SHIPROCK, NM — Prior to the 19th century, Navajo textiles were both decorative and utilitarian: cotton, dog hair, and later Churro sheep wool introduced by the Spanish were used to weave blankets, dresses, belts, arrow quivers, and horse accouterments. Anglo traders of the mid-19th century changed the way Navajo weaving was qualitatively understood and used by bringing in Middle Eastern rugs for the weavers to recreate in local materials on their own upright looms. What emerged was not quite Navajo, not quite Middle Eastern: angular versions of the East’s more rounded geometries of earth and sky, hybridized symbology, and always with decorative borders. It was a style guaranteed to be salable to Victorian-era collectors in the grip of Orientalism. What the outside world thinks of as traditional Navajo weaving is actually a 150-year snapshot in the long socioeconomic history of a people, coerced to turn a lifeway into a commodity.
Two Navajo artists living in New Mexico who have broken away from that slice of weaving history reach backward and forward in time, through pre-European-contact patterns and across centuries toward contemporary self-expression. Ephraim Anderson, or Zefren-M, as they like to be known, is from a line of weavers in which techniques carefully developed within the family were handed down from mother to daughter. Because they were born (and presented as) male, Zefren-M’s grandmother did not, originally, view them as an appropriate recipient of this knowledge. “If I had worn a dress and acted like a girl, my grandmother would probably have taught me to weave,” they said.
Consequently, Zefren-M is mostly self taught, although they did pick up valuable information early on from women they call “Clan Grannies.” After studying in the Cultural Arts program at Diné College, they apprenticed under master weaver Roy Kady. A student of history and archaeology, Zefren-M begins our conversation by discussing the migrations of the Athabaskan people and its diaspora across tribal boundaries, of gender and balance in Navajo cosmology, of symbols shared with cultures across the globe, before moving on to Navajo weaving as a contemporary cultural practice.
In Zefren-M’s stories, which contain threads of archeological history, folktale, and some speculation, different cultures are as intertwined as the Navajo Churro threads in a reverse interlocking twill. Diné art and craft developed in the context of its neighbors, borrowing patterns and styles from the Puebloans as their people traded and intermarried. Zefren-M has lately been recreating those ancient patterns using photographs of fragments belonging to Ancestral Puebloans, such as the repeated jagged spirals with sawtooth edges in a textile entitled “House of Rain.”
“Knowledge must flow in all directions,” says Zefren-M. As must art. In addition to their interest in past techniques, they recently produced a masterwork of expression entitled “Colors May Fade: My Personal Journey Overcoming Trauma and Heartbreak,” which was created by blending primary colors to form new painterly combinations.
Zefren-M identifies as a gay, non-binary Navajo in Shiprock, a refugee from the Christian Reformed Church because of their sexuality. Using art to deal with this and other experiences, “Colors May Fade” was inspired by the pain of coming out, of a slow, painful recovery from long-haul COVID, and of a difficult breakup. “We’re supposed to use art to better ourselves as human beings and right now I want my clients and people who see my art to know I understand suffering, and to give them a little kick, a pep talk; it’s still worth living,” says Zefren-M.
Morris Muskett prefers to work in miniature, a necessity of sorts, since a full-size tapestry might take six months to a year of labor, a difficult commitment to make while teaching full time at Gallup High School and taking care of his elderly parents. Such weavings, in the end, cost tens of thousands of dollars and are difficult to sell. In order to make his art accessible, Muskett spends three or four days creating a four-by-five-inch “sampler” or “study”; the small size makes each piece more affordable. He uses bright colors in contrast to the nearby, well-known Two Grey Hills textiles which are made of undyed grays, off-whites, and browns.
Muskett trained as a civil engineer, and still likes to figure out the mechanics and chemistry of his materials and equipment. He taught himself to weave by experimentation, built his own looms, and developed his own mordant for fixing the dye. He dyes his materials with local plants and lichen, which he prefers not to name specifically because, he says, people have come on Navajo land and taken plants without permission and without concern for the perpetuation of the species. In the Southwest’s current megadrought, all plants growing in the vulnerable New Mexico desert must be harvested judiciously, the land treated with respect.
In 2002, Muskett received a fellowship with the National Museum of Indian Arts and traveled to New York and Washington, DC to research the collections of ancient textiles from the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and tribes around the continent. This study developed his sense of historical contiguity. Like Zefren-M, Muskett explores the ancient techniques of diamond twill weave primarily using Churro wool, but he has also experimented with camel hair, flax, and silk. He has even used a species of native cotton from Peru which was almost eradicated to clear land for cash crops in the 1970s but now enjoys legal protections as part of the country’s ethnic and cultural heritage. Ancient cloth made of dog hair was found in caves to the west of his home outside of Gallup, New Mexico. Someday, he might try that material as well.
The old Navajo and Puebloan textiles were made to be worn, not hung flat on a wall, says Muskett. “The traders took a three-dimensional art form and made it two-dimensional.” Traders still value easily recognizable styles like Ganado, Two Gray Hills, and the ever-popular pictorial, and tend to pass on to the artists only a fraction of the financial worth of the textiles. Consequently, both Zefren-M and Muskett prefer to work with their own network of collectors who appreciate the skill and historical significance of what they do, and with the markets such as the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market and the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Santa Fe Indian Market, where people can closely examine and feel the cloth. Seeing the fabrics being worn, used, and appreciated are more direct ways of experiencing them as integral parts of Navajo life and history.