Book: Spider Woman, A Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters
Author: Gladys A. Reichard

Spider Woman, A Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters By Gladys A. Reichard

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 226
Publication Date: 1934

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This is an ethnography of Navajo weavers and herders. In this book, Reichard explores the intersection between the fiber arts, mythology, and sand painting, all told in first person. Although completely factual, it reads like a novel. The book is also significant because it is a woman anthropologist exploring the world of Navajo women, their material and spiritual culture.

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White-Sands lay silent and motionless in the dead light of mid-afternoon. Here and there a soft, capricious wind stirred up a tiny whirl of dust. A muffled lazy cluck came from a contented huddle of feathers where a hen leisurely gave herself a dust bath. Even the decrepit horde of mongrel dogs was scattered, asleep, or at least indifferent. The few houses with their covering of clay merged into the dull background of the clearing apparently devoid of life. A few yards north of the largest hut was a queer structure. An indeterminate arrangement of odds and ends of sticks and boards from packing boxes was stuck upright in the ground, forming an uncertain circle beginning at the trunk of a gnarled and northward-leaning piñon which served as a roof to this thing. For want of a better name it must be called a shade, because it served as such; but it is strictly individualistic: there was never a structure like it before, it would be impossible to duplicate it. Across the entrance of this affair two boards were laid as a barrier—against what, it is hard to say, for animals could gain ingress at almost any crack. If one crack were too small, a larger one could be found with ease, or the boards could be nosed farther apart at their loose upper ends. The barrier showed, however, that the people who used the shade were elsewhere.

A large dome-shaped hut appeared to be the center of the small settlement. The door was closed but the lock hung loose in the hasp. A cursory glance through the crack above the door showed that it, like the shade, was empty. We opened the door upon a neat silence. There was a broad expanse of carefully swept sand floor, hard and smooth from use, around two sides of which sheepskins, freshly shaken and fluffy, were laid. A large loom occupied the entire height and width of the north side of the house. A blanket five feet wide, about one-quarter finished, of gray, black, white, and tan was strung on it. A small packing case stood on the floor at the right. It contained the worker's yarns, weaving combs and the other small implements of her craft. Her batten was neatly laid between the top cords that fasten the movable part of her loom to the loom proper. All these signs told us of a good weaver who had left her work temporarily.

Carefully closing the door upon the cool silence, we sought further for the inhabitants. At a considerable distance to the south and slightly west is another hut, like the first in all but size, for this one is smaller. It, too, is dome-shaped and blends into the sand background of the clearing. But the door of this one, at the east as was the other, is open, and from its interior comes a dull thump thump, the sound of the comb pounding firmly, regularly, and rapidly the yarn which is becoming a Navajo rug. We stand respectfully at the doorway for a time, looking in and allowing our eyes to become accustomed to the dimness of the light, a contrast to the harsh glare from which we came. The woman, sitting on the floor before the loom at the west side continues thumping her comb, as if we did not exist, her way of greeting us respectfully.

This house bulges with life. Bursting sacks of wool hang from its sides. Long, clean, brightly colored skeins of spun yarn hang from the beams and loom posts. The box on the floor at the woman's side has strands of pink and red, orange and green, brown, gray and black yarn fringing its edges. Each one holds itself in readiness to be pulled by its mistress' skilful fingers. A cat rubs our legs, by way of investigative greeting, and returns to her litter of kittens behind the loom. A white dog with a black ear, no larger than a puppy herself, gives a warning yelp notifying us to keep clear of her two pups behind the flour box.

Now Old-Mexican's-Son, the trader, who is introducing me, directs a witty greeting to the woman at the loom. She, for the first time, shows awareness of our presence. We enter. The trader, who is at home in this Indian family, after pushing aside several dogs, uncertainly tolerant, and removing a pile of wool set out for the carding, finds himself a place on a soft sheepskin where he half reclines, lighting his pipe. The woman interrupts her weaving long enough to turn on me a gleaming smile and to indicate a strong low box on which I, being a stranger, may sit. As we talk and smoke, the woman weaves, her swiftly moving fingers causing the blanket to grow visibly. As I watch, I am consumed with envy mingled with admiration, for this is what I have come to learn.

The talk first locates the members of the family. The old mother, whose blanket stands upright in its loom, quiet and unfinished, is hoeing corn about half a mile away. Her husband, Red-Point, the head of this family, is at Ganado, six miles away, directing the irrigation of his fields. The woman, with her lips pursed toward the west, indicates that her sister, Marie, whom we came to see, is at her own home.

Conversation between the trader and the weaver continues, he sometimes interpreting for me, as the afternoon drones on. A lamb bleats at the door, comes in and smells us all, takes a drink from a basin near the entrance, walks over to her mistress for petting. Various goats and sheep, all pets, and dogs stalk in and are chased out by an unconvincing "Su! Su!" A baby, just able to walk, peeps shyly around the doorpost and backs away. Her sister, two years older, somewhat bolder, comes in and settles between her aunt and the trader, not daring to take her position near the strange white woman, to whom she is nevertheless attracted. The trader has learned where everybody is, that Marie will doubtless sell him a sheep, and he now comes to the main business of the day.

Here is a white woman, peculiar in many ways, who wants to learn to weave. As he tells the weaver this, she darts at me a pleased but quizzical look. Furthermore this white woman wants to live right here with the Indians. She wants to have a shade like theirs. She wants a loom anchored to the ground at which she can sit as they sit, on the ground. She wants to learn to weave as Navajo women weave. This particular Navajo woman is interested, but she cannot help being amused. The white woman had shown she liked the weaver from the moment she saw her, the weaver had reciprocated. But, if Marie is to teach her, we must see Marie.