Weaving through the Southwest

CHINLE, Ariz. -- An 800-foot pillar of red sandstone looms at the east end of Canyon de Chelly in the heart of the Navajo Nation. It is called Spider Rock, for Spider Woman, who taught the Navajo to weave, thereby helping to bring about one of the most beautiful and sought-after forms of Native American art.

Navajo rugs, genuine and knockoff, can be found almost anywhere. But Ann Hedlund, a textile expert for the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says, “Almost all the best Navajo weaving originates in Arizona and New Mexico.” And what better place to contemplate our resurgent national patriotism than the homeland of Native Americans.

So I planned a trip to the east side of the Navajo Reservation, which spans 27,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southern Utah. I wanted to visit Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) and other storied places connected to the weaving art, learn to recognize regional styles, tell a common rug from an objet d’art and meet the people who make and sell Navajo textiles. Most of all, I wanted to attend the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Assn. auction, where, once a month, aficionados can buy directly from weavers, sometimes at bargain prices. (The next auction is set for Dec. 14.)

In mid-October, when the cottonwood trees lining the tough little rivers that cut across the Colorado Plateau were turning golden, I flew to Phoenix, rented a car and stayed one night at the Hotel San Carlos. It was built in ersatz Italian Renaissance style in the heart of the city in 1928, when tourists and health seekers were beginning to flock to the sunny Southwest. These days, people favor resorts in the suburbs, leaving downtown Phoenix eerily empty at night. But my $89 room at the San Carlos was clean and comfortable.

More important, the hotel is only a mile south of the Heard Museum, which owns, among its collection of Southwestern Native American art, 1,000 Navajo textiles, mostly rugs and blankets. There I compared subtle Pueblo and Hopi weaving with the bolder work of the Navajo; saw a rug done in the traditional, geometrical, muted Two Grey Hills style by Daisy Taugelchee, a master Navajo weaver who died in 1990; and took in a special exhibit (which runs through January) on Germantown Eyedazzlers, rugs in bold and bright geometric patterns that were made around the turn of the century when many weavers abandoned the subtle shades of wool made from Navajo sheep and started using brightly colored yarn from Pennsylvania.

I also spent an instructive hour with Bruce McGee, a quiet, careful man who runs the museum’s store. Connoisseurs like Hedlund consider it one of the best places in Arizona to buy a Navajo rug. (The Heard is a nonprofit organization, so prices can be somewhat lower than at fancy galleries.) McGee, whose family has operated trading posts on the Navajo Reservation for three generations, showed me how to fold a rug in half to make sure the pattern is straight, test the tightness of the weave, watch out for puckers at the corners, known as “dog ears,” and look for variations in blocks of color.

Though McGee stocks flannel-soft, tapestry-quality wonders with more than 80 horizontal weft strands to the inch, priced at $250 per square foot, he also seeks to encourage the art by buying the work of young, inexperienced weavers, most of them women. Once he bought a 3-year-old’s first rug for $31, with a pattern “as crooked as a dog’s hind legs,” he says, and sold it the next day. While I was there, Lena Shorthair, a weaver from Pinyon, Ariz., came in with a rug that McGee bought for $150 and priced at $280 for resale. It was a Ganado Red, one of the most recognizable styles, about 2 feet by 3 feet, that took her four months to make.

I asked whether she watched TV or listened to the radio while working. She laughed shyly, softly, then said, “No, I just like to weave.”

That afternoon, as my car climbed the Colorado Plateau on the 137-mile drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff, I saw the soft hues of homespun yarn outside the window--the sand color of the tableland, the yellow of rabbit brush, the green of pinyon.

Just outside Sedona, on Arizona Highway 179, I stopped at Garland’s Navajo Rugs, which specializes in high-priced, museum-quality rugs, hung from the ceiling according to regional style. Owner Dan Garland explained the distinguishing features of each, showed me a Daisy Taugelchee Two Grey Hills rug (about 2 feet by 3 feet, priced at $12,500) and took me into the locked Antique Collector’s Room. Its treasures include a blanket in the simple, striped Chief style, made around 1870, before the Navajo stopped weaving largely for their own use and started making rugs to sell.

From Sedona, I took Arizona Highway 89A, following Oak Creek Canyon, about 25 miles to Flagstaff, where I visited the Museum of Northern Arizona. It has a well-stocked shop and displays on the weaving process, which was handed down from Pueblo Indians who occupied the region before the Navajo migrated here from Canada between 1200 and 1400. Then I turned east on Interstate 40, which parallels the southern boundary of the Navajo Reservation, and crossed the Painted Desert just east of Holbrook as afternoon shadows lengthened.

The 100-mile stretch of I-40 between Holbrook, Ariz., and Gallup, N.M., is lined with tacky Indian-themed souvenir shops, garish billboards and cement tepees (never mind that the Navajo traditionally lived in round stone-and-log hogans). R.B. Burnham and Co. Trading Post, in flyspeck-sized Sanders about 50 miles east of Holbrook, is more authentic, with a convenience store where owner Bruce Burnham has been selling flour, batteries and other necessities to the Navajo for 30 years.

I found him in the rear rug room, among mounds of exquisite Navajo rugs priced for well-heeled collectors. “We don’t sell copper ashtrays and little bears in blizzards here,” says Burnham, a rangy white-haired man with a devilish sense of humor.

As at trading posts that grew up in the late 19th century, when the Navajo returned to their homeland after internment at Fort Sumner, N.M., from 1864 to 1868, Burnham’s rug dealing is a byproduct of day-to-day business with the Navajo. Sometimes he extends credit to women working on rugs he eventually buys. And occasionally he accepts pawn.

Like such renowned late 19th and early 20th century Navajo traders as John Lorenzo Hubbell and John B. Moore, Burnham has influenced the weaving art by working with local women to revive Germantown Eyedazzlers, made of yarn he commissioned from the same Pennsylvania mill where traders got it 100 years ago. He and Sanders-area weavers have also created a highly prized rug style known as New Lands, with complex geometric patterns in harmonious pastel yarns hand-tinted in natural vegetable dyes--made with mistletoe, onionskins, black walnuts and wild carrots, with the occasional bit of rusty baling wire.

I stayed that night at El Rancho Hotel & Motel on historic Route 66 in Gallup, which is lined by an eyedazzler of neon signs. The rambling structure was built in the ‘30s by R.E. Griffith, who, the brochure claims, was the brother of movie magnate D.W. Griffith. It has a funky, unreconstituted air and a wonderful rustic lobby with curving twin staircases suitable for a cowgirl wedding. I had the accommodating Alan Ladd room on the second floor (next to Katharine Hepburn and across from James Cagney). It had a king-size bed and windows that admitted a pale pink glow from the neon sign out front that says, “Charm of yesterday, convenience of tomorrow.”

The next morning I explored Gallup, a quiet, weary town of 21,000. It’s just west of Red Rock State Park, the scene of the August Inter Tribal Indian Ceremonial, with traditional Native American dancing, rodeos and an important juried rug show. At the chamber of commerce I learned that there are more than 100 Native American art shops in town, some so lucrative that the owners are millionaires.

Pawn is big business here in this region of grinding poverty, as I discovered in the back rooms at Richardson’s Trading Co. and Cash Pawn Inc. They’re socked in from floor to ceiling with silver and turquoise jewelry, saddles and rugs, waiting to be reclaimed by people who pawned them for loans at interest rates sometimes topping 100%. If owners don’t return in six months, their valuables go “dead,” which means the store can sell them. But Marge Richardson, the sister-in-law of the owner, said Richardson’s holds pawned goods for a year out of courtesy and that 95% of the treasures ultimately end up back in the hands of the original owners.

I had a cup of homemade vegetable soup and a tuna sandwich at Earl’s Family Restaurant on Route 66, where Native American vendors sell arts and crafts from table to table. Then I drove about 40 miles northeast to Crownpoint, a dusty hamlet of about 2,000. Rug auctions are held in the elementary school gym; they last from midafternoon until 10 or 11 p.m., when the last rug is sold, with delicious Navajo fry bread tacos available for dinner from the cafeteria.

When I got there around 2, Navajo women were already lined up at the door waiting to have their rugs tagged and checked in. Like their wares, the weavers came in many styles--hopeful teenagers with their first rugs to sell, moms of frisky kids, older women in long, full skirts and tightly tied head scarves who spoke only Navajo. Soon buyers started arriving to view the rugs spread out on tables at the rear of the gym. I looked the rugs over, then found a seat in front next to Glenn Cochran and Yvonne Howell, of Nevada City, Calif. They had bought rugs at previous Crownpoint auctions and made a lovely custom of tracking down the weavers afterward to give them 15% of the purchase price, the share taken by the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Assn. on each piece sold.

At 7 o’clock, two auctioneers with white Stetsons and twangy cowboy accents took the stage and the bidding commenced. By that time the gym was packed, buyers in front and weavers watching silently in back. . “We’ve got 340 rugs and 154 buyers, so each one of you is going to have to take two,” the auctioneer said.

The first rug was a huge, handsome Ganado Red with a bright red background and geometrical designs in black, gray and white that started at $2,000 and sold for $5,500, an excellent price for a piece its size, according to traders who later told me that big rugs are the best deal at Crownpoint. Three hundred or so rugs later, Glenn and Yvonne had snagged two, and I had timidly raised my hand once or twice but bowed out when the bidding went over $200. So I left in pitch dark, happy if empty-handed, returned to El Rancho and fell asleep with visions of big Ganado Reds dancing before my eyes.

I spent the next day driving back roads on the Navajo Reservation from Gallup to Window Rock, Ariz., with its iconic red rock porthole and new Navajo Nation Museum and Library. There I met the facility coordinator, tour guide, B&B owner, jewelry maker and Navajo storyteller Adam Teller, from Canyon de Chelly, near the town of Chinle, about 75 miles northwest. When I told him I was headed to Chinle and wanted to hike in the canyon the next morning, he showed me his guide card and agreed to take me. (Only one trail is open to visitors in Canyon de Chelly National Monument; those who want to hike more of the two-pronged canyon system, with its ancient cliff dwellings, must go with one of the authorized guides who wait for clients at the visitor center and charge $15 per hour, with a three-hour minimum.)

From Window Rock, Indian Route 12 took me north along the Defiance Plateau. At its intersection with New Mexico Highway 134, I turned east to cross the flat-topped Chuska Mountains on 8,150-foot Narbona Pass, where the view of the arid flatlands to the east seemed endless underneath a wide-rimmed bowl of blue sky. My way led northwest on U.S. Highway 666 and Indian Route 19 to the pocket of Navajo land that gave birth to traditional, homespun Two Grey Hills rugs, the style of weaving I’d come to prize.

At Toadlena Trading Post & Museum, just beyond where the pavement stops on Route 19, I saw the two gray hills for which the weaving style is named and an illuminating display of rugs grouped by families of weavers, some spanning four or five generations. Then I found the road south of Route 19 that leads to the 103-year-old Two Grey Hills Trading Post, a real, old-fashioned country store run by Les Wilson and Irma Henderson, devoted not to tourists but to its Navajo customers. It took me 90 minutes to get from there to Canyon de Chelly, in glowing after-sunset light that made the land of the Navajo seem holy. At the national monument I checked the stone and adobe Thunderbird Lodge. I had a steak dinner in the cafeteria, put my hiking boots by the door and went to bed.

Teller met me at the visitor center the next morning, and we drove toward the rim overlooking the north branch of the canyon system, Canyon del Muerto.

The sky was cloudless and blue, the temperature comfortable. We took steep, rocky Twin Trail about 1,000 feet down to the bottom of Canyon del Muerto, one of the last refuges of the Navajo during the horrifically destructive campaign against them led by U.S. Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson in 1863 and 1864. Now the canyon floor is peaceful and bucolic. We saw alfalfa fields and sheep pens, the hogan where Teller’s grandmother died and Antelope House Ruin, with extraordinary pictographs on the ceiling and walls.

On the way up, he helped me understand the self-deprecating, almost bashful ways of the Navajo by telling me how White Beetle, once the guardian of the stars, was turned into Little Black Stink Bug as a punishment for his pridefulness. I fancied I could see the Navajo sense of humility in the simple, subdued Two Grey Hills rugs.

My trip was coming to an end, but I had one last chance to buy a rug at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, about 40 miles south of Canyon de Chelly in the town of Ganado. There, John Lorenzo Hubbell--"Eyeglasses” to the Navajo--ran the post from 1878 to 1930. He became known as an honest merchant, a friend to the Navajo and a supporter of weavers, who made the post famous for the Ganado Red rug style.

I toured his comfortable house, chockablock with Navajo rugs and western art, and watched two weavers at work in the visitor center. But I spent most of my time at the post talking to manager Bill Malone, another textile expert and longtime Navajo trader. He took my breath away by showing me a handful of rugs that won top prizes at last August’s Gallup Inter Tribal Ceremonial. While we talked, women arrived to sell him rugs, and a group of children from Hunter’s Point School near Window Rock swarmed into the front store looking for candy and pop.

When I asked Malone what kind of rug I could get for $200, he laughed and said, “That won’t go too far. How about $1,000?”

So I never bought a rug. It didn’t matter. I heard the music of the children’s voices at Hubbell’s, tasted a fry bread taco at the Crownpoint auction, smelled fall in the air in Canyon del Muerto and saw Navajo weavers at the loom, hands never still, turquoise bracelets flashing at their wrists.