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About Art Textiles and the Weavers Who Make Them

Updated on May 24, 2018
wannabwestern profile image

Carolyn worked as a technical writer, software user interface designer, and as a gig writer way before it was hip.

Navajo Weavers and Art Dealers

  • Learn more about the history of Navajo textiles at the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction. This auction site operates out of the town of Crownpoint, in New Mexico, and is run by the Native American weavers without a middleman. The auction takes place at the elementary school monthly.
  • Nelson Tsosie - A Navajo artist who works in a wide range of mediums, but really excels in his stylized bronzes.
  • Santa Fe Indian Market is an art show and sale in Santa Fe that showcases the work of hundred of native American artists each year. Click the link to go to the offiicial site and view more information about this sale.
  • The Navajo Nation Fair runs for a week in Window Rock Arizona and hosts a fine arts exhibition that showcases all kinds of Navajo handcrafts and fine art, including jewelry, weaving, and other types of items.

My drives through the Navajo reservation created an interest and mystique, but not a real understanding of Native American weavers.
My drives through the Navajo reservation created an interest and mystique, but not a real understanding of Native American weavers. | Source

This Story Isn't a Yarn

I met her at the Arizona home of a wealthy Navajo "rug" dealer. He had invited us to his house in a remote part of southern Arizona that is an escape for an elite and wealthy subset of the population. My husband is a museum professional, and at the small institution where he was working, he was both the exhibit designer and preparator, as well as the collections manager. We had travelled there with our small family while they planned the details of the exhibit showcasing some exquisitely crafted weaving by Navajo artists in the private collection of the dealer. This particular exhibition was to showcase Navajo weavings that this collector had personally commissioned.

The dealer and his wife invited us to stay in their guest house overnight, because the nearest hotel was over 30 miles away in nearby Tucson. The main home was a sprawling, older ranch house. On the outside, despite its large size, it was not ostentatious, and in fact, despite a lovely patio garden, looked like a large southern Arizona farmhouse. Inside their home, the hallmark of tastefully appointed high-style southwest was everywhere. And weavings, known colloquially as Navajo rugs, were hanging on just about every wall of the house. And these weren't just any Navajo rugs. These were of the highest possible quality, using hand-dyed wools and outrageously high per-inch thread count. Our collector and dealer was showcasing his fine collection of weavings he had commissioned for the exhibit. Several of the weavings in his collection were large, ornate, and oversized, with intricate patterns. He mentioned to my husband and me that he worked closely with the artists and even suggested designs that he wanted to see in the rugs.

Navajo art is an important folk art that tells one part of the story of the American West and of the Navajo people and culture. Some of these weavings, pre-dating 1930, according to one Navajo art web site, can sell at auction for over $100,000 a piece. 

When our hosts invited us inside their home, they introduced us to Mary (not her real name), who was staying with them. She was about my age (30-something), maybe a little bit younger, and they didn't exactly explain who she was. Our hosts told us that Mary normally stayed at the guest house (a two-bedroom affair with comfortable amenities and privacy), but we would stay there overnight and she would just stay with them at the big house.

Mary is a Navajo weaver. She was living with our hosts, and in exchange for an hourly wage, which she intimated was similar to what she would make working at a grocery store, would spend literally months completing these astounding works of art, in the Navajo tradition. Our hosts provided the materials to her, purchasing the finest wool from dealers, and she would prepare it and then weave it into intricate, and I might add, perfect, geometric designs. Then, when her artwork was complete, if I understand the system correctly, she would hand it over to the art dealer, who added it to his collection and sold it to high end clients that he kept on a roladex in his kitchen. This hire-an-artist system wasn't quite patronage, since the patronage system doesn't usually involve flipping art like a banked-owned home.  Patronage also usually offers the artist some flexibility in their creative process. Mary comes from one of the most sought-after weaving families in the world of Navajo textile art, and her multi-generational family all had representative works at the art exhibit my husband was painstakingly planning with his persnickety and difficult to please art collector.

Because I didn't have a role in planning the exhibition, and Mary's workspace was in the guest house, I sat and talked with her for a while one day. First, I asked her about her loom. Was it heavy? How was she able to move such a large loom to create wall-sized tapestries from her home to this remote place? Wasn't the loom heavy and difficult to move around?

She laughed at my assumptions. Not at all, she said. My brother made me a special loom from PVC pipe, so it's actually quite simple to move the loom pieces around, and they weigh very little. She invited me to come in and watch her work. She showed me the way the vertical threads on the loom created a frame work for the weaving, and I was surprised to see that she didn't complete her pattern one line at a time, but actually worked with different thread colors to create a free-hand design which she then back filled with other colors.

I was mesmerized. I have always had a keen sense that my husband's work has put me in some unique and unusual situations. And this was one of those times. I asked her some more questions about how she spent her time. She said she worked long days. Sometimes for hours and hours a day, beginning at 6:00 a.m. and ending in the evening.

I asked her if she ever got bored, and she admitted that the work could be tedious. She said she listened to music to help pass the time. My experience of the Navajo mystique was fueled by an a.m. radio station we would hear as we drove the long and lonely stretch of highway that connects Gallup New Mexico to Southern Colorado. This stretch of highway is route 666 and it goes right through the Navajo reservation. During my many road trips I'd turn on the radio and listen to chants by Navajo elders in a transfixing language I didn't understand. I always looked forward to being nearly hypnotized by this music when I drove through this stretch of our travels, but my husband would just roll his eyes at me and take the opportunity to have a long nap if it was my turn to drive. Fueled by these memories, I asked Mary if she listened to Navajo music to help inspire her work, and she fixed me with a steady and patient stare that I couldn't quite read. Then she told me she really liked Duran Duran and that mostly she listened to old 80s technopop.

She worked quickly and accurately weaving hand-dyed wool threads through the weft and warp of the loom. Finally, when the art dealer and his wife were no longer in ear shot, I asked Mary, in the most awkward way possible, if she felt taken advantage of by these people. The look she gave me said I had crossed a line. I felt sheepish! First, she told me that the question I asked her would never even be considered by a Navajo. They just don't think that way. And second, they were really nice people that were giving her an opportunity to practice a dying art. "What would I be doing if I weren't here?" she asked, then answered her own question: "I'd be making the same amount of money or even less working at a grocery store or a convenience store."

Still, I wasn't quite convinced. I have been to some amazing Native American owned and operated art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I know that anyone who ever travelled a remote highway in Arizona or New Mexico to discover an Indian hawking his or her wares by the side of the road was doing so in a bygone era. Native American art, since it has come to be appreciated for its signficant cultural and aesthetic quality, has shot through the roof in value.

I had to ask her the obvious question. Why don't you buy the materials yourself and sell them directly to buyers instead of doing the work for an art dealer who is making (I guessed) about 80% profit from your work?

From my perspective, paying someone an hourly wage to practice artwork is tantamount to extortion.

Her response was dour. The wools and the dyes are very very expensive. I can't afford the kinds of quality materials he brings to us. Besides, these rugs take hours and hours to make. If I did this on my own, I'd probably have to give it up so I could take on a 'real' job to support my family.

And, so, quickly I was made to face my own cultural biases and blindnesses to the challenges Navajo and other native artists face. I had met Mary and become interested in her uniqueness and her differences. She comes from a fascinating culture and I wanted to understand that. But the result of our conversation was that I saw her as a modern person too, not just as a living relic of the old west.

I came away from our conversation questioning the ethics of a system that seems to favor art dealers over artists, though I was also left with many questions. I also realized that she was a Navajo first, a weaver second, and an artist last. Her work is beautiful.

The Story of Spider Woman Explains the Navajo Mythology Behind Weaving

How Its Made Navajo Weaving

© 2009 Carolyn Augustine


Submit a Comment
  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    Thanks Dahogland for sharing your experience. One of the results of being exposed to people from cultures different than my own is the joy of experiencing them as individuals beyond the stereotypes I once knew. In this modern age in America there seems to be mentality that American culture is a melting pot, but I think it is more like the tapestry that this artist was weaving. Understanding and insight is one of the joys of getting older, I feel. I loved the experience you shared in your comment.

  • dahoglund profile image

    Don A. Hoglund 

    11 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


    Indians do have a different outlook, as do folks from other ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes it changes in later generations, depending on how much interaction there is with outside culture (my opinion only) It does put me in mind of years ago when driving by Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota There is an Indian trading post. There was a makeshift sign out saying something about Indian music at 11:00. My brother said that now we could see some real Indian dancing. However, when the time arrived half a dozen guys carrying jazz instruments showed up. It was about Indians playing music not about native music.

    Very good hub.

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    MagicStarER, thank you for your thoughtful comment. All of that is quite possible. It's difficult for any artist to get the recognition they would like when they are beginning a fine art career.

    One of the exhibitions at my husband's former Museum was a by-invitation only exhibit of western women artists' work. They started out the first year asking people to participate, but once the exhibit took off and the artists understood how much attention it would gain them, there were 350 people asking to participate. The exhibit space is limited so only 55 could participate at a time.

    This young artist would have her work displayed and exhibited in a museum instead of a gallery, which is a level up, most people would feel. Also, her work would appear in print publications, and she wouldn't have to do the work trying to find a gallery to sponsor her.

    Once her work became known, she could then strike out on her own if she wished.

  • MagicStarER profile image


    11 years ago from Western Kentucky

    A situation that makes you go, hmmmm, for sure. It is sad that this talented artist can not afford to strike out on her own and be recognized in her own right. But, perhaps she sees this as an opportunity to make Navajo artistry better known? And maybe she is not interested in fame and fortune for her own self? Could be... Maybe just wants enough to live humbly. Maybe she is smarter than we know...

    You are really a good writer, and so lucky to have known this woman and see her weavings. This article made me feel like I was there myself! :)

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    Thanks Dim Flaxenwick. I agree she didn't seem as bothered by her situation as I was. You may be right.

  • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

    Dim Flaxenwick 

    11 years ago from Great Britain

    thanks for interesting article. The Navajo nation fascinate me as do the cherokee and apache.

    This lady seems happy with her lot, whether we understand it or not.

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it..!

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    @RNMSN: Thank you for reading. I agree that she could make her own dyes but my impression was that she was too far removed from that part of her customs. I don't think she was being forced to work for the art dealer by any means, she could take it or leave it, so to speak. My main point is just that there seemed to be a huge disparity between what he put into the arrangement and got from it, and her artistic efforts and time and how they were compensated. I don't know that much about the Navajo Nation and how wealthy they are or not. It just seemed that she wasn't the person who was receiving the benefit from her artwork. Otherwise I tried not to make any express judgments about the situation, it just left me with a lot of questions, and a feeling that people should try to buy directly from the artists themselves, if at all possible.

    @Emievil: This got me thinking and asking questions too. And I too am not sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, the experience made me face the fact that sometimes I view people from a stereotypical perspective. That was an important thing to learn on a personal note. On the other hand, I don't think she was "working in a modern day sweatshop" as dohn 121 suggested. I think she was getting the short end of the stick in the arrangement they had made, and that is MY opinion, based on the few things I saw and the incomplete facts I have. However, I can't be sure, as you say, that she shares the same opinion.

  • emievil profile image


    11 years ago from Philippines

    Very interesting hub. I don't know anything about the American Indians (did I use the culturally correct word?) except what I read from books but I can tell they have a lot of traditions that are still alive these days. I'm not really sure what I felt about your story. On one hand, she seem to be getting the short end of things. On the other hand, maybe she doesn't see it that way, she just sees it as an opportunity to keep her craft alive. And for her, that is all that really matters.

    Another hub that got us thinking wannabwestern. Thanks for sharing it.

  • RNMSN profile image

    Barbara Bethard 

    11 years ago from Tucson, Az

    I feel as if I am missing soemthing...who is this yourn woman obligated to? th enavajo ntio i one of the richest...they still make her ow dyes...soething rotte in the state

    probably our state...I will have to research this

    but thank you wannab...certainly an eye opener and a protest maker in the making :)

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    @itakins: Thanks. I agree.

  • itakins profile image


    11 years ago from Irl

    Enthralling and fascinating.Sadly a story that could be repeated worldwide.Great hub.

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    @Carmen Borthwick: Thank you! I hope I presented the issues fairly.

    @dohn121: I leapt to that uneasy conclusion rather easily, but she didn't say she was forced to work the hours she did. Since she was an acquaintance and not a personal friend, I can't really say if her working conditions share the atrocities of a modern day sweatshop. Her work environment was comfortable and homey, and she was free to come and go as she pleased. Or so it appeared. Still, she also seemed to view this as her BEST opportunity to further the tradition of her people. This is a complicated issue. I think the Navajo Nation probably has a lot of money that it could invest in weaving, and probably, this could be the subject of a National Endowment for the Arts as well. As with all things, it takes getting the right people behind it. There are a handful of very financially successful Native American artists who make all kinds of beautiful artwork, including traditional and nontraditional art. I think, though, that there is a feeling among some people of the Navajo Nation that these artists are sell-outs who have co-opted their cultural value of Hozho (sp) for success. But now I'm getting into a territory where I'm not qualified to speak for people in the Navajo Nation so I'll have to stop there. :)

  • dohn121 profile image


    11 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

    If the Navajo Nation were able to come up with the money to back the costs of purchasing the dyes and wools, those are dealers would be in trouble. I see the dilemma. Such activity borders on outright exploitation and in many ways share the atrocities of a modern-day sweatshop. Thank you for sharing this, wannabwestern.

  • Carmen Borthwick profile image

    Carmen Borthwick 

    11 years ago from Maple Ridge, B.C.

    Excellent and interesting hub. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • wannabwestern profile imageAUTHOR

    Carolyn Augustine 

    11 years ago from Iowa

    @Hello Hello. This happened about 5 years ago, so I had to reconstruct our conversation from memory. It was difficult to get the tone of the article right, and obviously I needed to reconsider my inappropriately personal questions at the time. She was a lovely lady and I've met many other brilliant Native American artists and well-educated businessmen. This short piece was really the tip of the iceberg for exploring these issues.

    @Lupo: Thank you for your insightful comment. It's a bit painful to write about experiences that don't leave ME looking in the best light, but I hope that sharing this information will help people to consider how and why they purchase these special heirloom pieces that take so much patience and time to create, and possibly to reconsider their buying patterns.

  • Lupo profile image


    11 years ago from Boston Area

    And interesting and difficult story about your experience in meeting this artist.

    There is so much inequity in the world, always has been and I think always will be. The best solution I have for that is to do what I can that is within my reach, and within my power, to do that can be helpful to those around me.

  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 

    11 years ago from London, UK

    Words fail me. The only word I can find for this article is very intersting, fanscinating and informative. Your final conclusion right through the article is so right and great. can't thank you enough for writing and posting this article for all of us to read.


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