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Weaving through the Southwest

Longing to buy Navajo rugs at auction but leaving empty-handed, she found, instead, the inspiration for them: the stunning scenery of Arizona and New Mexico.

November 11, 2001|By Susan Spano

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.

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