Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner Historic Site

Featured Stories

The Long Walk Weaving by Lynda Nez, Diné

Spirits in Weaving 

By Lillian Bowe, Interpretive Ranger, Bosque Redondo Memorial

May 2024

Weaving for many people in the modern age is either a hobby or a way to make a living. For the Diné (Navajo), weaving has many meanings, intertwined with the core of their culture—it is art, it is used to support families, and it also has ties to ceremony, storytelling, and practical uses. The skill of the Diné in weaving is world renowned and this could be because of the care and dedication the weavers have for the art. Many modern weavers continue to prepare their own yarn using wool from the sheep they raise. It is a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation and continues to be taught. A question worth exploring is: where did their style of weaving come from?

Some Diné claim that they have always had sheep and knowledge of weaving thanks to the Holy People. This claim has been widely dismissed by historians and archaeologists who assert that sheep only became a part of their culture when they arrived with the Spanish and that, because of the significance of the Navajo Churro to Diné culture, they were added into their history as always having been there. However, the Diné people have shared through oral histories and their own research, how their claim of always having sheep is, in fact, true. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the sheep native to the American Southwest was the Bighorn Mountain sheep. The Bighorn sheep, sometimes called the sheep of the Holy People, while not domesticated, were very much present in Dinétah. The Diné would hunt them for their hides, horns, meat, and sinew. Their wool, which the sheep shed naturally each year, was collected, and used. According to Diné traditions, the Holy People promised that someday the Diné would be given sheep of their own, that would live among them and that they could care for. In one version of the history, the churro sheep were given and then taken away because the people became prideful and unappreciative and were told the sheep would return when the people were ready. In another, this promise was not fulfilled until the arrival of the Spanish Churro.

From other Diné perspectives, it is believed that the Diné did not start weaving until sheep were introduced into North America by the Spanish. Oral histories are passed from family to family, so there are differences in the stories, but this article will refer to the story told by Lois Duncan in the children’s book The Magic of Spider Woman. The story starts with the protagonist, Wandering Girl. Wandering Girl was the shepherdess for the Diné when they first were created. While her tribe was learning about how to live by Spirit Being in the summer, Wandering Girl was busy with tending to her flock. The tribe were taught how to hunt, farm, and build their hogans while Wandering Girl was in the mountains with her sheep. Soon winter arrived and the tribe huddled in their warm hogans. Wandering Girl descended the mountain with her herd expecting to see her tribe, but they were not outside in the cold. Wandering Girl, confused and cold, cried out for help to survive the winter weather, for she did not have a hogan of her own. Spider Woman answered the cry and offered to teach the girl how to shear her sheep, transform the wool into yarn, and then weave it. Spider Woman’s husband created the loom and soon Wandering Woman became Weaving Woman. As seen in the story, weaving began as a survival skill for the tribe, but the story of weaving in the tribe and the Weaving Woman continues.

Like many arts and crafts, it evolved. Historically, Diné picked up the skill of weaving in the 17th century. According to an article by Mads Jakobsen about the history of Diné weaving, it is known that the Puebloans did introduce the vertical loom to the Diné and thus started the early period of weaving. The story of Weaving Woman explains her first weavings were all natural colors of the sheep she herded which are the Navajo Churro sheep. The colors were brown, black, white, tan, and grey and her creations were basic in design. The Spider Woman warned the Weaving Woman of spending too much time weaving and to remember balance in all things. At first the Weaving Woman took the words to heart and only weaved for a set period. However, the Weaving Woman began to experiment with colors and patterns, and it consumed her life. She wanted to create the perfect weaving with every color known to man. Weaving Woman continued to weave, neglecting her husband and her other duties. Then one day her husband found her paralyzed next to the loom and he was unable to wake her. The reason Weaving Woman was paralyzed was because she weaved her spirit into her weaving, and she was stuck. The Spider Woman warned her to keep her life in balance, but the Weaving Woman put her whole life into the weaving. A solution to free her spirit was to make an imperfection in the weaving, and so a thread was pulled near the border and the Weaving Woman’s spirit went back into her body. The lesson now learned, the Diné continue to place a spirit line in their weavings. As the story imparts, weaving is very spiritual for the weaver and is interwoven to their art, but not so connected they get lost in the beauty. An imperfection reminds the weaver that they are human and not above others in skill. The periods of history in the style of blankets mirrors the Weaving Woman’s, as functional pieces were far more important than aesthetics, but then American occupation and the interment at Bosque Redondo occurred and the weaving changed.

The movement of the Diné from Fort Sumner and the reduction of their amount of land after Fort Sumner had a lasting impact. The rugs and clothing at the reservation went back to a simple pattern, as surviving the cold became the priority, but once the tribe returned home, the weavings became more stylized and pictorial. Since the Diné were bound by a treaty, more white settlers started to venture close to their land. The settlers were able to see the craftmanship and beauty in the weaving and started to commission pieces through trading posts. Trading posts had been near their land, but it was mostly for trade between other Native tribes and the Spanish, but after Bosque Redondo, more trading took place. Advancement in dyes and commercial yarn availability gave the Diné weavers flexibility in design and colors. Once weaving transformed to art, the rugs of the Diné became world famous and can sell for thousands of dollars.

Weaving is a defining part of Diné culture, and it was also integral for the tribe’s survival. At first, the weaving warmed the tribe, then, when the Diné were forced into surviving in the American world, the weaving became a source of income. Many Diné families to this day raise sheep, shear them, process the wool, and weave the wool, just as their ancestors before them. The patterns and colors of the rugs have also inspired American culture, as many patterns of blankets can be found on non-native made clothing. The Diné should be recognized as the source of these designs, and honored and respected for their craftmanship.