Navajo sheepherders have been raising churra sheep since the 16th century, forming a sustainable partnership despite a harsh environment and centuries of change. Will Grant travels from Santa Fe’s galleries to rural New Mexico and Arizona to discover a land and tradition from another era
Behind a storefront window on the Santa Fe Plaza John Andrews unfurls a scarlet Navajo blanket from the 1860s priced at $125,000. The blanket was designed to be worn like a shawl, and when Andrews wraps it over his shoulders, the weaver’s design becomes clear: a blue-and-white stripe runs down the back, two stripes run down either side and geometric patterns decorate the front.
“Navajo weaving is an art form that’s as distinctly American as jazz,” Andrews says. He owns and curates Native Jackets, a gallery and store selling Navajo textiles, Pendleton blankets and jackets made from blankets. “This is a true aboriginal American artifact.”
Another blanket that’s about the same age costs $48,000. The blankets are relics from the formation of the modern West, a time when the great changes that had begun with the arrival of the Spanish were about to crank into high gear as the region fell under U.S. sovereignty. The Navajos migrated to the Southwest in 1200 A.D. and met the Spanish, and their Old World Iberian sheep, when the newcomers wandered into range in the late 1500s.
By the late 1800s, the Navajos had developed a pastoral nomadism that became the first livestock-based culture in North America. The sheep thrived in the high-desert climate of the Colorado Plateau, and the Navajo people developed financial, dietary and environmental sustainability around life with sheep. Wool “wearing” blankets, like those in John Andrews’ gallery, began to trickle east to the Anglos, and because the white men didn’t wear blankets, they were used as rugs.
Trading posts started showing up in Navajo country when the U.S. established the reservation in 1868. The posts were marketplaces for the textiles, serving both the off-reservation demand and as a source of income for local weavers. As the art of Navajo weaving developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. dollars encouraged the practice and influenced designs, mostly by a weaver’s preference to make what the Anglos would pay the most for. The traditions of herding sheep and weaving rugs declined in the last quarter of the 20th century, and today only a few trading posts serve their historical roles.
Along the east slope of the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border, Mark Winter operates the Toadlena Trading Post. He acquired the lease to trade from the tribal government in 1997, and at that point he’d been buying Native American and Mexican textiles for 30 years. He could see that the weaving community was shrinking, that older weavers were dying and that the community lacked young weavers. To reverse the trend, he started buying local blankets and building looms. He convinced a handful of local schools to offer weaving classes, and he hired professional weavers to teach the classes. Hardly a blanket came out of those schools that Winter didn’t try to buy, and now he has more rugs for sale than any other post on the reservation. “What we’re doing here has a negative cash flow but positive results,” says Winter, sitting on a stack of folded rugs. “We started this movie, and we feel an obligation to continue it. So we buy a lot of rugs, which is how we got such a big inventory.”
The Toadlena Trading Post is in an area called Two Grey Hills, and rugs from the area are considered among the finest contemporary Navajo textiles. A high-quality Two Grey Hills rug can easily cost $5,000 and will be made of fine, undyed, hand-spun wool. Winter supports about 170 weavers who live within a 14-mile radius of the post. He encourages them to weave bigger rugs with more complex designs so they can ask higher prices. But he’ll buy just about any rug that’s well-made. He holds up a rug the size of a doormat. “I call these car-payment rugs.”
Master weaver Violet Brown, 79, sits in front of a loom that reaches floor to ceiling and has shims pounded in at the top to prevent its falling over. She’s been weaving since she was 10 years old, and over the years, has furnished her home and her family with a truck, horse, washing machine, stove, groceries and a source of income, among other things.
“I want a new tractor. That’s why I do this rug,” she says, and laughs. She laughs easily and often. “You can never hurry, though. People hurry. They don’t get the good price.”
Back and forth between the vertical threads, Brown lays in the various colors of wool. The threads are not tied; natural barbs on the wool fibers hook into each other like Velcro and hold the rug together without knotting. Navajo rugs feature symmetrical geometric patterns along both the long and short axes, with the excep tion of pictorial rugs, some of which are done in the sand-painting style, most with mythological representations. If you fold a geometric rug in half and slowly peel back the top half, the design mirrors itself until the rug is fully open. The same is true if you diagonally unfurl it by either corner. “I don’t know how they do it,” trader Mark Winter says.
Mothers pass the skills of preparing the wool and weaving a rug to their daughters and sons. Children begin with rugs the size of place mats. They take designs from their teachers. The rugs grow in size and complexity until they become so large they must be folded double over the loom.
Before the loom is tensioned or a thread is laid in weft, raw wool undergoes a preparation process that can take months. A common question at galleries and trading posts is, how long does a rug like this take? The answer depends on many factors, from the productivity of the weaver to the needs of her children — but nothing happens fast with Navajo rugs. A 4-by-6-foot rug will take about a year to produce.
Wool, like any other animal product, is the result of diet and environment. In mid-January, Irene Bennalley’s herd of 200 Navajo-churro sheep browse on silver sagebrush leaves. With seven guard dogs in tow, the flock moves as a loose line several hundred yards wide. She walks beside them, matching their pace and at the same time affecting it. “If you walk behind the sheep, they move too fast and won’t eat enough,” she says. “In the spring I need to use a horse because the sheep literally run after the new grass.”
A cow could never find enough to eat in this country, but the sheep have done well in the high-desert environment since they arrived with the Spanish conquistadores. The Spanish brought a breed of sheep called churra, and the name was a derogatory term made in reference to the highly revered merino sheep. Eventually the churra sheep became the modern breed of Navajo-churro sheep, thanks in large part to Lyle McNeal of the Utah State University. He undertook the mission of restoring the genetic profile of the historical churra in 1972 through selective breeding at a Utah State University facility. When the lambs of his new churra sheep hit the ground, he gave them to herders throughout the reservation. “Sometimes at the risk of my own life, I got these sheep out to the people,” McNeal says. “They’d look through the rails of my stock trailer and say, ‘These are the real sheep, these are the real ones.’ The elders, people in their 80s and 90s, would cry when they saw them.”
Bennalley’s sheep are a product of McNeal’s efforts. She walks her herd of shaggy, Old World-coated sheep about 3 miles before turning them to walk home. The sheep know the drill and move easily. A mile or so from home, a ewe turns against the flock, baying. She walks in a few distressed circles and lies in the mud beside a mound of bunchgrass. “She’s ready to lamb,” Bennalley says. The ewe stands, and a lamb drops out of her back end. The ewe turns to its baby and begins to clean the lamb. Bennalley pulls off strips of afterbirth. The white baby smeared with yellow placenta blinks to life. “Maybe an hour or so, she’ll be able to walk behind her mother.”
The herd has moved on. The ewe bays at her departing companions and wants to follow, but does not want to leave her baby. I offer to carry the lamb home. Bennalley looks at me indifferently. She nods her head and walks after her sheep. When I lift the baby above the ewe’s line of sight, she squeals as though her baby has vanished from earth. When I lower it, the mother and baby press their heads together and cluck softly to each other. As I walked hunched over with the lamb, a hard wind blows off the Chuska Mountains. Clouds threatened. The world is muddy and cold and presents an unfriendly environment for a newborn lamb — coyotes, eagles, ravens that pick out a lamb’s eyes. It seems like a long path to the first rug woven with this lamb’s wool, but to however small a degree, a unique and beautiful facet of the American Southwest depends on it.