Gift of the Spider Woman: Exhibit celebrates Diné weaving of the 1800s

According to oral tradition, Spider Woman taught weaving to the Diné (Navajos). She also instructed Spider Man to build the first loom of wooden vertical and horizontal beams that represented the earth and sky; and reflected the sun, rain, and lightning.

“Spider Woman had — and still has — a profound influence on our people,” says Joyce Begay, director of education for the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe.

Through April 6, 2008, the museum will honor Spider Woman with an exhibit called “Spider Woman’s Gift,” curated by Begay. The exhibit shows over 40 Diné weavings dating between 1860 and 1880. Three years in the making, the exhibit includes baskets, shoulder blankets, women’s dresses, and chiefs’ wearing blankets.

“I was very excited to do this,” Begay says.

The textiles represent a special time for the Diné. They were rebuilding their culture after the Long Walk of 1863, when Col. Kit Carson forcemarched them from their Four Corners homeland to prison at Fort Sumner, N.M.

The traditions they revived are vital to this day. “Spider Woman’s Gift” contains a photo-mural of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly to illustrate that point.

“I wanted people to have an idea of the place where they used to tell stories, and take us to, and say, ‘This is where Spider Woman is,’” explains Begay. “When I was a young child [the story] became believable because here’s this big rock formation coming out of nowhere.”

She uses “Spider Woman’s Gift” to tell museum visitors about living in a hogan, and how some people still survive without telephones or running water on the Navajo Nation.

She also wants to show how vast the Southwest is. “Some of my own family has to haul water for their own personal use, or for livestock. And I mean 30-40 miles.”

“Spider Woman’s Gift” also traces the history and psychology of Navajo weaving, which developed from basketry, according to Begay, herself an accomplished weaver, who learned the craft watching her mother’s people at their looms.

Early designs for both baskets and cotton textiles included crosses with squares at each of the four ends. The symbols had nothing to do with Christianity, but represented a spider’s eight legs.

When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the 1500s, the Diné learned to raise churro sheep and weave woolen blankets and garments with distinctive, naturally-colored white and brown bands.

“There’s a specific color for a specific reason,” Begay says. “Brown and white, that’s all they had to work with.”

Eventually, plant dyes produced a bluish-brown, but never a true black. Trade brought indigo from Mexico into Diné designs, and red, from unraveled Spanish cloth.

Weavers had — and still use — simple hard-wood tools, sometimes studded with turquoise or coral: long, slender batons to separate the warp threads on a loom, weaving forks, spindles, and carding combs. “They could weave inside or outside,” explains Begay. “All they had to do is hang the loom up.”

Weavers could also roll their looms into bundles and carry them from the valley camps they used in winter to the mountains, where they spent their summers letting their sheep graze in high pastures.

Above all, they used their looms to express a particular philosophy of life. Some of the blankets in “Spider Woman’s Gift” have diamonds in their centers, and half-diamonds on each side. Folded around a person, the side diamonds meet in perfect alignment.

“[That represents the] Navajo perspective of balance and harmony,” says Begay. “It’s more than weaving. There’s more to it in these old blankets, because people wove them for a purpose.”

Weavers have always had special status in Diné society. “It’s all about balance and symmetry for you and for the rug.”

Begay adds that Diné weavers carry their designs in their heads, and never draw patterns on their warp threads.

With an appreciation for weaving, Begay hopes that museum visitors will learn some of the correct terminology for textiles from “Spider Woman’s Gift.”

Certain blankets are worn like Spanish serapes, but are not serapes. “That’s a Spanish term,” she emphasizes. “We call them shoulder blankets.” A woven woman’s dress is a biil, made of two pieces of cloth.

While “Spider Woman’s Gift” contains chiefs’ blankets worn by Manuelito and the Ute Chief Ouray, Begay firmly states, “We didn’t have chiefs. That’s an 18th Century term from trade with Plains Indians.”

Begay also wants visitors to realize that individual weavers have unique styles, just as any artists do.

And she desires “Spider Woman’s Gift” to help preserve the Diné lifestyle.

Young Navajos need to understand the patience required to learn to weave.

“It’s too hard for them. They get too frustrated with it. They want to weave, like, now. I’ve been weaving my whole life, and I’m over 50. I’ve been around it since I was 5 or 6.”

In addition, she sees a need to protect weaving designs as cultural and intellectual property, from people who steal patterns, create “cheap knock-offs, and don’t give the weavers credit” for them.

Begay would like to see weavers incorporate unique hallmarks into their designs to identify themselves, and start a registry of these signatures, to protect the integrity of their work, and their ability to earn a living from it.

She shakes her head firmly. “My job is to educate at this museum. People need to know these things.”

From Arts & Entertainment, September 2008.