Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
Upon my arrival at White-Sands early Monday morning the dogs give me a vociferous and unfriendly welcome. I turn off the motor of Jonathan, my Ford, and wait until Red-Point quiets them. His few decided words cause them to slink in all directions, tails between legs, growling, disgruntled, thwarted. Several women, among them the old mother of the family, stand before the entrance of the shade, holding their hands before their mouths with shyness, ready to duck into the shade at a second's notice. This is not my first experience with the Navajo, and I have already learned to observe the short period of silence required by good manners when coming to a house. This over, I am not obliged to hunt up the family. Marie approaches from her home preceded by her husband, Tom, a lean handsome fellow smiling a welcome.
"We didn't build a shade. There is a storehouse up here. The old man thought it would be a better place for you to live than a shade. At this time of the year there are so many gnats. You can look at it, and if you don't like it we can build you a shade."
So saying, Tom leads off followed by me and the bevy of women and children who have assembled. He leads us to the apparent hole-in-the-ground which is from this time on to be considered mine. It is dug out of the earth about five feet
Click to enlarge
BEN HOLDS SPOT IN FRONTOF MARIA ANTONIA'S SHADE
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
MARIE AND ATLNABA RIG THE WARP-FRAME
Click to enlarge
ATLNABA STRINGS WARP
deep. To enter, we go down a step cut out of the ground, take two paces along a passage and down one more high step. Within, it is cool and comfortable. It has been neatly swept, and in some respects is more desirable than the ordinary Navajo hogan, or house. No one has ever lived in it—it has been used as a storeplace for wool in the winter. It is spacious, about twelve by fifteen feet in size and at least six feet high, and the light, from the large doorway at the east, is good—almost a studio light—at all times of the day.
It takes no time for us to move my possessions, modest as they are, into the storehouse. Tom shoulders the army trunk full of heavy books; Marie gets hold of the blanket roll; her sister, Atlnaba, the first one of the family I had met two days before at her weaving, takes hold of one end of the grub-box, and I of the other. The bustle is short-lived. Within a few minutes my baggage is in place. The trunk makes a good table, but Marie, accustomed to white people's ways, sends a young girl to Red-Point's house for a homemade table. She sends her niece to her own house for a wagon cover which she lends me indefinitely for a carpet. My house is furnished, and we view the prospects for weaving.
I convince them that I really want to learn, and, satisfied that the house suits me and assured that I want to start weaving, the sooner the better, Tom starts off to make the loom-frame. The south side of the house is an ideal place for the simple structure. He has only to measure the space with his eye, get his ax from his own house, and he is off to hew the necessary parts from trees on the place. During the time he is gone we women settle for a talk to get acquainted. While we talk, Marie's mother, Maria Antonia, comes in. She could not come while Tom, her son-in-law, was there, for Navajo
women never "see" their sons-in-law. One of the children, with a word and a gesture, has informed her that he is gone for a goodly period of time and she may now come in to satisfy her curiosity.
The women visiting me at this time are my three teachers, Maria Antonia, the old woman who made her daughters famous; Atlnaba, who now with the energy of youth surpasses her mother; and Marie, a self-taught expert and my interpreter. Maria Antonia's smile is not less sweet because toothless. Marie is not less energetic or enduring because comfortably plump. With these exceptions every member of the family, male and female alike, gives a first impression of wiry leanness and of perfect teeth. Herding sheep and riding horseback keep down superfluous fat, constant chewing of freshly killed mutton makes teeth strong and white.
Marie, as interpreter, enumerates the members of the family and tells me their names, those given them by whites and their real Navajo names. She tells me also how old each person is. I, in turn, tell them how old I am, how many older brothers and sisters I have, how many younger, how I teach girls in winter, visit and learn from Indians in summer, and why I want to learn to weave.
Now a child, playing outside, gives a warning, and Maria Antonia disappears. Within a few minutes Tom comes in again with three freshly cut poles, perhaps four inches in diameter, on his shoulder. He has hacked off the bark but has taken no pains to smooth the surface. On the contrary, he has purposely avoided the smoothness of which his ax is capable, for the rough protuberances will prove useful to us. He brings also a smooth four-by-four stringer about seven feet long. He lays these materials on the floor along the side where
the loom is to be. Accepting a proffered cigarette, he squats near the doorway, his weight on his right foot and on the toes of his left, for a short rest.
Red-Point, the patriarch, comes as head of the household to perform his duties of welcome. He admires the coolness and comfort of my house. It is cooler than his and the others because it is underground. For his benefit and Tom's I repeat details of my age, my interests, and my family relationships. Red-Point approves of Tom's choice of posts for the loom, and makes several suggestions about setting them up. He stays only a cigarette interval, saying he must find his horse to go to Ganado. The time is long enough, however, to make me feel thoroughly at home, to convey verbally the feeling which the women only smile, that they are glad to have me here. They are glad I want to learn to weave; they hope they will teach me to weave well.
Our first visit, during which we have become acquainted, has strung along. The sun, slanting diagonally through the narrow wooden ventilator in the center of my roof, shows it is long past noon. The women at last file reluctantly out of my house, leaving me for brief contemplation and realization of my surroundings. My house differs from the Navajo hogan in that it has no smokehole, hence no place for a fire. But even had there been one, I should hardly have used it in the summer. At the crude fireplace of stones a few feet from my door I boil some coffee to supplement my lunch menu of baked beans and cheese. I find an arrangement of army trunk as seat in front of which I place Marie's table quite satisfactory.
As I eat, I examine the details of my house, a matter for which I had little time when entertaining my colorful visitors. The walls and floor are of natural sand hardened by use. As a
foundation for the roof, small poles, an inch or two in diameter, are laid with one end on a ridgepole, the other on the ground wall. The even rows of poles form my ceiling. Over the poles soft juniper bark lies, to hold the outer covering of sand packed on when it was wet. The house, though desirably cool, is also snug. Only when the rainy season begins can I tell whether or not it is waterproof. It is early June, and there may be a month before that test will come. As the afternoon wind blows the sand about my house and the flies buzz in the sunshine outside the open door, I consider how lucky I am not to have to depend on a shade, open on four sides, for protection. I consider also the disposition of the contents of my bags, but only briefly, for Tom and Marie are back, ready to erect the loomframe.
It is a simple affair composed of rough poles, a crosspiece fastened to the floor with wedges, and two uprights made firm to the roof at the top with balewire. Tom fits the parts in place, Marie holds them for him as he fastens them. It is not long before the loomframe is not only in place but also firmly supported.
Tom stays only long enough for us to approve and admire the loomframe. I thank him and he departs, for Red-Point has asked him to round up the small herd of cattle for branding, and he has to catch his horse. As soon as Tom is well out of sight and there is no reason to expect his return for some hours, Maria Antonia comes in to help Marie string up my first blanket. Marie has brought warp, a large assortment of string, and two pieces of broomstick, each about two and one-half feet long. Maria Antonia brings in two short heavy logs and sends her granddaughter, Ninaba, for the two
slender poles which are leaning against the piñon tree north of my dwelling.
With these miscellaneous-looking materials they proceed to construct a loomframe, or temporary loom. After fixing it horizontally on the floor of the house so that it cannot move, they string the warp, keep alternate strands separate by means of reeds and bind the ends with a kind of braiding. My first effort is to be only modest in size, somewhat over three hands wide and five long. A hand is the distance between the end of the thumb and the end of the middle finger. Since the rug is small, it is relatively easy to string. As Marie winds warp about two poles, her mother sits by, and we talk.
Marie says the hardest part of making a rug is stringing the warp. Some women never learn to do it. Often blankets are so large that they cannot be set up in the house. Then the temporary loom is laid outside on the ground and the tedious stringing is done by several women who consider themselves specialists at it. A woman, though expert, may require help in setting up one only four feet wide by six feet long.
Our hand measures are quite different. We measure off a comparison. It takes six of Marie's to make five of mine. Marie never makes a blanket an exact number of hands long or wide, and she says no other Navajo woman does. She allows an extra inexact measure, slightly less than half a hand.
After the braiding has been put on both ends of the warp, the parts of the temporary loom are untied and put away, and the warp lies a mass of writhing curls which if carefully handled remains orderly.
To an accompaniment of quiet conversation the women perform the succeeding steps of the warp stringing. They
fasten the curling mass to sticks. With a clothesline they attach the sticks wound with strings to the loomframe which Tom has erected. They use the stringer which he left on the ground as the top, and fourth side of their frame. It can be moved up or down according to the length of the warp they are using. The roughness he has left in trimming it keeps the rope from slipping.
The warp now stands upright, firmly but loosely fastened. Now with reeds and loops of string Marie makes a "harness" which henceforth will allow us to separate the alternate strands of the warp. This is called a heald or heddle. Every other warp strand is caught up in one of its loops, so that if we pull the reed forward alternate threads will move to the front. A second reed without loops lies behind all the strands which are not caught into the heald loops. By manipulating the heald and rod properly we shall form spaces, called sheds, between the warps through which we can carry our yarn.
All this time I am an interested, if somewhat bewildered, onlooker. The process seems to me very complicated. The hands of these women are so skilful that I despair of ever competing with them in dexterity. They can even talk while they twine and braid and loop. They do not seem to think about what they are doing. But, let one of them make a move out of order, the other laughingly reminds her of her mistake.
It has taken less than two hours to make the loom. For Marie not only strung the warps but also made her loom as she proceeded. Tomorrow we will begin. I can hardly keep my fingers off the loom. I am not overly successful at disguising my eagerness. I know no Navajo would exhibit this kind of enthusiasm, even though she had it. Nevertheless, it pleases Marie as she leaves me with a tolerant smile.
At last I am alone. So many new things, the minutest details of which must be observed, all casually done by Marie and Maria Antonia. I have the idea I must learn them all at once. I know very little Navajo but during the entire day I have kept my ear cocked for words I could understand and have tried to use such simple words as I have picked up. If I elicit a burst of laughter from my visitors, I know from previous experience that I have pronounced the words correctly. If they are not perfect I get a puzzled look of non-comprehension or a correction conscientiously and seriously made. It has all kept me on the qui vive, but now I realize I am utterly exhausted. Coffee and tobacco are reviving, as is food. Supper is simple and brief as possible, for I do not want to miss a moment of outdoors at this time of day. I take my bed roll outside my house, lay it on the gentle smooth slope of my housetop, a vantage point from which the whole settlement may be observed.
I have had scant opportunity to become acquainted with the exterior of my dwelling. Leaning against my bed roll, I have leisure to enjoy the panorama. At this, the hour of sunset, the Southwest condenses its charm. The desert addict may not know it, but this hour is the cause of his nostalgia when he is elsewhere—yes, even in a sense when he is here. My eye roves from the rose-colored sand still covered with gray-green grass because of late rains, to the hoar-green sagebrush and over the somewhat lumpy plain abundantly dotted with pine and juniper. It is too early in the season for clouds, and the clear turquoise of the sky blends with pure lemon, gold, and red. To the east, at my right, a piñon and a juniper mingle their branches so closely I am sometimes deluded into thinking the composite is a botanical freak.
There's a gentle tinkling of bells from the south and east. Shouts accompany a collective thud of little feet becoming louder as it slowly approaches. A schoolgirl twirls a rattle, a tin can in which several pebbles have been enclosed, on the end of a string, causing the flock to veer toward the corral. Ninaba's red velvet shirt is a jewel in a wiggling fuzzy white setting. The approaching flock is like a mob of impolite humans. The goats belch and cough; one stops to nibble a likely sage bush; another eats the lower branches of a piñon. Still another finds its way into my house. I think of chasing it out, but I am too comfortable to get up; and anyway there is nothing it can harm. The sheep munch digressively along, slowly as they dare, ever interrupted by their herders; a ewe calls her wandering bleating lamb, lost through curiosity.
Fire gleams through the cracks of the shade made of odds and ends fitted about the piñon tree where Maria Antonia does her summer work. She is out at the woodpile making the chips fly. Her beehive of activity is within calling, but not within talking, distance of me. The smoke of her cedar fire, mingled with the pungent odor of the sage stirred up by the chewing goats, and with the dust of their pawing, is wafted to me on the gentlest and coolest of breezes. Along the old road from the north a rider appears. He is Curley's-Son, Atlnaba's husband, Tom's brother. Tired with the day's farming, he sings a weird song for company as his white horse lopes through the gathering darkness. A dog, tail between legs, in sneaky quiet, makes a foraging tour of my fireplace. The sheep, protesting or conversing ever more quietly, snuggle contentedly into the dust of the corral behind me. I think of Joanna Godden.
Old trite phrases come to me—"witching hour," "peace
that passeth all understanding," a Navajo group I never before fully comprehended: