Navajo rug sale supports American Indian elders

by JAMIE A. WELCH

Life on the Navajo reservation and in traditional hogans made people strong. Years of following sheep around the desert, watching children move away from their homes and weaving together strand after strand of coarse sheep’s wool to create hundreds of rugs in a single lifetime has given the elders at the 19th Annual Navajo Rug Show and Sale their dedication to each piece.

The rug show took place Nov. 7-9, 2008 in Deer Valley Resort’s Snow Park Lodge in Park City, Utah.

Rug weaving is a historic Navajo, or Diné, tradition and is honored in the show that was formed specifically to support the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program (ANE).

This program, created to benefit Navajo elders, began in the 1980s through the efforts of Linda Myers, a Park City woman who was impressed by an early display of Navajo rugs from elders in northern Arizona. Soon after that event, Myers got involved in collecting and distributing medical, food, and hygienic supplies to elders living on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

A group of supporters eventually joined Myers and the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program was established. Mary Phillips, one of the many volunteers at the rug sale, said it is “an honor to work with Linda. The program’s success is truly inspiring and shows Linda’s devotion not only to the elders themselves, but to the Navajo tradition [of rug weaving.]”

According to the program’s Web site, there are more than 2,500 people involved in the program today. Most are from the United States but some are from other countries as well.

Rosita Van den Berg is one such volunteer. Rosita is from Holland and became interested in the program while visiting a fan site of American Indian actor Jay Tavare. 

Tavare, an avid supporter of ANE, has information regarding the program on his personal Web site and on his Facebook and MySpace pages. Van den Berg, who attended the event this year, created a painting to honor American Indian people and donated it to be auctioned off with its proceeds going to the program.

Tavare, known best for his roles in the TV miniseries “Into the West” and films “The Missing” and “Cold Mountain,” has supported ANE for seven years. He has attended the rug show for the past three years. “It definitely brings awareness about the culture of Native Americans,” he said. He hopes his support can act as “a symbol to reach across nations and get the message as far out as possible.”

Another supporter at the show was author Rose Johnson-Tsosie of “Finding Helen – A Navajo Miracle.” Tsosie was born on the Hopi reservation of northern Arizona in 1950 but she and her twin were taken from her biological mother at birth and were placed for adoption. The siblings were raised by a white family, Albert and Wilmont Johnson, in Cache Valley, Utah, where they grew up never learning much about their American Indian heritage. Tsosie said all she was aware of was that “growing up Navajo in a white society was different only because I knew my skin was different.”

In 1983, Tsosie reconnected with her biological mother, a Navajo, while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Arizona Holbrook Mission. Through tears Tsosie said, “there are many exciting times in my life but this is the ultimate dream when I got to hold my mother and my mother got to hold me.”

Since then, Tsosie has been actively involved in the American Indian communities of California and Utah. She now travels around the country promoting her books and speaking about and on behalf of American Indians.

Attending the ANE rug show gave Tsosie a chance to show the reason she says she loves being Navajo: “learning the tradition of my heritage.” Tsosie also said, “I do respect my heritage. I am still learning about who I am, about where I am going and where I have been.”

About 28 weavers were featured in this year’s rug show. Their ages ranged from the early teens to nearly 100 years old.

Patrina and Diana Furcap, ages 13 and 12, are sisters. They learned to weave from their mother at about 6 years old. Each sold one hand-made rug on the first day of the show. “I think it’s important to keep the tradition going from one generation to the next. We shouldn’t lose it because it’s art,” Patrina said.

Most of the weavers present were women. However, four men also participated. William Whitehair, who has been weaving since he was 7, said gender differences might be rooted in history. When European settlers arrived, they brought with them their traditional form of household with women at home doing domestic activities and men outside working in farms. Although the American Indian way is matriarchal, many Native people adopted the European style and over time, weaving became primarily a female activity. Still, Whitehair said, he weaves because he’s “always enjoyed the art.”

At the show, rugs were sold at prices ranging anywhere from $150 to several thousand dollars. Prices are indicators of the quality of each rug and the amount of labor involved.

Linda Myers explained, “It’s not about the weaving itself. It’s about how when you go up and feel these rugs and you feel the hands of the weavers…that’s one of the gifts of purchasing the Navajo rugs all woven by hand. All these rugs carry that beautiful spirit of the weaver and their hands and the patterns.”

Designs range from the simplistic “Diamond” pattern (a single shape woven throughout a rug) to the intricate “Tree of Life.” This rug is a story, beginning with a “wedding basket.” At the bottom of the rug is the basket, usually woven in yellow or brown, which symbolizes the beginning of a family. From the basket grows a tall corn stalk with many branches growing from both sides. Birds of all colors are perched on the branches, each representing older generations of the family. There are also birds in flight on either side of the stalk, which stand for the younger generations. At the top is the “tassel” of the corn which holds the pollen. In Navajo tradition, corn pollen is offered with prayers, giving significance to the tassel being the tallest point on the Tree of Life. This rug can be woven in any color assortment ranging from rich dark colors to pastels.

Proceeds from the rug sales go to support the ANE program in buying food, firewood, and other items for Native elders. Individuals also could purchase balls of yarn in various shades to donate to elders for use in weaving. Some customers chose to sponsor a specific elder and invited him or her to choose the colors they liked the best. Additional donations can be made at the Web site.

The Adopt-A-Native Elder program has been a success for more than 20 years. One weaver has been a part of the program since its inception. Weaver Grace Smith-Yellowhammer of Teesto, Ariz., feels blessed to play a part in ANE and is proud of the international community involved. “We are all connected,” she said, “One voice, one prayer, one heart.”

SLC designer takes long road to finding identity

by ANNE ROPER

Cal Nez entered the room so serenely, he almost went unnoticed. He came to address a journalism class at the University of Utah and brought with him two seemingly contradictory symbols of his life: the first, a copy of Utah Business Magazine bearing his picture on the cover placed carefully in a protective plastic bag. The second, a wrinkled green paper certifying he is Navajo.

The two objects begin to coalesce when Nez states he is both owner of Cal Nez Design in Salt Lake City and president of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce. But his search for his identity as a Native person, like many, is more complicated than his prized possessions. 

Nez’s life has challenged norms, making it hard for him to rely on someone like him to aid his identity search. He was given to his grandparents in Tocito, N.M., to be raised, which isn’t uncommon in Navajo culture. But instead of following the Navajo tradition of being given to his mother’s family, the dominant clan, he was given to his father’s. He never knew his mother and hardly knew his father. Then, at 6 years old, he was enrolled in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in Sanostee, N.M.

“Boarding school is one of the demons of my past,” Nez said with sudden seriousness. “I really feel like I was in prison for six years in boarding school.”

Nez spoke only Navajo before attending boarding school, where he was forbidden to speak anything but English. He said the school shaved his head, a stark contrast to his now long hair, tied back in a ponytail. Children stood at attention for hours and were punished for acting too much like a child, Nez said.

“It took the beauty, serenity and peace out of being a child,” Nez said.

For his sophomore year of high school, Nez decided to go to South High School — in Salt Lake City.

Before he left Tocito, he made a promise to his grandmother.

“One day, I’ll come back for you,” he said. “No matter what my trials may be, I’m going to make it.”

Through the Indian Placement Program, an initiative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1947 to 1996, Nez found a family to live with in Utah. He somehow always knew he was supposed to go to South High School, he said. It was there that his art teacher saw his talent and encouraged him to pursue art as a career. Nez agreed, and knew a little more about who he is.

“I’ve always been an artist,” he said. “I’ve always been able to duplicate, [to] capture.”

Although Nez could identify himself as an artist, he still struggled knowing what to call his ethnicity. After considering the terms American Indian, Native American and Navajo, he felt most comfortable with Diné, meaning “the people.”

Lena Judee, the American Indian program coordinator at the University of Utah, has addressed this issue herself. Finding a name isn’t as important for her.

“It’s just a label,” Judee said. “As long as I know who I am, it doesn’t matter.”

However, knowing who she is didn’t come easily. Judee also attended boarding schools. She said she couldn’t say anything bad about them because they gave her an education and something to eat. The trouble came when they would show “cowboy and Indian” movies in school.

She didn’t understand the Indians were supposed to be representing her, and she thought the people in the movie were stupid. When she found out she was being stereotyped by the “Hollywood Indian,” Judee was upset at the misinformation being mass-produced. She decided she wanted to be the one who informed people.

However, she soon realized taking on the world at once in order to change it was ineffective. She would have to work one-on-one to get a result.

“I can’t rescue all stray cats,” Judee said. “But I can make a difference.”

Nez has adopted this same give-and-take approach to change.

“We can’t do anything about the past, but there’s the future,” Nez said. “That’s where the answer lies.”

Maybe Nez will find the answers to his existential question in the future. But for now, he knows one thing for sure about his people.

“We’re here. We’re still here,” he said. “We have a right to fulfill our space as human beings.”