Navajo Weavings with Ceremonial Themes: A Historical Overview of a Secular Art Form


[MUSIC PLAYING] Well, I first came to
Boston College in 1965, and my area was a foreign
language pedagogy. I was in the Department
of Modern Languages, at the time, which then became
the Department of Romance Languages. And over the years,
my husband and I developed textbooks for the
teaching of French and Spanish to high school students
and college students. And the name Valette and
Valette became connected with language textbooks. So now the question is
Valette and Valette have now written a book called Navajo
Weavings with Cultural Themes. And where did this
interest come from? Well, I think I have to go back
to my childhood in Boulder, Colorado. My father was on the
faculty of the university. And my parents had
come from Europe. And they were
decorating the house, and they put Navajo
weavings on the floor. And I especially
loved one weaving, a red weaving with
geometric patterns, that was in my father’s study. And now, that rug is in my
study here in Chestnut Hill. I met my husband when I
was spending my junior year in France. And then, I came back and
graduated from college, and he graduated
from business school, and we went to Colorado
to do our PhDs. And that’s when John Paul
got interested in Navajo weavings also. And so, when we came
to Boston College, we, again, had a home with
no furniture and nothing on the floor. And we went to auctions and we
would look for Navajo weavings. And most of these
Navajo weavings, like the one in my
study, are geometric. At one auction, I
believe it was in 1979, we found a weaving that had
a person on it, a person with feathers, a
dancer probably. I’d never seen a
weaving like that. And we bought it. We, of course, didn’t
put it on the floor. We put it on the wall. You don’t want to
walk on people. Then, 10 years later, we
found a second weaving. This one was a
much more delicate weaving, primarily in red
with another figure on it. And again, we didn’t quite
know what that figure was, but we thought this is
getting very interesting. And so, that really started
our research in Navajo weavings with ceremonial themes. Well as our interest in
Navajo weavings increased, we were able to buy
several weavings from a collection known as
the Weber collection, which had also weavings of
groups of dancers in them. For example, here’s a picture
of one of those weavings, and you can see that there
are men and women dancing, and the men are in kilts. And this aroused our interest
even more, what was this dance? What was going on
in these weavings? Well, our research
went into high gear, and so did our collecting. And maybe we went crazy. Anyway, we would
buy weavings that we could find that had these
ceremonial images on them. And by the year 2000, we had a
rather substantial collection. And we did an exhibit at the
Museum of our National History in Lexington, Massachusetts. And we wrote our
first book, which was, more or less, a catalog
to go with that exhibit. Well, you saw the cover
of it, but the book itself is a rather big book. It weighs probably about six
pounds and it’s 450 pages long, and there are over
500 images and maps. And it’s really a
research volume. It represents the
work that we’ve done in researching
these weavings, over the past 30 years. It’s important to note
that these weavings have a ceremonial theme,
but they were never used in any ceremonial function. The Navajo imagery used in
their ceremonial functions is in the form of
sand paintings. These sand paintings are
created during the day. The patient comes and
sits on the sand painting. The power of the sand painting
is given to the patient. And then, the sand
painting is erased. The sands are taken
outside and buried. And so, the Navajos had a taboo
against permanent reproductions of their sand paintings. Well now, a weaving is a
permanent reproduction. So that weavers
would not actually create sand paintings
in the weavings, but took some of the
imagery of their ceremonies and wove that into the weavings. The weavers were encouraged by
the traders on the reservation to put ceremonial imagery
into their weavings, because the traders
knew that they had clients in New England,
in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in California who
were willing to pay much higher prices for weavings
that they perceived as having some sort of spiritual meaning. The Navajo women,
on the other hand, were hesitant to create
these types of weavings. But gradually, some
women, especially those who lived
off the reservation or at the edges of the
reservation, where they were a bit freer, began weaving
such rugs, or actually textiles, tapestries,
with ceremonial imagery. And this began around 1900. In our book, we
trace these weavings from their origins around
1900 through their development in the 1920’s where there was
a great deal of originality. And if you recall
your history, this was a time when things were
booming in the United States, and so there were
many collectors who were willing to pay good
prices for these weavings. The art declined a little bit in
the ’30’s with the depression. And then, with World War
II, many of the weavers went and worked in the
plants for munitions, et cetera, in California,
and other big cities, and there was less
weaving going on. There were also less people
interested in purchasing weavings. And now, in the 1960’s, 1980’s,
even now, in the year 2000, there are still some of
these weavings being made. So in our book, we trace
the evolution from 1900 up to the present time. Well, as I said,
in the beginning, we knew very little
about the topic. So we began by reading
books, developing a library, visiting museums,
attending shows, attending antique Indian
shows, talking to experts. And it’s been a long,
ongoing process, because, at the same time, I
was, of course, teaching here full time. So this was more of a hobby,
a hobby that both of us were interested in following. I also created a database. I contacted all the museums
in the United States that I knew had– that perhaps
had collections of Navajo weavings, to ask if
they had any weavings with ceremonial imagery
in their collection. Now, all along, over the
past century or more, the Navajo weavers
have mainly done weavings with geometric
imagery for blankets and then later for rugs. And the museums were collecting
these older weavings, these older
blankets, and thought that some of these
newer ceremonial themes were just tourists kitsch, so
they weren’t really collected. And the experts in
the 1930’s had totally written them off as being
not worthy of interest. And so, most of the museums
had very few of these weavings. We would find, for example,
Harvard Peabody has two. The University of
Colorado, which has a collection of 600
or 700 Navajo weavings, has about three with
ceremonial imagery. Similarly, in Colorado
Springs, the Taylor Museum with its 600 Navajo weavings,
has about four or five. And so, I was able to make a– get a database of
weavings with the pictures in various museums. The next step was, of
course, viewing the weavings. And here, I had an advantage. I could say I was at Boston
College, a professor, PhD, University of Colorado,
known, of course, for its anthropology studies,
and would get permission to go to a museum, and
go into the vaults, and they would pull out the
three or four weavings they had so that I could examine them. And sometimes my
husband came along. I actually, also arranged some
of my speaking engagements, because I was lecturing
on French teaching methods and language
teaching methods, so that I would
accept invitations to speak in areas where I wanted
to see a particular museum. And that worked out pretty well. So by the 1990’s, we knew
more about what was going on, and we also had
more information. We had a library, and we had
a fairly strong database. I should also add that the
Navajo weavers were anonymous. These early weavers didn’t
sign their weavings. It’s hard to sign a
weaving, in any case. Some of them now sign
with little feathers in the corner or something. But the weavings were unsigned. The records didn’t
indicate who had brought the weaving into the trader. And so– And there were
actually very few documents as to actually when a
weaving was collected. So there was a lot of wrong
information out there. The books had errors. The catalogs of the museums
were not always accurate, simply because people didn’t
know much about the topic. And so, much of our
research has been trying to straighten out
the records to find out exactly when weavings were
woven of a certain style, if possible, even
identifying the weavers. That was trickier. A great deal of help was
provided by the office here at Boston College
of the interlibrary loan librarians who were very
helpful in helping us track down old photographs, old
manuscripts, little articles in magazines or newspapers. They were just fantastic. They even found a manuscript,
a missing manuscript, that we were able to study
which helped us in our research. So thank you to
interlibrary loan. Well, for example, in 1996,
we were visiting the museum, the American Museum of Natural
History in New York City because they had
one such weaving. It’s a weaving with
corn people on it. What was very interesting
about this weaving was that there was an
actual letter in the catalog collection, which indicated
that, that had been purchased in 1911 from a
Mr. Hollister, who had also written a
book on weavings, and who lived in Denver. And he indicated that these were
corn gods, that the weaving had been done in the San
Juan Agency, which is the little piece of the
reservation at the four corners, in the
southeastern corner of Utah, to the north of
the San Juan River. And that it had been woven for
a Mrs. Peabody of Washington DC. That was very
interesting information. But who was Mrs. Peabody? I mean, there is a
Peabody Museum at Harvard. There’s a Peabody
Museum in Yale. The Peabody’s are
known in New England. But there was no record
of any Mrs. Peabody who went out to the Navajo
reservation around 1900. Every time we met an expert
or a trader or a collector, we would ask, have you
heard of a Mrs. Peabody? Nobody had. Then, we finally thought
we had our breakthrough. We learned about
Mrs. Peabody who had been active in Denver
in promoting the Mesa Verde National Park, turning that
area into a national park. And she was known as the
mother of Mesa Verde. Now, in this little tag that
we had seen at the museum, it said Mrs. Peabody was the
white mother of the Navajos– didn’t mention Mesa Verde, but– mother– Peabody. It sounded right. She was in the right area. And I actually wrote an article,
three or four years ago, where I mentioned that the Mrs.
Peabody was Mrs. Lucy Peabody. And just a year or so
before our book was really going into print, we discovered
that there was a Mrs. Harriet Peabody. We had been looking at the
archives of the photographs of the Denver Public
Library, and we had found a photograph
identified as Mrs. Harriet Peabody, taken in Bluff Utah,
which is a San Juan Agency, with weavers. We then did more
and more research on who was this Mrs.
Harriet Peabody. It turns out, that she
was from New England– Peabody’s were from New England. She had lived in Boston in
the late 1880’s, early 1890’s. One day she had seen a crippled
boy, an orphan, in the street, and wondered what could be done
to help crippled children who had been left by their
parents to survive. And she founded the Peabody
Home for Crippled Children in Boston. But a few years later, she
moved on to Washington. This Peabody Home
for Crippled Children actually then moved to
Newton, Massachusetts, where it functioned until 1960. She continued with her
philanthropic interests and had visited the
Navajo reservation in the San Juan area. She realized the
women there were weaving rather
uninteresting weavings, and were really quite poor. In the Navajo society, the
money comes from making– selling wool, or weaving
carpets, at that point, weaving rugs, and selling
them to the traders. She thought if she could
improve their weaving style, they would get better
prices for their weavings. And then she would take
these better weavings back to Denver and to Washington DC
and sell them to her friends at much higher prices. She did this for
many, many years. She then decided in 1900 to
begin a fair in Bluff where the– inviting the Navajos,
and giving prizes for the best squash,
the healthiest horses, and also for the
finest weavings. And the weavers were astonished. They said, we’re
getting a prize, and you’re not
buying the weaving. You’re letting us
keep the weaving, and sell it perhaps,
and have a prize. But they soon learned
that these annual fairs were a place where they could
really show off their skills. The first prize was a sewing
machine, a treadle sewing machine, obviously,
not electric, because the Navajo women
sewed all their clothing, too. So this is an
example of a weaving that we discovered in 1996. And we really didn’t
learn about who had promoted this weaving
until almost 20 years later. So in fall, 2012, we began
exploring the possibility of perhaps having an exhibit
of some of our better weavings of the Yei be chei dance. And I contacted Mount
Holyoke College, because I am a graduate
of Mount Holyoke College, and their museum was very
interested in sponsoring such an exhibit. Of course, exhibits are
prepared three and four years in advance, so
we had plenty of time to begin thinking about
which weavings to show and how to find a
theme for the exhibit. It was decided we’d call
it Dancers of the Nightway. And so, I also then
contacted a publishing house. I contacted Schiffer
books to see if they wouldn’t be
interested in bringing out a book of our research,
which then would be promoted in conjunction with this exhibit
at Mount Holyoke College. And we were fortunate in
that Nancy Schiffer, who was the founder of the
Schiffer publishing, had herself been interested
in Navajo weavings and had written one
of the first books on pictorial Navajo weavings. So they were very
interested in the book. The book, though,
became a major project, because the Schiffer Publishing
House expects the authors not only to deliver
the manuscript according to a certain
format, but also to deliver high-resolution
files for all the images, and to obtain the permissions
for all the images. Now, we have 120 different
sources of images– individuals, museums,
libraries, et cetera. And so, this– writing the
book, 450 pages– that was one challenge. The next challenge was
getting all the permissions and submitting the manuscript. And there, we spent
a great deal of time, and also a certain
amount of money, because some of the
museums required fees for the photographs. Some of them required
permissions for publishing. Some required both. Some generously
waived both of these. And fortunately, Boston
College Association of Retired Professors,
BCARF, gave me a grant to help subsidize
some of these permissions. Another little
stumbling block was that my husband had to
have open-heart surgery, and that slowed us down. So what happened was at the
exhibit at Mount Holyoke took place in 2016, but the
book was not yet published. We actually published the
book then a year later. And it it appeared
in summer of 2017, and we were able to present
it at the antique Indian shows in Santa Fe, in August, and it
was very, very well received. Nobody had put together this
much research on this topic, and the reception
was just fantastic. We’re sometimes
asked the question if you had known how
long the process was to bring this book out, and how
expensive, and the frustrations you would meet, would you still
have gone on with the project? And the answer to this is yes. We’d done all this research,
and what good does it do sitting on my computer? Now, it’s out there for
people to read and enjoy. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *