Indian Art at Fair in San Diego Helps Keep Alive Old Traditions

Rug weaving is full of meaning for Lola Cody.

It's an art form, a means of self-expression and a link to her Indian heritage.

Most of the time she finds the work relaxing, although there are days when it seems more like a chore to be avoided.

But above all else, rug weaving is a constant in the life of this 31-year-old Navajo woman. "It's part of me," Cody said. "When I don't have a rug to work on--when there's nothing up on my loom--I feel empty."

Cody, who grew up in Leupp, Ariz., on the Navajo Indian Reservation, moved to Fallbrook with her husband, Alfred, and her three children in January. She'll be demonstrating rug-weaving techniques at the fourth annual Indian Fair this weekend at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park.

The two-day fair features Indian singing, dancing and traditional food. A variety of Indian art and crafts also will be on display, from pottery and tapestries to dolls, paintings and jewelry.

Twenty-two tribes will be represented, including the Seminole, Chippewa, Cocopah, Oglala Sioux and San Diego County's Kumeyaay. Cody will represent the Navajo--along with her mother and sister, who are flying out from their home in Leupp to assist her with the weaving demonstration.

Cody's mother and grandmother taught her how to weave when she was only 5. In those days the Navajo women cleaned and spun their own wool, and used boiled plants and vegetables to dye their thread the traditional colors of black, red, white and brown.

Traditional Dyes

Cody still dyes some of her own wool thread. She uses white clay to turn the wool white, carrot root to obtain a pale orange, and juniper berries and roots to produce a rusty red.

She weaves traditional Navajo designs, too. But Cody belongs to a new generation of Indian artists who have altered and expanded Indian art traditions.

For instance, she makes use of more and brighter colors than her ancestors did. And she primarily uses "processed" wool--wool that is cleaned and spun into thread by machine--although Cody buys all her thread from a small company in Sanders, Ariz., where Indian women color the wool exclusively with vegetable dyes.

"A lot of (Navajo weavers) are converting to processed wool," Cody said. "It's so much work to clean and spin your own wool, and no one wants to pay higher prices" for the rugs made from it, even though they require more labor.

Rugs made from hand-spun wool thread are "rougher and thicker," Cody said. "They're more like floor rugs. The ones I make are finer, more like tapestries."

Purists have complained that such work by contemporary Indian artists is more like "art" in the Western European sense, and less like the objects collectors have come to prize as "Indian art," which had everyday or ceremonial uses in addition to being beautiful.

Roy Cook is among those who think the distinction is a blurry and perhaps artificial one. "All (such products) are aspects of life, and all are made to be beautiful," he said.

Cook, whose parents came from the Opata and Osage tribes, owns the Indian Stores in San Diego, two retail outlets that specialize in Indian arts and crafts. He will be lecturing on change and constancy in Indian art at the Indian Fair this weekend.

In many fields of Indian art, the "designs and images are staying the same, but the material is changing," Cook said. "Kachina dolls are being made in bronze, for instance. That wasn't done before." The use of brighter colors and processed wool in Navajo rugs is another example of new material being used to make a traditional object, he noted.

Part of the reason for the change is that "the clientele has changed," Cook said. "Not that many rugs hit the floors any more--most are on walls. They've gone from a household item to an investment.

"So the artists are producing pure art for pure art's sake. The market is the carrot--that and the recognition and monetary rewards and all the other things that go with success.

"But it's still kind of a cottage industry . . . that isn't blatantly commercialized," he said. "If not one trader were to buy any more Indian art, it would continue to exist, because a lot of it is produced for internal consumption" within the Indian community.

Cecilia Fire Thunder, an Oglala Sioux who now lives in San Diego, said that Indian art, whether it is traditional or nontraditional, can serve to educate people about Indian culture, particularly when it is displayed at regional crafts shows and Indian fairs.

"We're always trying to teach other people about the Indian culture, and once they can identify with the material aspects of the culture (such as art), the other aspects fit right in," said Fire Thunder, who will display her handmade dolls at the Indian Fair.

The dolls, dressed in detailed and historically accurate costumes worn by the Plains Indians, are not traditional Indian objects. Fire Thunder began making them on her own to show people what the costumes of ancient times were like, and to better illustrate the role women had in Indian culture.

"It's up to each Indian artist to teach," she said. "To not only make pretty things, but to explain why, and what their significance is."

Cody sees herself working within a longtime Navajo tradition, but in the spirit of a contemporary artist. "Rugs have been made (to provide) income for generations. Originally they were made to trade for food, because the Navajo had no other source of income" after being confined to the reservation.

"Now (weaving) is done mainly for art rather than income. When I weave a rug, it represents me--how I feel about myself, and what my mood is."

It takes her between two and four months to complete a single 28-by-42-inch rug, with the final product selling for between $1,500 and $2,500, depending on the intricacy of the work and the design.

"If you work on it 10 hours a day, maybe you can finish it a little faster," Cody said. "But I can't weave unless my heart's in it. It takes concentration. If you try to weave when your heart's not in it, you make mistakes.

"On the other hand, once I start on a rug, it's hard to get away from it," she said with a laugh. "I'm really in my own world.

"It's a way of expressing myself--and keeping in touch with my family."

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