WOVEN BY THE GRANDMOTHERS: TWENTY-FOUR BLANKETS TRAVEL TO THE NAVAJO NATION
SUSAN HEALD, & KATHLEEN E. ASH-MILBY
The project was a success on many levels. NMAI staff (both Navajo and non-Navajo) were educated in the challenges of working within a reservation community. As museum professionals, we learned to be resourceful, flexible, and careful about making assumptions when working with Native communities. While having Navajo staff and consultants participate in the project at all levels contributed to its success, we were still unable to account for all of the subtleties of working in the Navajo community, especially in regard to the workshop.
Cultural differences concerning time, for instance, affected our schedules. In the Navajo community, as in many Native communities, devotion to schedules is superseded by family obligations and proper etiquette. For example, on the second day of the workshop, introductions among the weavers, scheduled for one hour, lasted for more than three. We also miscalculated the time required for bilingual translation. Complete interpretation was impossible; some important information was not lost in translation, but without translation. Our plans were also disrupted by other unexpected events and complications such as lack of advance publicity and shipping damage to the mounts. Limited access to stores and supplies also impeded our ability to make onsite changes and repairs.
We had planned the first workshop day for all interested weavers and the second day for a small group of invited weavers that would allow for a more intimate and focused discussion. In retrospect, it should have been clear that this arrangement would be impossible to maintain. Because the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation, extending into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah and covering more than 27,000 square miles, weavers had to travel varying distances to visit Tsaile. This was a destination trip, not an incidental one. Not all of the weavers were able to drive, and most (if not all) brought family members along. We could not bar families from the workshop room; nor could we turn away weavers who had arrived the day before the designated workshop days.
Ultimately, the unanticipated breadth of participation became one of the workshop's greatest strengths. The exchange of information and cultural knowledge among participants was intergenerational and reinforced for many the sustained cultural importance of Navajo weaving. Mothers taught daughters and grandchildren, and fathers, brothers, and uncles brought children to see these magnificent expressions of their heritage. During the display and workshop more than 800 people, nearly all Navajo, visited our display at the Hatathli Museum, from many reaches of the reservation and beyond.
For the Navajo people, the process of weaving is intertwined with their culture, history, and family relationships and is a source of great pride. Few weavers from the reservation ever have the opportunity to view the blankets in NMAI's collection without making a daunting journey to the East Coast. Even fewer would ever get the chance to study them closely and share their observations and ideas with one another in a community environment.
Many museums, especially large institutions like the Smithsonian, are often considered by Native people to be inaccessible repositories of their cultural treasures. Outreach programs such as this one are fundamental to the mission of the National Museum of the American Indian in perpetuating and supporting Native culture within Native communities. This is where the balance between collection protection and collection use is evolving and must continue to evolve.
The exchange among the weavers, community members, and museum staff during our visit to Tsaile was rewarding for all involved. We learned more about the personal significance of the blankets to the Navajo community and gathered information for the exhibition and publication. Most important, the community appreciated having the blankets returned to their homeland, if only for a brief visit.