WOVEN BY THE GRANDMOTHERS: TWENTY-FOUR BLANKETS TRAVEL TO THE NAVAJO NATION
SUSAN HEALD, & KATHLEEN E. ASH-MILBY
2 PROJECT HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT
The Navajo textile project grew from a documentation survey of approximately 400 19th-century Navajo textiles, started in 1986 by assistant curator Eulalie Bonar, in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation (MAI–HF). The idea of taking these textiles back to the reservation was rooted in an early conversation among Bonar, Harry Walters, director of the Hatathli Museum at Navajo Community College (NCC, now Diné College), and D. Y. Begay, a Navajo weaver and project consultant, then a visiting artist at the museum. The MAI–HF collections were transferred to the Smithsonian's new NMAI in 1989, and in early 1995 museum staff began preparations to realize a temporary return of 24 blankets to the Navajo community (Bonar et al. 1996).
The Ned A. Hatathli Museum on NCC's campus in Tsaile, Arizona, was chosen as the site to host the event. Tsaile is located on the Navajo reservation about 72 miles north of Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation's capital. Except for the college campus and a small convenience store, the nearest businesses and restaurants are in Chinle, about 30 miles to the west. Though the location initially seemed remote, it is important to recognize that Tsaile is located at the center of the Navajo world and proved to be a good choice for Navajo access to the exhibition and workshop.
Walters, whose background includes a degree in cultural anthropology and museum training with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, became the main contact on the reservation. Several months prior to the event, NMAI staff traveled to the Hatathli Museum to review the facilities and work out logistical details for shipping, staff housing, and publicity. Walters worked with visiting staff to complete NMAI's standard loan agreement for the NCC facility, noting light levels, pest control procedures, and climate control. The museum, located within a multipurpose building, was extremely secure, with the local Navajo police department located on the first floor.
As anticipated, there were challenges. The Hatathli Museum fell short of NMAI's loan standards in several areas. Completed in 1976, the facility was designed to include a state-of-the-art museum, but at the time of the loan its climate control system was not working and the loading dock access was only serviced by a small passenger elevator. However, with the full support of the Hatathli Museum staff to solve access difficulties and NMAI staff on site to monitor the loan, the conditions were considered adequate. The problems with the facility were deemed minor compared to the importance of bringing these textiles back to the Navajo community.
The loan lasted approximately 2 weeks. We scheduled 3 days for installation and 3 days for a display open to the public. The following 2 days were designated for the workshop: the first day was open to all interested weavers, and the second day was reserved for a small group of invited weavers. The final few days were left for deinstallation.
Input from Navajo people was incorporated at all levels of the project, including planning and implementation. We were fortunate to have several Navajo staff within NMAI assisting with the project. Four of the eight staff who traveled to Tsaile were enrolled members of the Navajo Nation. In addition, a group of eight advisers, both Navajo and non-Native scholars and weavers outside the museum, guided the project.