Navajo rugs: More than just a pretty base

Edison Eskeets talks to tourists in the rug room at Hubbell Trading Post National Site in Ganado. Eskeets is the trader at Hubbell, where trading handmade goods is still a viable living.
Edison Eskeets talks to tourists in the rug room at Hubbell Trading Post National Site in Ganado. Eskeets is the trader at Hubbell, where trading handmade goods is still a viable living.

GANADO – Maggie Mannie, 83, assisted by her tall, strapping grandson, walked into Hubbell Trading Post with business on her mind. In one hand she held her cane and in the other, two rolled-up weavings, her own handwork.

Edison Eskeets measures one of the rugs a local weaver has brought to sell to Hubbell Trading Post National Site. Eskeets is the post’s trader.
Edison Eskeets measures one of the rugs a local weaver has brought to sell to Hubbell Trading Post National Site. Eskeets is the post’s trader.

Edison Eskeets, the post’s trader, stepped up to the old oak counter and looked over Miss Mannie’s goods: one with the image of a sand painting, a stylized turtle; the other called Yei Bi Chei, human-like forms sacred to the Diné people.

Eskeets got out his tape measure, and the work of the trading post commenced. Though many customers and tourists stood about observing and listening, there was almost no point, since the business was all conducted in Navajo. Finally, Eskeets drew out the post’s checkbook and Miss Mannie, check in hand, walked out the door.

Eskeets said this is business as usual.

“For over 140 years, we trade where you stand,” he said, indicating the squeaky wood floor.

Edison Eskeets bargains with weaver Maggie Mannie over the two rugs she brought to sell to the Hubbell Trading Post National Site in Ganado. The bargaining was done in Navajo.
Edison Eskeets bargains with weaver Maggie Mannie over the two rugs she brought to sell to the Hubbell Trading Post National Site in Ganado. The bargaining was done in Navajo.

Way atop a red mesa, so high up you feel like you are traveling on top of Arizona, sits a plain stone building that houses the stories of a nation. The stories are older than those of the United States, profound and sacred. These are the stories of the Navajo Nation, the Diné people, woven into tapestries and rugs by the women and men who know the secrets, who have been taught the sacred songs and prayers that go with the weaving.

These are just a few of the Navajo rugs for sale at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site in Ganado. The rugs represent many of the different traditional styles available to tourists and collectors
These are just a few of the Navajo rugs for sale at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site in Ganado. The rugs represent many of the different traditional styles available to tourists and collectors

Hundreds of rugs are draped over fence-like rails lining the walls of one of the three rooms of the trading post, piled on chairs, hung on the walls with Velcro hangers. Light filters in through a couple of windows

The rugs come in many sizes, colors and patterns, some with pictographs that represent recent changes, such as the appearance of trains. Others show the sacred stories, such as a representation of Spiderwoman, said to have given Diné women the gift of weaving. Still others, such as those by Miss Mannie, depict sand paintings and other sacred beings.

The place is Hubbell Trading Post National Site. The name doesn’t lie. This is a national site run by the National Park Service, and for $2 visitors can tour the old home site where founder John Lorenzo Hubbell and his family lived after he bought the place in 1878. There’s a visitor’s center, where interpretive exhibits explain the history of the place and how a Navajo rug is woven. There’s a daily live demonstration, where master weaver Ruby Hubbard sits on the floor before her upright floor loom, weaving all day, every day. But the place is also still a working trading post, where locals go to sell their goods, buy coffee or mail a letter.

Ruby Hubbard, a master weaver, works daily at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site visitor’s center, where she demonstrates the art of Navajo weaving. Hubbard comes from a long line of weavers; she learned from her mother, who learned from her mother.
Ruby Hubbard, a master weaver, works daily at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site visitor’s center, where she demonstrates the art of Navajo weaving. Hubbard comes from a long line of weavers; she learned from her mother, who learned from her mother.

And tourists and collectors alike go to buy rugs and blankets. And get an education.

“I always tell folks, prior to the 1600s, if you asked any Navajo back then, the word for art, it doesn’t exist,” Eskeets said. “Everything that was created had a meaning in life, a purpose in life. And, of course, after the 1600s, the so-called fine arts made its way through, meaning that today someone will come in here and ask for a 24-inch, 36-inch, got to have these colors, ‘and this will go well with my furniture.’

“So today’s weaving, we have that mix. We have the traditional weavers and then, of course, we have the arts, as well. And sometimes they’re combined. So there’s a story line to the traditional weavings, and some weavers are very sensitive to that. They want to keep the stories to themselves, and some folks are a little more open. You could be in the rug world indefinitely and not get all the information.”

If you know how to look, however, you may see one of those stories. Eskeets turned to a rug hanging on the back of a door. It’s a beautiful Ganado Red — that’s a style, not a color, though it used to be a color — woven by Hubbard.

“Navajos believe they came from a place called the Emergence, and that would be the center, here,” Eskeets said, as he pointed to the diamond shape woven into the center of the rug. It could also be a box shape. The belief is that in the emergence there were four worlds, and this is the fourth world now. Those worlds are represented by the angular patterns woven into each corner of the rug.

But there’s more.

This is an example of a Ganado Red-style Navajo rug. Woven by master weaver Ruby Hubbard, who works at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site visitor’s center, it measures about 36- by 48-inches and took four months to weave.
This is an example of a Ganado Red-style Navajo rug. Woven by master weaver Ruby Hubbard, who works at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site visitor’s center, it measures about 36- by 48-inches and took four months to weave.

“When Navajos came to this place, they said, ‘You know, there are other Indian tribes, our fellow tribes. We’re going to set boundaries, so we don’t interfere,’” Eskeets said, again pointing to the corners. “So this becomes Blanco, Colorado; Mount Taylor in New Mexico; San Francisco Peaks, here in Flagstaff; and then Hesperus, near Four Corners. It is the four directions, too. … They all have symbolic colors, too: white, blue, yellow, red. It’s based on the equinox and the rotation of the sun, so that’s morning, noon, evening and night. These four sites are embedded with prayers and songs. This was established prior to the 1600s.”

Most of the rugs are made from wool, though depending on the gallery and weaver, some also have silk accents. Most are hand-dyed using plants found in the area. Accordingly, they are not inexpensive. For about $6,000, you can own Hubbard’s Ganado Red. At about 3- by 4-feet, it seems expensive, but she’s a well-known weaver. Then factor in all that goes into its creation and what seemed wildly expensive now looks like it might be a bargain, especially when you consider it is all hand-created.

“The weaving part of it is only 20 percent of the work,” Eskeets said. “You have to care for the sheep. In the springtime you have to shear. You have to clean (the wool), and then you get into the carding (a necessary step before spinning where the sheared fleece is brushed) and more cleaning and then you get into spinning.

“Some folks will re-spin twice or a third time and you’re talking miles and miles of it. And you’re talking dyes. Here in Arizona you have 9 percent moisture, and that’s not a lot of water. Some plants will grow every year or every two years or every four years. This is where the master weaver — some of these (rugs) are labeled ‘master’— they know the climate and if there’s more moisture, they know where to go for their plants.”

Once the weavers have their wool and plants, they can estimate how many rugs they can get out of that amount of wool and dye, and how complex the designs can be. Once the wool has been sheared, cleaned, carded, spun and dyed, the weaver threads her loom. If she is fast, four months later she is taking a rug down and finishing it.

The weaving itself can be laborious, but if the weaver knows where her design is going, her fingers can fly. Still, Hubbard said on a good day at the visitor’s center she can complete 2 inches on a 36-inch wide rug.

There’s a saying,” Hubbard said. “If you look up and see how far you have to go, you won’t finish.”

Master Weaver Ruby Hubbard works on a new rug on the upright floor loom at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site visitor’s center. She said she can complete two inches during a day’s shift. This rug will be in the Two Gray Hills style, distinguished by its three colors: brown, gray and white.
Master Weaver Ruby Hubbard works on a new rug on the upright floor loom at the Hubbell Trading Post National Site visitor’s center. She said she can complete two inches during a day’s shift. This rug will be in the Two Gray Hills style, distinguished by its three colors: brown, gray and white.

Hubbard takes her work seriously. She comes from a family of weavers and learned from her mother, who learned from her mother. Because there are also traditional prayers and sacred songs woven into her work, Hubbard, as with many Navajo weavers, believe the art of weaving is for Navajo only, not for outsiders.

Children begin to participate in the work of weaving early on. They tend the sheep, feed them, clean up after them. Sometimes the work of weaving requires little fingers, as in the case of Eskeets, who also comes from a weaving family.

“I grew up in a place called Springstead, New Mexico, and my mom was a weaver,” he said. “I was born into the weaving and so it was a part of life.”

Traditionally girls begin to learn to weave after they have their Kinaalda, a four-day initiation into womanhood. Though the population is growing, Hubbard believes that she belongs to the last generation of master weavers.

Kids today, she said, don’t have the patience. They are too busy with other things, like video games and sports.

Eskeets disagrees. There is a healthy market and as long as there is a market, people will continue to create.

“It’s not like you live in Tucson or Phoenix or Gallup, where there are surrounding communities where there are opportunities,” Eskeets said. “You’re here and there’s wide-open space. For people who are in the surrounding areas, they have to do something to make their living. Weaving is a part of it; jewelry is a part of it.

“This is one location they can come to (to sell their goods) and they’ve been doing it for more than a hundred years. They still come.”

Karen Schaffner is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at kschaffn@email.arizona.edu.

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