bleary-eyed from the dark and musty rug room, I hurried back into the sunlight. The approaching figure of Mary Begay came toward me in the alert silence of the high desert. She glanced over her glasses. It wasn’t a once-over, but a lifetime over—an encounter you might expect from a coyote in a narrow box canyon. She moved closer, fearlessly making a detour across the compound to sniff out my silence. In her concentrated weaver’s mind, it was as if she knew I also spun images.
Walking back to the Visitor Center, I thought of how the craft of weaving and writing are bound together in language and legend. We spin yarns and weave tales. We make fabric and fabricate stories. Our popular mystery novels provide clues like the original clew (ball of string) which Homer’s hero Theseus used to escape the labyrinth on Crete.
The Navajo ranger squeezed past an overweight couple at the postcard rack. He spoke so softly I could barely hear him. “I’m opening the ranch house in about half an hour, if you’re interested.”
I agreed to meet him and moseyed over to the ranch to sit in the shade of the porch. Leaning back, I took out a record book in which I’d jotted some notes after seeing an exhibition of Ganado rugs: “Weaving is a sitting still within the harmony place.”
How well I knew that place. Navajo women sat at four-cornered looms with wooden cross-poles weaving tight lines. I sat at my four-cornered desk before a sheet of paper (also made from a tree) weaving words into the lines of a poem or essay. The Navajo woman listens to Spider Woman. The writer listens to his or her “muse,” “white goddess,” “inner voice.”
Bring me the song
of Rainbow Girl and the Holy Yei.
Hey, don’t be long.
For 5000 years women used the distaff, a long pole held under one arm with flax fiber fastened to the top; the weaver guided and twisted the flax yarn onto a spindle attached to its side. Egyptian mummy cloth was spun this way. Roman togas were spun this way. The distaff went unaltered until a Chaucerian wife, fed up with literally having her hands tied, attached a treadle-wheel to the distaff. This revolutionary invention freed up an arm so she could nurse a child, stir the porridge, read a book.
“Distaff” became interchangeable with “female” and, in a broader sense, “the female side of the family.” Saint Distaff’s Day (the day after Twelfth Night) marked the return of women to housework; it served as an explicit reminder that merry making was over and they must tend to their knitting. The term “wife” literally derives from the verb “to weave.”
Until the last few centuries, handwriting by the distaff side of the family was forbidden. Most New World women signed property and marriage deeds with an X or thumb print. The nearest that girls came to writing was cross-stitching alphabet samplers. Women who refused husbands were spinsters for life.
The British levied fines if annual quotas of flax yarn weren’t met. Scores of Colonial women gathered together with their spinning wheels for daylong marathons. In 1775 four hundred Daughters of the American Revolution spun and wove bounty coats for the Continental Army. One patriotic distaff and her daughters sheered a black-and-white sheep, carded the wool, spun gray yarn, and wove a uniform in 24 hours. Many of these tightly woven uniforms became family heirlooms.
British author Charles Dickens captures this communal spirit of weaving women and political fervor in the haunting Madame Defarge in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. A compulsive knitter, Defarge encodes a list of enemies into her handiwork and watches without dropping a stitch as the victims of her espionage are carted to the guillotine. Dickens writes: “So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting that their very selves were closing in.”
This “closing in” winds like Ariadne’s thread through centuries of legendary persecution, from Homer’s heroine Penelope who unravels weaving to trick rapacious suitors to Hawthorne’s Hester Pryne who is forced to sew and wear the Scarlet Letter of Adultery.
Politics, morality, and sewing hardly seem compatible and yet, as recently as WW II, Jewish mothers and daughters were forced to sew the yellow star of David on family clothing so Nazis could single them out for ostracism, torture, and death.
and it’s about to snow. Go.
And ask her for a rug of beauty.
The Park Ranger startled me out of my spinning mind.
“Where are you from?” he asked, turning to unlock the door to the Hubbell ranch house. I told him.
“Hubbell came from New England, too.” He took off his straw sombrero and ushered me inside.
The great thick-walled room was refreshingly cool after the relentless sunlight. Exquisite large Ganado rugs hung from the walls and covered the polished pine floors. Sepia-toned drawings of Navajo women who had made the rugs were interspersed among life-size oil portraits of Don Lorenzo Hubbell and his Spanish wife.
“A lot of slave labor,” I said impulsively.
He looked at me the way Mary Begay had. “Yes, I tell my friends I have to go over to the ranch house and talk about how great Hubbell was.” He sank onto a long Victorian couch and unlaced his stiff regulation boots.
“My grandmother worked in the ranch house when Hubbell was here. She was good looking—he probably laid her.” His dark eyes danced in the somber light and flickered as if he was staring into a fire.
I sank onto the hand-woven rug beside a ponderous Victorian table and removed my sandals. My imagination ran wild. Was he considering giving back what Hubbell had taken?
“My grandmother came from across the fields. She lived there.” He waved behind him. “And I live there, too.
I fingered the tight stitches of gray and red arrows shooting in a precise yet careless pattern. An abstract masterpiece.
“You said slavery. My grandmother traded at the store; she was paid tin tokens until 1957. Tin money. And they made her buy everything at the ranch store. We worked this land too—like slaves. The women sell their rugs now and they still have to pay a 20% commission of what they sell to the trading post.”
He glanced at the portraits over the fireplace. “That’s Hubbell and his wife Rubi Lina. She didn’t come here too often; she didn’t speak Navajo or English—just Spanish. She was sick after they married and lived in Albuquerque most of the time.”
“He looks like Teddy Roosevelt,” I said.
“Roosevelt actually came to see him.”
Just then, two men entered the door back-lighted against the Arizona blue sky. The Ranger pulled up the tongues of his boots and relaced them.
I jumped up, pretending to examine the paintings.
One of the men with a beer belly and cowboy boots asked in a Texan drawl, “Hubbell was in politics, wan’t he?”
The Ranger twirled his straw hat in his hands. “He became state senator. Yes, he was a healthy and lively man.”
The pride in his voice came as a complete surprise, as if he had assumed a totally different persona.
Go quickly, now!
Later, while reviewing my notes, the intimacy of our hushed conversation seeped back into my pores and the century-old adobe enclosed me in its timeless interlude. Whether Spider Woman or Ganado spirit-walkers had entrusted me with their family secrets, clues gathered between the lines. The Ranger’s beautiful grandmother and Yankee grandfather had produced the best weaver in Ganado. In turn, she bound Hubbell’s grandson to a cradle board and raised him as his heir. And so, disguised as A Navajo Weaver and A Park Ranger, not only were the mother and son protecting their rightful inheritance, but they had spun me into their ancestral song.
Julia Older has lived in France, Italy, Mexico and Brazil. Her 33 books include The Island Queen (Isles of Shoals trilogy) and Selected Writings of writer-essayist Celia Thaxter. Her novel-in-verse Tahirih Unveliled (about Persia’s first women’s rights activist) and her second novel (This Desired Place) won the Independent Publisher IPPY Bronze Poetry and Regional Fiction Gold Medals. Julia has been on fellowship at The Iowa Workshop, Instituto Allende writing program (Mexico), MacDowell and Yaddo Colonies. Poets & Writers, The New Yorker, and numerous publications have featured her work. She writes full-time in the foothills of Grand Monadnock, NH.