Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
Marie places the skein of yarn around her knee and moccasined foot, where it fits loosely. She unfastens the end and unwinds the skein into a loose pile on the floor beside her. This additional maneuver is her substitute for the chairback our women find necessary for winding yarn when they cannot get a man to hold it for them. From the loose pile she winds it into a ball, and I am impressed by its shape, so simple it is, yet so unlike ours. Around and around her spread fingers she winds it. After it is about half done she turns it and winds the rest of the yarn at right angles to it. Her ball when finished may be large but it is wound in only two directions, never in a solid ball like ours where the strands cross at all angles of the surface of the sphere.
By this time my habits are becoming established. I still have trouble regulating tension; but I am constantly aware of the fault, and the texture of my fabric is improving. The edges are a greater worry, even to this day. I am fast approaching the center of the rug, and when I reach it we take it down because the weaving has become too high to reach with comfort. After it has advanced somewhat over a foot from the floor, I sit on a blanket folded smaller and consequently higher as time goes on. When the ache in my shoulder becomes too great and the efficiency in pounding weft too
little, Marie contributes a strong little box whose three dimensions are all different. By turning this box I can sit at the exact height I need.
But now that I have woven to the middle we loosen the beam cords and let the rug down. This is the hour of my disillusionment. Until now the tightness of the warp and the combined makeshifts of my teachers in loosening the weft have more or less disguised the insidious drawing in of the weft which Marie and her mother clearly saw from the very beginning, and of which I was almost oblivious. The center measures a thumb-joint and a half less than the end we began with. From the first black stripe up to the red one which precedes the wide black center the measurements are versatile, the edge describes a line for which geometry has no definition.
The family are present in a body at this event. They are more sympathetic than amused. They say most first attempts are like that. Marie says some women always weave like that, no matter how long they are at it. Tom says the rug can be buried in damp sand and stretched to a better shape. Red-Point says this one will not be good, the second will also not be good, but the third, that will be all right. He says this one has a nice pattern with its different-sized stripes, the wide black one in the middle. It looks like the old dresses the Navajo women used to wear. Why don't they weave patterns like this now, old-fashioned patterns?
I cannot but take heart at all this sympathy and interest. Marie lets the rug down, allowing the web to fall in a large fold behind the loom. Then with a sacking needle she sews the center of the wide black stripe firmly to the cords which fasten the warp to the cloth beam. We are ready to start off anew. If we forget the order or width of the stripes we can
refer to the half already finished now lying neat and limp behind the loom.
Once more I am working at floor level. But now in bringing down the heavy comb I hit the weft against the warp instead of my own knees. Occasionally a warp strand tears. Perfect warp never tears. The ideal is probably never reached, but the spinner always has it in mind. Warp as good as Atlnaba's would not tear, however, when strung for such a small rug as this I am making. My warp was made by the old woman who lives near the well, a pitiable creature who comes to visit us occasionally, and whom we see herding sheep when we go to the well. Her chief claim to pity is the fact that she has no relatives—"just that little girl." The little girl is sweet and painfully shy, though as curious as one of the ubiquitous goats she herds. The old woman has lost all her daughters, and her sons, not very responsible, have married and moved elsewhere. Somehow the old woman and her little granddaughter manage to hold on to their flock, now much depleted, and to eke out a meager subsistence. Marie occasionally makes a dress for the child. The two come over to Red-Point's quite often for a square meal.
As she herds, a task allotted by families in better circumstances to the young, the half-blind old woman skins. In return for the many favors our family does her she gives us warp yarn. It is not specially good warp yarn, not particularly bad either; it can easily be used for smaller blankets. It would be very aggravating to have to use it for a large rug because of continual breaking. Her yarn is doubtless like her own life, drab, mediocre, weak. We are, however, grateful for it because warp is not easy to get.
My weaving has not advanced far before a warp strand
tears. Marie simply pieces a portion in, tying a knot at the top of the broken strand. Then, drawing it taut, she firmly holds the lower part of the broken strand as she ties the new piece to the old. Three hands are necessary for this operation, two to tie the knot, one to hold it tight. Since there is not always someone around to hold the strands, the weaver uses her teeth.
Marie of course pieces the first strand that tears to show me. I try to mend the second myself. My efficient friends have always chaffed me about my inability to tie a square knot. Knots have never interested me. Accordingly in my blundering fashion I inexpertly tie a granny in this torn warp of mine. I need only to turn the batten once and it is a loose warp, not torn but slipped. Marie watches not in amusement, however, but with shocked surprise. She shows me how to make a square knot, and now I must pay attention and remember. It is of course not difficult to learn.
Marie tells me why my carelessness worries her. She never sees me tie my shoe without a shudder. For the way I tie it is the way the dead wear their knots. They do everything backward—this granny is a backward knot. Therefore doing as they do identifies one with them, and there can be no worse inducement for bad luck. With a reason like this for an incentive it is no wonder I now tie a square knot automatically.
I advance with my weaving to less than half the latter half of the rug. The warp by this time has become stretched and smooth. It is no longer necessary to flip it to separate the strands, or to tighten it. Indeed, it is becoming tighter and tighter as the web advances. And once again a warp tears. The portion of warp left is too short to allow for our piecing it as we did before, when it was possible to tie both ends. We
therefore manipulate the long piece of warp differently and have only one knot to disguise with the weft instead of two as we had before.
Placidly I weave now, the primary motions have become automatic and less painful. Marie is with me most of the time. I am no longer biting my tongue in ardent concentration, and she tells me the family impressions. The schoolgirl Angela, who is herding sheep for Red-Point during the vacation, is surprised I have learned even this much. On the day of my arrival she had encouragingly predicted: "She'll never learn to weave. Why, she doesn't even know how to sit down!" Marie tells me this with a gloating air which implies that I have proved her faith in me as well as Maria Antonia's and Atlnaba's.
The day after my arrival at White-Sands, Red-Point gave me a name. He has called me Weaving-Woman. I tell Marie I think it is a nice name. I know very well the Navajo liking for nicknames, especially names that mock at physical shortcomings, and I am pleased to have drawn one so dignified.
I know also that the Navajo do not like to use their "real" names ordinarily. These names are sacred, given at a public ceremony. In old times they were used only when the owner of the name got into "a tight place," that is when he needed supernatural aid. At such a time the mere repetition of his name would help him, give him the idea for a ruse whereby he could entrap his enemy perhaps, or strike the enemy with fear or impotence. To use the name every day or as a means of designation wears out its power.
For this reason a Navajo is "bashful" if asked his name. He is often as "bashful" about his nickname or one given him by whites as he is about his sacred name. Consequently I am surprised
to hear Red-Point telling me the names of his children and grandchildren. Evidently the belief is no longer held by him. The sacred names are pretty: Ninaba, Atlnaba, Yikadezba, Djiba. These Red-Point frequently uses in conversation. But I do not wish to use them, in address anyway. I know that the Navajo are more likely to use relationship terms than names. The circle included by any one of these terms is a large one. Any woman belonging to my clan, whether a blood relation or not, if she is of my generation, is my sister.
So it is not difficult for me to give Red-Point the most respectful term befitting his generation and mine. He is my "maternal grandfather"; Maria Antonia, his wife, is my "old mother," that is my "maternal grandmother." But their children, Marie, Atlnaba, and Ben Wilson's wife are my contemporaries and I can hardly call them "mother" or "aunt." In this free-lance sort of relationship one reserves the pleasure of inconsistency and I call them "younger sister." One reason they are interested in my age is to know whether to call me "older" or "younger sister."
This adoption of kin-terms, as matter-of-fact to this family and to their Navajo friends as their ability at weaving or herding, has amusing as well as puzzling implications when whites are concerned. Marie is my younger sister, her husband Tom is my brother-in-law. Their two charming little boys are my sons. Atlnaba and Curley's-Son have the same relationship as Marie and Tom; and their intelligent capable Ninaba, I am proud to call my daughter. Ben Wilson's three little girls who tumble into my house over the high steps of its entrance are also my daughters. The terms for my children are not inconsistent. A woman and all her sisters are called by the same name, "mother," and each one
of the group calls her own children and the children of all the others "child." So I, by getting three sisters, secure six delightful children. Marie and I talk over all this. She knows enough of white people to realize how amusing the system is, but she is pleased about it, as are the others.
One day Atlnaba who has many pets underfoot in her own house, tells me the pedigree of Nellie, the little white mother dog we saw on our first visit. She is the "younger sister" of the yellow dog that bites; she has a grandmother and numerous grandchildren, also uncles and aunts. The application of kin-terms to the dogs and other animals is the height of whimsicality—and good practise for me in using kinship terms. I must talk Navajo to Atlnaba; we joke, and such jokes as these are in the range of my capacity and of the appreciation of us both.
The weaving of the first blanket is now so far advanced that I am considering a pattern and colors for my next one. It is to be larger and more pretentious because it will have design. It is on my mind as I criticise this one from the vantage point of my trunk. My grandmother and sisters weave their patterns "out of their heads," but they cannot be expected to weave one "out of my head." So I sketch one with colored crayon in the intervals when I have no visitors, and after several attempts I am satisfied with it. I have drawn it in black, white, and red. But I have been much impressed with the combination of black, white, and green in the center of Atlnaba's sun-house blanket. She has achieved an unexpectedly good shade of green. I decide that, if we can get that shade in our dyeing, I will make the next one black, white, and green. This will allow me to get criticisms from my teachers and visitors at departing from the customary colors.