WATERFLOW, N.M. (AP) – Every thread tells a story. Some tell of the traditional Navajo relationship with Mother Earth. Others symbolize a woman’s transformation from child to adult.
Together, the threads in a Navajo rug communicate more than function, warmth or beauty. They represent culture, geography and a way of life, professional weaver Ron Garnanez said.
“It’s done with chants and prayers,” Garnanez, 56, said while sitting at his loom on a recent Monday. “It’s about things that aren’t important to Western thought.”
Garnanez of Waterflow has spent the last half-century studying the craft and producing some of the most simple yet beautiful Navajo products. He’s one of few contemporary weavers to hold onto traditional methods, following the process from pasture to spindle to loom.
As a male weaver, Garnanez also knows the sacred chants that accompany every step of the process.
“The sheep have a chant,” he said. “The spindle has a chant and the loom has a chant. Then there is a spider chant because we believe spiders taught us how to weave. Then there’s a chant done to complete the loom.”
The chants, Garnanez said, increase the value of the rugs.
Garnanez keeps about 200 sheep and Angora goats near the Shiprock pinnacle.
Every step, from sheering the animals to weaving the wool into rugs, is done by hand. He spins and weaves in his Waterflow home, situated on a plot of land at the end of a dirt road.
“It’s a dying art,” he said of spinning and weaving. “Not very many people are doing that anymore.”
In difficult economic times, however, weaving can be the source of viable income or extra cash.
“People have been known to buy vehicles with this,” Garnanez said. “It’s money in the bank.”
It takes technique and some business savvy to turn the hobby into cash, Garnanez said.
For example, a weaver who grows his own wool can earn about 10 times as much for a rug as a weaver who buys yarn. But a weaver also has to know how to work the market.
“My grandparents always said when you’re selling your weaving, make sure you have money in your pocket,” he said. “Or else you’re just going to take whatever they offer because you don’t have anything.”
Another trade secret is to stay away from trading posts, Garnanez said. An authentic handmade rug measuring 3 feet by 2 feet might sell for $75 at a trading post, he said, but if sold to a serious buyer, the same rug could yield $1,400. Trading posts too often are in the business of making money and sell cheap rugs made of acrylic, store-bought yarn.
“Trading posts don’t look at the amount of time you put in,” Garnanez said. “It’s very hard to take a weaving to the trading post.”
Traditional weaving and Western economics often don’t add up, Garnanez said. Authentic rugs, if created properly, also communicate the Navajo relationship with the creator.
“The traditional teaching of the Navajo weaving is that you have to put a mistake in there,” Garnanez said. “It must be done because only the creator is perfect. We’re not perfect, so we don’t make a perfect rug.”
But a tiny mistake can deduct as much as $20 from the price of a rug.
Garnanez inserts the error into every rug he makes. He learned the art from his grandparents and he wants to revive it.
Garnanez began weaving at age 5 in Oak Springs, Ariz., taught by two sets of grandparents who relied on it to buy groceries and pay the bills.
His lessons coincided with the reversal of roles between men and women, a change Navajo people credit to boarding schools, missionaries and a push to adopt Western philosophies. The trend led to fewer men picking up the art, Garnanez said.
“There were a lot of male weavers, but the teaching that came with the white people was that women’s work is indoors and men’s work is outdoors. The loom sits inside, so they took that away from men weavers,” he said. “When I was young, I remember uncles, great-uncles weaving, but it was done out of the way where no one saw them.”
Garnanez was raised with a different philosophy, however.
“My grandparents taught me that work has no gender,” he said.
Although Garnanez charges $45 per hour for his rugs, he chooses not to make a living from it. Instead, he works full time as the manager of the Alzheimer’s unit at Life Care Center in Farmington.
“I don’t want to be a poor and hungry artist,” he said. “With where we’re at now with money not what it used to be, you have to supplement weaving with other work.”
The easiest time to be a starving artist tends to be during an economic slump, Garnanez said. Art seems to be the first thing to go when money gets tight.
People who rely on art to fund basic necessities are hit the hardest. This is the subject of the independent film “Weaving Worlds,” which was shot on the Navajo Nation and released last fall.
Director Bennie Klain interviewed American Indian weavers about the disparity between authentic rugs and cheap, mass-produced replicas.
“While there have been, and continue to be, problems in the Navajo rug marketplace, the community of Navajo weavers ... continue to thrive and become savvier in their business,” Klain said. “A lot of them talked about the inequities in the trading part of it, but what I learned was there was a lot of diversity. It ranged from people being business savvy to the weavers who understood less about the way the market works.”
Klain, of Austin, Texas, grew up in the Tonalea Chapter in the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation. He watched both of his grandmothers weave but said he didn’t learn to value the industry until after their deaths.
Although he accompanied his grandmothers to the trading posts where they sold their rugs, Klain said he didn’t understand the inequity in the market until later.
“Both of my grandmothers didn’t understand the market,” he said. “It seems like that was a generational thing.”
Klain said many weavers he interviewed for his film were posting their products on the Internet, cutting out the middle man. Others, he said, were not as successful.
Not even the dire economic condition changes how Garnanez feels about weaving, however.
“It’s fun and it’s something that can quiet your nerves after work,” he said. “The rugs become like your kids because you spend so much time working on them. You want them to go to a nice home, a nice family, to someone who will take good care of them.”