Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
The trouble in Red-Point's family, the continual need for him to sing for others has made me despair of his advice in collecting the plants necessary for the vegetal dyes. Atlnaba and Marie know how they are made and what is used only in the most general way. Much travel will be necessary to secure the needed supplies. The reason blankets dyed with natural dyes are so few is that the materials are scarce and difficult to obtain. Now, too, the United States Government has begun to "lift the depression." The way it plans to do so for the Navajo is to have them work at making dams and on other water-conserving projects. There are too many hand laborers in proportion to wagons and teams. Consequently Tom, Curley's-Son, and Ben Wilson decide to take their teams and get work for themselves. This means that they are away from home from Monday morning to Friday night. It means that the usual efficiency of the household is cut down and the women have to do all the work—their own and that usually done by the men and horses. My sisters must therefore stay at home whereas formerly they were reasonably free to go away if they wished.
I secure as an interpreter a girl who has two-months-old twins. She wants to go with me; she knows some of the dyes; her mother will take care of the babies. We start on the colors
made from plants which grow near her house. We spend a morning collecting leaves, stems, and flowers. We pound them on a smooth wooden stump and brew them over the fire. At the end of the day we have four shades, two of yellow made from different plants, two of pinkish brown, all satisfactory.
We are filled with ambition at our success and plan the next day to go farther afield for a rarer plant which makes the soft pink tan, my favorite color. The stepfather of the Twins'-Mother has told us where the mountain mahogany grows, and we will go for it. But today a sudden heavy rain has almost ruined our dyes, boiling over the outdoor fire. By dint of coaxing we have saved them, but the world has become muddy. We start out next day in the direction our mentor gave us, planning to stop at Hastin-Gani's hogan for more detailed information. This point is about eight miles from the house of the Twins'-Mother. We ride eagerly along in the crystal air cleared by the shower of the previous day and suddenly come to a harmless-looking mud puddle in the road. Jonathan has gone through worse before; he goes into this and stays.
The Twins'-Mother and I work for about two hours when a girl comes from a near-by hogan. She speaks perfect English and gives advice about backing, going forward, using sagebrush, and the poles we have found. She finally asks where we are going. "To Hastin-Gani's." "This isn't the road to Hastin-Gani's," she tells us. "You should have taken that one." And she points to a dry pleasant road a few yards to our left.
Three hours of my language, the patience of the Twins'-Mother, the advice of the strange girl, and the hard work of us all see us out of the mudhole and on our way to Hastin-Gani's, which is only a quarter of a mile away. We get a
hearty laugh as we enter the house, for we are covered with red mud from head to foot and there is no portion of Jonathan unblemished. As we eat our lunch, the Twins'-Mother says she is not sure where the mountain mahogany is; she does not know exactly what it looks like; we should have to climb a long way on foot to get to it according to Hastin-Gani's-Wife's instructions. It is past two by this time and clouds are threatening in the direction where the mountain mahogany purports to be. We are both exhausted. I surmise this fact is the real reason for her excuses. So we decide to turn back.
Unavoidable interruptions due to the Conservation work, the weather, and the marital difficulties of the Twins'-Mother prevent us for a week from another attempt at the mountain mahogany. But her excuses the first day were real, and she has now secured help which will make us certain of getting our roots. She makes an agreement with her stepfather to meet us on a given day at a designated place on the road we must travel. He herds sheep there and will leave his horse, accompany us, dig the roots, and drop off the car again on the way back. On that day we start out anew. We have with us a pick and a pickax as well as a supply of coffee, sugar, and roasted prairie dog, supplies for the father, not to speak of lunch for us all.
The cheerful Navajo meets us according to his promise. We travel twenty miles over a road much roughened by rain and never repaired, until we come to the edge of Nazlini Cañon, where we stop and survey the world. Our guide points out places in the far and nearer distance and tells us some of their history. At our feet are cañon-desert plants and shrubs, and he tells us about these. There is a bush that looks much like the mountain mahogany but is not. This is very plentiful.
[paragraph continues] And here is the soft-gray-leaved, yellow-flowered plant the Navajo call "cactus-cleaner." It grows near the prickly pear, and in contrast with it is soft as a kitten's fur. He shows us how the Navajo pluck a few sprays of this plant, brush the tips lightly over the cactus fruit and are then able to pluck it with no fear of getting thorns in the fingers.
There is the aromatic sumac, used with another plant to make black dye and somewhat rare. This we gather, for we do not know when we shall come upon it again. I take samples of the other plants too, one a tiny yellow-flowered "medicine" with a pleasant fragrance called "breeze-through-rock." The Navajo say that if this is held at the side of a twenty- or thirty-foot sandstone boulder, the odor will penetrate to the opposite side of it at once and in twenty or thirty minutes the whole rock will be redolent. "Interesting," say I to myself, "but who except a Navajo would make that sort of observation?"
There is just one clump of mountain mahogany here, so we go back to a place where it grows thick on each side of a small gulch. The "real" and the "false" grow so close together that it takes the Twins'-Mother and me a little time to differentiate them with our unpractised eyes. Her father, however, shoulders the pickax and gets to work. He vigorously digs the roots for nearly an hour, when he returns with a sackful. They vary from hair thickness to about three or four inches in diameter and appear as dull brown with spots of bright rose. They resemble manzanita bark more than anything I have ever seen.
I preserve the specimens we have collected in my plant press as we wait. When our booty is secure, the laborers rest over lunch and cigarettes. This day has been successful.
I have decided to collect all our materials, and after they are assembled to spend the necessary time making the dyes. We shall need a great deal of water and wood, and it will be more efficient to make several kinds of dyes at once. We have located some of the plants we need not far from White-Sands; these we can gather whenever we wish.
One day White-Haired-White-Woman comes to the trading-post. She has been interested in the dyes for a long time and tells me to come to where she stays at Black Mountain, where her interpreter will instruct us. Like Short-Pants and Little-Man-with-the-Spectacles she furnishes me a short cut to information. So far we have never been away from home overnight. Although the twins' grandmother will care for them, I do not know how their mother will feel about leaving them. I broach the subject, and she says quietly, "Perhaps we can take one along." After all we live as the Navajo do. The baby secures its nourishment partly from its mother, partly from canned milk which is just the same at Black Mountain as here. We will try it.
This is the beginning of our travels with the baby. The only extra baggage it requires is a small corrugated cardboard box for its "clothes," and a small lard kettle in which its mother carries the few things necessary to feed it. The baby himself is tied to his cradleboard, which his mother holds on her lap. As the day passes and we jostle and jerk over sharp-cut washes and through—luckily—the muddy ones, he sleeps. We feed him at lunch time and he sleeps again. There is a period of five hours during which he never whimpers, puts in all his energy in sleeping and growing.
At Black Mountain we learn from the husband of a famous dyer the materials she uses and the way they are combined.
All of the plants and mordants in season are easier to get at White-Sands than here. We can go nearer the source of supply with the car. Some plants can be used only in the spring, those we cannot get anyway. So with our formulæ carefully cherished we return home.
Hastin-Gani's-Wife has told us that her daughter makes the "vegetable dye" blankets and that most of the necessary materials are found near her house at the Haystacks. We set out on a day's excursion, for this is near the "highway" that runs to Gallup. We go first to Hastin-Gani's house to see if any of his family want to go with us. They all want to go. But his wife cannot because she is racing with time at her weaving. We take him and a daughter and a son. We come to his daughter's house but draw up on the opposite side of a deep wide wash, for the bridge has been washed out.
Hastin-Gani crosses the wash and investigates, finds no one at home. He suggests they may be in the field about a mile back. We go back to the temporary crossing, and as we return on the opposite side my passengers see a woman and a boy walking about half a mile away. We hail them and they turn out to be the woman we are looking for and her son. They were on their way to a baseball game. They are overjoyed to see their family; we add them to our capacity load and return to the daughter's house. It is on the side of a broad ravine shaded by unusually large piñons and junipers. The house is as attractive inside as out, clean and neat as a pin. The daughter sets immediately about making a fire and paring potatoes. We have brought our lunch, and she graciously accepts it to add to what she is serving. As the potatoes sizzle in the Dutch oven and the coffee comes to a boil, she shows us her supplies of roots and mordants and explains how they are
used and where she finds them. The plants do not grow in many places. The deposits of the mordant, which is a mineral added to make the dye fast, are few, but where they do occur it is plentiful.
Because the mordant is found far down the cañon, but more particularly because the woman's husband considers the deposit as a kind of secret and individual possession, as he alone of the family knows where it is, I ask her to send me a supply of each thing we need. She agrees to do so but gives us a large sack of dock root, the most desirable of the plants for making yellow. She wants to go with us as far as St. Michael's to the ball game, about two miles. We take her only to find that the game is being played at Fort Defiance. All right! She will return with us to her mother's and help her with her weaving!
I shall not be satisfied until I know how the Hopi make their dyes. Big-Mexican has repeatedly invited me to come to Oraibi to look into this matter. The Twins'-Mother wants to go; the one twin has proved he will behave on a trip; but my own family also wants to go. We are to go just at the time of the Snake Dance, so there is an additional attraction. I am the only one who has seen it. We shall be gone three or four days, so we must have bedding and food. Jonathan this time has his maximum load, not in weight perhaps but in odds and ends. We outdo even the return trip from Sunrise, but we have no pop bottles. Blanket rolls on fenders and mudguards, sacks of corn and boiled mutton. Red-Point, Tom, Marie, Ben, and Dan in the back seat with the supplies, the Twins'-Mother with the babyboard and myself in front. The baby's luggage goes between his mother's feet.
We get to Oraibi, see our Hopi. We find that the Hopi use the same plants as the Navajo with few exceptions, but their process is different. It is applied to dyeing reeds rather than to wool, for the wool they use is Germantown already dyed or of the simplest colors. We attend the Snake Dance and return after three days without a single mishap, not even a flat tire. The Twins'-Mother finds the larger twin happy, and his grandmother reports that he has not cried at all, except when he was hungry.
The Twins'-Mother now spends some days at White-Sands with me, concocting dyes. We have the dried dock root given us by Hastin-Gani's daughter, and the large supply of mountain mahogany. These of all the plants we use require the greatest labor. The dock root must be ground; the bark must be pounded from the mountain mahogany. As I pound, the Twins'-Mother grinds; as she pounds, I grind. We take turns at renewing the fire and testing the wool immersed in the other dyes.
We have disappointments and surprises. The rose-sand dye made from our pet mountain mahogany is as we expected. We try a concoction of "owl's foot," a noxious weed. We use a large quantity of the stems and leaves, discarding the yellow flowers; we boil it all day in hope of getting green. We secure a beautiful yellow, the softest and loveliest we have made, but after all it is yellow. I surmise that a yellowish green might be secured if the plant were taken earlier in the year before the stems become hard and fibrous.
Purple dye is made with the petals of the four-o’clock. The Twins'-Mother gathered as many of these as she could find, but they were few indeed. We would try to dye a very
small amount of wool with them. Our adviser had told us to boil them "just about fifteen minutes." Since we have such a small quantity we conclude that we will boil it longer to make it stronger. At first the dye water is light red; but as it boils longer it loses this shade and takes on a muddy yellowish color. The wool we dye with this becomes a desirable but peculiar shade of light brown. The general rule is that color will become darker the larger the amount of plant substance and the longer it is boiled. For our purple the first part of the rule holds but not the second.
Dye made from the dock root ranges anywhere from lemon-yellow, if a small amount is used with not too much boiling, to a deep orange if the amount is large and it is boiled an hour or longer. We were warned always to use an enamel vessel for dyeing. We have three of these but need another. The first dye we tried was that of the cliff rose. We cooked a portion of it in an enamel bucket and a part in an aluminum pail of mine. The dye made in the enamel kettle was a yellowish brown, that in the aluminum, a pinkish brown. On the basis of this experiment we decide to try the aluminum for the dock root. We put it into the boiling water, quite a large quantity. It looks more brown than yellow. We think the concentration will be strong. Old-fashioned and orthodox Navajo dyers use "rock-salt" for their mordant. Now the Navajo are taught by whites to use salt and soda for the same purpose. We used "rock-salt" given me by Hastin-Gani's daughter for the dye in the enamel kettle. Into the aluminum one we plunge the salt and soda (although many Navajo use no mordant with this plant), and what is our surprise to behold a dull mahogany color! If I had tried for months to achieve a shade like this, I should have considered it superb.
[paragraph continues] And here it is! We expect yellow—almost everything we get is nearer yellow than any other color—and this is what we get. This surprise cancels our disappointment over the purple.
I tell the Twins'-Mother this is the dominating color in the blanket an expert weaver has been exhibiting at various places this summer. She told me she achieved hers with mountain mahogany. In order to get the dark rich shade we have here she must have used a highly concentrated solution. We know how hard it is to find, the amount of labor it takes to dig it, pound the bark off the roots, and prepare it. After all of this very little remains for dye. The dock, once found, is easy to prepare, and a little goes a great way. So we seem to have hit upon something. I will not allow myself to believe it until we have immersed the wool and the dyeing is complete.
The Twins'-Mother can hardly wait until the dye is sufficiently boiled. She puts in an end of wool, squeezes it and it finds a pale mahogany. After the skeins—we happen to have quite a lot of this good color—have been steeping for some time she squeezes an end on the batten she uses for a stirring stick. It is still the beautiful mahogany. Even though we allow for the fact that washing, rinsing, and drying will make it much lighter, we are finally satisfied that it has been boiled long enough. Subsequent washing with soapweed, and drying, prove us to be right, and the color resulting from this treatment satisfies me completely.
We have learned many things. We tell each other, "You never know what you are going to get." I put it differently to myself: "It is impossible to control conditions. When the supply of materials is as uncertain and as scattered as this, when the method of concoction so crude, one can never be sure of exactly duplicating the circumstances." I always knew that
was the reason for the irregularity and variety of the colors in the blankets, but until now I had not comprehended the fact. Atlnaba and I, as well as the Twins'-Mother are fired with the ambition to try out all of the weeds that grow around our place.
I can readily understand how the natives happened upon the knowledge of the various mixtures they use. The dock root contains a large quantity of tannic acid and therefore needs no mordant, or fixer. I can imagine that some woman tried the dye without the mineral which makes it fast, perhaps because she had none. She discovered that the dye was as good as when she added it. Other women add it because it is necessary with the other dyes.
The age of experiment is not by any means gone. Every now and again a blanket in which a new color is used comes to the trading-post. One now in my possession contains a red indistinguishable from the Diamond dye red. The woman who made it secured it by mixing different plants; the formula she is keeping to herself.
Another woman at Black Mountain secures a gray-green in which there is very little yellow. Wild horses cannot drag the secret from her bosom. The reason I should like to pry it out is that all real greens I have seen or heard described depend upon indigo for their blue. Often those called "green" by the Navajo are nearer yellow although they may take on a greenish tinge. They consider the use of indigo legitimate in vegetal dye blankets for good reasons: it is really a vegetal dye, and it is old. But it is not native and for this reason I am only casually interested in it.
Woman-of-Red-Streak-Clan visits us. I am shocked at her appearance. The first year I was at Ganado, eight years ago,
[paragraph continues] I had seen her as the woman who had charge of "the blackening" of the patient's wife at a War Dance. She was noble in bearing, slim but well-proportioned, energetic. Her hair even then was white, her face had an expression of calm determination and complete capability. A white man had said to me with no trace of banter, "That woman could be the dean of a college." I had seen her often since at the trading-post or on horseback. Always she had the appearance of perfect dignity and self-assurance. This afternoon, when she comes with Marie to see our yarns, I can hardly believe it is the same woman. She is thin and old, not wrinkled in a timeless inevitable way like Red-Point, who has been that way for years, not graciously old with mellowness, but aged in a year with worry and inability to bow to the inexorability of fate.
All her life she has been accustomed to dominating her family and even her community. Everyone regards her with respect, says she is fair-minded and direct, but at the same time all are a little afraid of her. About a year ago death claimed her only daughter, who was twenty-one years old. "She just can't get over it," explains Marie. "She cries all the time. She never weaves any more, she can't stay at anything. She just cries."
Her response to our inquiry as to how to make blue is consistent with all the others. She will not tell us, but if we give her the wool she will dye it for us. When I say, "You use urine to make it fast, do you not?" she answers, "Yes." The word is more than she can utter to a white person. In the old days blue was dyed by placing indigo in a urine bath. Only the urine of small children would do. If that from a person no longer virgin were used, the wool would become streaked. Children were trained to urinate in special pots kept in the
houses for this purpose. The wool was immersed in the mixture of indigo and urine and allowed to stand for days. About two weeks were required for navy. When the desired shade was secured the wool was washed "fifteen times." I have never seen it done, but I am sure I could use the present tense of the verbs in every case where I have used the past.
To secure green my informants steep the yarn in indigo until a light shade of blue is secured; then they give it a regular bath in the dock-root dye.
At first it seems strange that we secure much of our information about dyes from men. They are interested in all activities, no matter by whom they are carried out. They set up the loomframes when they are at home. They help the women set up the big looms; they make the implements; they furnish the drawings for the sand-painting tapestries. They are the ones who go farthest afield for weeds to be used as medicine; some of the mordants are minerals, as are the colors for the sand-paintings.
The relationship between the materials that men use for their religious activities and those that women use for weaving is close. Both kinds may be gathered at the same place. Not only are the native products similar; processes are sometimes identical. Medicine-men concoct and brew, furthermore they burn plants and minerals for ceremonial purposes, as did Red-Point for his daughter's prayer. So it happens that Red-Point promises to show us how to burn the plants, the gum, and the "rock-salt" to make black, the most complicated of all the dyes.
Many of our visitors are old women. There is nothing like a start to keep the ball of information rolling. Marie and I secure many checks on these, our experiments, after the
[paragraph continues] Twins'-Mother leaves us. Most women have refinements of their own as well as their secrets, but the essentials are the same. Most weeds yield yellow, and weavers use the kinds nearest home.
One old woman, asking if we have yet made black, tells us that we must be sure that none of us having to do with it is menstruating. If anyone is, "the yarn will not get black." I have no doubt that bits of folklore like this will crop up, no matter how long I continue weaving.