More than 550 distinct Native American Indian tribes call the United States home. Many are struggling to keep their unique history and traditions from being swamped by the tidal wave of American pop culture. But the Navajo people are thriving. The Navajo language, featured recently in the Hollywood film, Windtalkers, remains vibrant and widely spoken. A growing population of nearly a quarter million Navajos continue to live a largely traditional lifestyle on tribal lands. And, Navajo artistic tradition also continues to flourish.
Holding forth from under a basketball goal at one end of a small elementary school gymnasium, an auctioneer works a crowd of about 60 idders.
This is the Navajo rug auction held on the third Friday of each month in the reservation town of Crown Point, New Mexico. The bidders, mostly collectors and tourists, sit on folding chairs on the gym floor. Lining the walls and crowding the back door, the weavers who created the rugs follow the auction intently. Many Navajos lead a subsistence lifestyle and what they earn here tonight may have to support them for some time.
"They held their first auction I guess back in 1968. At that time they used to probably hold the auction maybe once a year," auction manager Christina Ellsworth said.
Ms. Ellsworth helps the Navajo weavers register their rugs for sale at the gymnasium's back door.
"Over the years I guess just with people spreading the news about the rug auction it just grew and we get people from all over the United States from Europe and from Canada," Ms. Ellsworth said. "It expanded so much that we have the auction now once a month and we have anywhere from 250 to sometimes 350 rugs to auction off."
The rectangular rugs range in size from just under a meter in length to more than four meters. The weave is extremely tight and the colors are generally earth tones; brown, red, yellow and orange along with sky blue, white, black and gray. There are just over a dozen distinct styles of Navajo weaving. Most are associated with particular regions of the reservation, an area larger than Belgium that straddles four western U.S. states. Christina Ellsworth describes one style that takes its name from the Two Grey Hills region due north of Crown Point.
"They're [doing] a real fine weaving like a doily. When they're spinning the wool, they double spin it so that it's really fine like a thread," she said. "That's the kind of weaving they have, because everything is natural. They have their black, their white, their grays, and their browns, and that's all natural. That comes directly from the sheep after they've spinned and carded it."
The rugs are created almost exclusively as artwork now, but traditionally, they were a staple of Navajo life. They served as bed blankets, floor coverings, robes in cold weather, or two sewn together made a dress. The designs tend toward geometric patterns; squares, triangles, diamonds or alternating bands of color. These shapes also tend to correspond to certain regions of the reservation.
But there are some themes any Navajo weaver might use. Joe, who didn't give his last name, is a collector from Santa Fe.
Joe: This is a pictorial style here which is not specific to any region. This can happen virtually anywhere on the reservation.
M. Osborne And typically, what things do they include…?
Joe You know, they would include everyday scenes that the Navajo are familiar with. And of course, this one shows hogans and sheep and corrals.
The patterns found in traditional Navajo rugs are usually quite simple, but a few steps away Joe pulls out a rug that's noticeably more complex.
"Some people would argue that this has been influenced by oriental rugs that have been shown to the weavers," he said. "And of course now with television and magazines weavers have an even wider range of visual motivators to look to."
I noticed Joe holding many of the rugs up to his nose to sniff at the wool. He says if the weaving actually smells like sheep it's a good bet the wool came from the weaver's own flock.
"Sometimes you can actually smell the lanolin content in it. I'm not too sure this one… This one does smell like that. Little bit like a barn yard smell. Which can indicate that the lanolin content has not been removed from the wool as it would be in a commercial process," Joe said.
Earlier in the day, I had a chance to visit Navajo weaver Bernice Largo-Crowe in her Crown Point home. I found her sitting on the floor in front of her loom, legs crossed. She'd just started a new rug that will eventually measure one by two meters. She keeps the weave tight by tapping down each new strand of wool with a tool that looks very much like a hair pick or comb.
"I started off with the small, small rugs since when I was nine years old, uh, from my mom," she said. "I guess I enjoy weaving. So that's why I just went on and on. Still weaving."
Ms. Largo-Crowe works a full time job and weaves in her hours off. She's an experienced artist, and so can accurately predict how long her current project will take to complete.
"If I weave every day, evenings, and then if I weave on the weekend all day, it probably take me about two weeks. If it's just every other day or once or twice a week it'll probably take more than two weeks," she said.
Ms. Largo-Crowe can expect to be paid anything from $100 to $300 a square meter for her work, depending on the quality of the weaving and the theme. Room size rugs have been sold at auction for several thousand dollars. Ms. Largo-Crowe's daughter has learned how to weave, but so far has shown very little enthusiasm for the craft.
But other Navajo families are having much better luck generating interest in weaving among the tribe's young people, and back at the school, auction manager Christina Ellsworth says the tradition's future looks bright.
"We're getting a lot of young children, or young kids that are weaving teenagers and we're even getting a lot of men weavers now," Ms. Ellsworth said. "So I don't think, you know, that it's declining. I think it's going to continue on."
And the monthly auction will continue to give those outside the reservation a chance to own not just a work of art, but a small slice of Native American culture.