Rug Auction to Educate Artists on Trade Issues
TEEC NOS POS, Ariz. – “We Navajo have made generations of traders into millionaires,” said Roy Kady, Navajo master weaver and project director of Dine’ be’ iina’ (or “Navajo lifeway”). Also called DBI, the nonprofit supports the traditional relationship to the land through weaving-oriented cultural and educational programs and the conservation of Navajo churro sheep, an heirloom breed.
To circumvent the trading posts’ monopoly, DBI is organizing a groundbreaking Navajo-run rug auction. It will happen May 28 at the Pagosa Fiber Festival, an annual event in Pagosa Springs, Colo., that celebrates crafts like knitting and weaving, as well as fiber-producing animals, such as sheep and llamas.
The mercenary relationship of many of the trading posts to Navajo artists developed during the 19th century, when shopkeepers realized that tourists traveling on the newly built railroads – and later, connoisseurs worldwide – would be eager consumers of finely made Navajo wares.
To this day, traders control the flow of goods, and some manipulate often impoverished weavers into accepting as little as $50 for rugs and other items they may have spent months making, said Kady.
The traders may then sell the pieces at much higher prices. Sometimes a trader might offer to sell a weaving in an auction, not telling the artist of fees – in addition to a generous commission – that’ll be docked from the price the item eventually commands.
“People take the money because they need to buy gas or groceries,” Kady explained. “At DBI’s workshops, we show that selling work this way means you’re making something like 50 cents a day – sweatshop wages. Then we provide formulas, based on the time spent, the type of materials used and the size of the piece, that people can use to calculate fair prices.”
The weavers also need a way to contact off-reservation markets, including art galleries, museum shops, serious collectors and one-time buyers, which is where the Pagosa Fiber Festival comes in.
Jane McKain, an owner of Mountain High Fiber Ladies, a custom-processing wool mill in Pagosa Springs, has been a co-organizer of the popular fair since 2002. When the event added a Navajo weavings auction in 2005, McKain noticed that the traders running it took the lion’s share of the $80,000 in revenues and contacted DBI’s officers, including president Sharon Begay, about Navajos taking over the sale.
As a result, Navajo auctioneer and musician Bronco Martinez will preside over the sale of several hundred pieces, including entries from such internationally known artists as Sarah Naataanii and her daughter, TahNibaa Naataanii.
A special churro collection will offer works made of the strong, resilient yarn that’s hand-processed from the fleece of this breed, which descends from sheep brought to the area by the Spanish in the 16th century. Prices will range from about $150 for small pieces to approximately $15,000 for large, fine tapestries.
“It’s exciting,” said Colleen Biakeddy, a Navajo shepherd and weaver in Hard Rock, where she is vice president of her chapter, or district. “Many people here are putting a lot of work into this event.”
The auction is emblematic of the extraordinary transformation of the fate of Navajo churro sheep, nearly extinct just a few decades ago and now acclaimed for their sumptuous coats and lean, tasty meat.
A coalition of groups – including DBI, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land and the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association – works to preserve the breed. Weavings made of churro fleece are prized by collectors. The Slow Food Movement, an international gastronomic organization, has named the breed to the prestigious Ark of Taste, a listing of the world’s finest foods. Top chefs vie for the small amount of churro meat available to the restaurant market.
Navajo churro sheep almost disappeared for the first time in 1864. That year, Col. Kit Carson slaughtered huge numbers of them during the scorched-earth campaign that preceded the forced march of more than 8,000 Navajo men, women and children hundreds of miles across the desert to a New Mexico concentration camp. Now called “The Long Walk” and compared to the Bataan Death March of World War II, the forced removal and incarceration caused the deaths of thousands of Navajos.
In 1868, the survivors were allowed to go home, where they built up their flocks once more. Sixty-some years later, the U.S. government decided that this accomplishment was putting a strain on reservation grazing lands. It was postulated (erroneously, as it turned out) that any erosion caused would silt up the Colorado River and jeopardize the success of the recently constructed Hoover Dam. Federal representatives persuaded the tribal government to approve a stock reduction program.
Behind the mild-sounding phrase was a fearsome idea. During the 1930s, government agents shot hundreds of thousands of sheep – primarily Navajo churros – and left the carcasses to rot. Other breeds were considered superior and spared. Elders recall using their own bodies to attempt to shield the churros, which they describe as a gift from the Holy People.
The slaughter devastated the Navajo economy yet again and eliminated what policy-makers had not understood as an outstanding land-management tool.
According to Biakeddy, the rotational grazing of churros, as traditionally practiced by Navajos, improves a field rather than damaging it.
“Unlike the larger, heavier breeds, churros are picky eaters and as you move them from place to place, you encourage the growth of diverse vegetation,” Biakeddy explained. “They’re perfectly adapted to this landscape.”
During the 1970s, Lyle McNeal, a professor of animal science at Utah State University who became fascinated by the breed and its importance to the Navajo world, began re-establishing it through a nonprofit he founded, the Navajo Sheep Project. Starting with a few animals he found in remote canyons, he slowly built up a herd and, with the help of DBI, gave starter flocks – four ewes and a ram – to tribal members.
Today, there are more than 3,000 of the hardy, drought-
tolerant animals on the reservation, and children who used to be admonished to learn English and go to college “so you don’t end up a sheepherder” now compete for places in DBI’s summer Sheep Camp, said Kady.
Non-Navajo farmers around the country own several thousand additional churros. However, they readily acknowledge the tribe’s special association with the breed.
“They give us their excess animals and donate them for ceremonies,” said Kady. “People have driven all the way from Oregon and Texas to bring us churros. They say, ‘They belong to you.’”
How about the traders? Do they want to repay their debt to Navajo animal husbandry and artistry? Kady asked several for mailing lists of collectors and other potential buyers, with which he planned to publicize the Pagosa Fiber Festival auction. “Not one said yes,” he reported.
Dine’ be’ iina’ and its many allies must be on the right track.