When dining and shopping in downtown Durango, you’ll find plenty of cafes and galleries offering the Southwest Experience. And there’s one gallery in particular that I gravitate toward ….. because I have a fascination with their Navajo Weavings. Toh-Atin, one of the most respected Native American art galleries in the United States. I’ve been wanting to photograph the weavings and learn more about the symbols and patterns for over a year. So I spent 2 1/2 hours there last week ….. asked a lot of questions about their collection of blankets and rugs ……
….. too many to count. As a result, this post has been tough to edit because I wanted to include all 187 photos, and write about everything I’m beginning to recognize about the artists, designs, colors, where they were made ….. but that would mean an epic article. So, with the help of Jackson Clark, who owns the gallery (along with his sister Antonia, and mother Mary Jane) and also with the help of senior sales rep Ty, I narrowed it down to eight weavings. With links to click along the way if you’d like to learn more.
My first question ….. which one is the oldest?
c. 1870 Chief’s Blanket. Weaver: Unknown
Size: 58 x 72 inches. (Photo courtesy Toh-Atin Gallery.)
I’d re-formatted the photo to make it vertical and larger, however, since Chief Blankets were worn horizontally, they should be actually be displayed……
…… like this.
Natural wool. The dyes were most likely blue from analine (coal tar), red from the cochineal insect, and vegetal from natural wood, plants and roots. The white areas were probably lightened with a mica silicate, and the brown is natural wool from brown sheep.
Weavers of this time had access to flannel and other wool trade cloths from US Army rations, and would sometimes unravel them to re-weave into blankets.
Most Navajo weavers were/are women. There are also accomplished male weavers, but traditionally this is an art form passed down through the women of the tribe.
The pattern indicates that this is a 3rd Phase Chief’s blanket, and the name ‘chief’ in this instance comes from their high trading status, as the Navajos do not have chiefs. They were also sought after and highly prized by Plains Indian Chiefs, who could afford them, as their prices could cost up to 24 horses per blanket.
It’s in excellent condition ….. when I held it (yes, you can hold them!) the fibers are soft. Not at all scratchy or rough to the touch.
c. 1950s. Storm Pattern Weaver: Unknown
Size: 68 x 46 inches. Photo courtesy Toh-Atin Gallery.
This design, found in each corner, represents one of the four sacred Navajo Mountains. If you look again at the photo of the whole rug, you can see how the lightning strikes come from the center heavens area (a small rug design within the rug) and travel out to connect the four mountains.
Vegetal dyed wool, the yellow color comes from rabbit brush. This rug was once a part of the actor Edward G. Robinson’s Southwest art collection.
Trading Post Weaving Map.
Jackson explained that about 50 percent of rugs can be identified by the trading post where, and around which, they were woven. And the other half by general geometric patterns.
The trading posts were (a few still are) located in northern Arizona and New Mexico. And in southern Utah. The storm pattern (left side, third from top) come from Tuba City, Arizona.
(Contemporary.) Yei Bi Chai. Weaver: Ruby White.
Size: 30 x 36 inches.
Yei means holy being or spirit in Navajo. This rug shows dancers a Yei Bi Chai ceremony.
They carry evergreen boughs and gourd shakers …..
….. and wear blue leather masks.
The weaving of their feet is done in such a way that they show motion.
Yei weaving, also by Ruby White.
Size: 28 x 36 inches.
They face forward, with round faces telling us they are male.
Beautiful cerated borders.
The artist has woven her initials into the dark surrounding border ….. making the piece all the more unique.
Size: 49 x 72 inches.
Ganado rugs are known for their deep ‘Ganado Red’ and always have a red background. They are from the Hubbell Trading Post that is now a National Historic Site. The town Ganado, near the post, was named for a great Navajo leader whom the Spanish called Ganado Mucho (Many Cattle.)
Klagetoh is located close to Ganado and their trading posts were owned by the same trader, John Lorenzo Hubbell. Klagetoh rugs look very similar to Ganado, but have grey backgrounds, as this one has.
Klagetoh are known for their geometric patterns based on elongated diamond. Generally they use the colors red, black, white, tan and grey.
I should point out that the entire time Jackson talked about each piece, he never referred to a master list or notes. He is fourth generation of a family who have long standing, personal relationships with the artists and their families. He is an expert on Navajo weaving, gives lectures and presentations ….. and is also known for his monthly newsletter. It’s fascinating ….. he shares personal stories and memories of traveling throughout the Southwest, and you can subscribe to it from the gallery’s home page.
(Contemporary) Two Grey Hills. Title: Under the Sea.
Weaver: Marcia Begay.
Size: 25 x 36 inches.
Marcia is a young weaver with great talent.
Two Grey Hills weavings are typically geometric patterns with neutral tones of white, black and brown. The wool is fine and requires more time to weave. The quality is exquisite …. and reflected in the prices.
They also have a Spirit Line ….. a line woven from the center through the border and back again. This allows the thoughts and emotions and creativity to leave the rug, and not be closed in.
(Contemporary) Two Grey Hills Tapestry. Weaver: Barbara Teller Ornales
Size: 33 x 19 3/4 inches.
Photo courtesy Toh-Atin Gallery.
Finely woven tapestry quality, over 80 weft thread per inch, with spirit line.
When I held this piece in my hands, I could barely detect the interlaced threads.
c. 1980s Tapestry Sandpainting. Weaver: Ruby Manuelito.
Size: 30.5 x 33 inches
Weaving design based on sandpaintings …. the border is a rainbow Yei with a square head, indicating female.
Again, an excellent artwork of fine tapestry quality of over 80 weft thread per inch. The artist, Ruby, was a renowned weaver and niece of Hosteen Klah, who was the first to create a Navajo Sandpainting rug.
The designs depict the spiritual realm and are all based on the traditional Navajo sandpaintings created by Medicine Men for ceremonies of blessing and healing.
This link describes the controversy of using spiritual figures and ceremonial symbolism of sandpaintings in rugs ….. “There are two schools of ceremonial blanket-makers -those who endeavor to make each rug a perfect replica of a sand-painting and so avoid the anger of the gods, and those who purposely change the details of the design in order to escape the curse.”
And that “even today some weavers will hire a Medicine Man to do a protective ceremony for them and the weaving.”
Here you can see the illustrations of supernatural beings, spirits, powerful creatures and plants, and the four sacred crops: corn, tobacco, beans and squash, as well as the whirling log … a symbol of safety and security.
Links to more Navajo rug styles:
Many thanks to Jackson, and Ty for showing me the unique characteristics of these artworks. And for the use of photos from your website, and books to study.
Writing this post has reminded me yet again how blessed I am to live in the Southwest and I look forward to sharing more about the Toh-Atin with you. I’ve barely scratched the surface of discovering more magnificent traditions of artistic expression.
Note from Toh-Atin regarding what to look for and ask when purchasing Navajo Weavings:
“When considering the purchase of a Navajo Weaving, always visit a reputable dealer. Make them tell you everything they can about the weaving. Ask them to recommend books. They will appreciate your interest. Always buy the best weaving you can afford. You’ll be happier with one nice weaving instead of three lesser quality pieces at the same price. Always buy what you like.
Realize that the piece you are buying was likely on the loom for several months. It is handmade and will never be perfect. It should be relatively straight and even, the weaving should be uniform and it should be pleasing to the eye. Most of all, it should be something you like and will enjoy for many years.
When you purchase a Navajo Weaving you can be proud to know you are helping to preserve the art and traditions of a proud and creative people.”
Note: in this article I have at times referred to notes and select quotes from “A Guide to Navajo Rugs by Western National Parks Association.”