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Women Who Weave: Celebrating American Indian Heritage Month

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In 1990, President George H.W. Bush declared the month of November “National American Indian Heritage Month.” We’re celebrating by featuring female artisans who are keeping some of the Native American art and traditions alive in 2017. (Cover photo from left to right: Julia Upshaw, Kathy Marianito, Lucy Marianito)

Gail and Steve Getzwiller built the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery in Arizona over 45 years ago.  Steve began collecting Navajo rugs when he was 18, and that passion turned into a lifelong career.  While Steve drove out to reservations, Gail stayed home and took care of their family and cattle ranch on her own.  They would sometimes go days without talking before cell phones came along.steve and gail getzwiller

Their new show room hosts not only a gallery of Navajo blankets and jewelry, but also weaving demonstrations and lecture series designed to help keep Navajo customs, language and art alive.   The women who weave the renowned Navajo Chief Blankets are at the center of this movement.   Gail answered some questions for SheSpark co-publisher Thea Wood about the Native American art she and her husband champion.

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Thea:   What is the history of Navajo chief blankets? What makes them different than other Indian blankets or rugs?

Gail: Navajo Chief’s Blankets were a distinguished status symbol during the 19th century and highly valued for supreme quality and horizontal stripes in rich colors. These blankets use a tight weave to shed water and Indigo dyes for stunning reds, blues and blacks. They were often worn across the shoulders of highly influential people including the Chief, a clan leader, and a man or woman of prominent social/financial status. They were prized throughout the Southwest and Great Plains.

Thea: What are the different “phases” of chief blankets?

Gail: The First Phase Chief Blankets (1700-1840’s) were simple versions adopted from Pueblo wearing blankets. Made with white churro sheep wool yarn, they had narrow horizontal bands of dark browns and blacks, and known for indigo-blue or red raveled yarns sourced from dyed English baize trade cloth.

Second Phase Chief Blankets (1840’s-1860) are recognizable as weavers began adding smaller design elements with rectangles and horizontal bands in a 12-spot position format. Weavers placed these new elements on “top” of the first phase style to create a background effect.

Classic Third Phase Chief Blankets (1860-1868) feature elements in a 9-spot design that covers the top, middle and bottom of each blanket with new patterns. Based on the weaver’s discretion or style, different shapes were used with rectangles, squares and diamonds becoming central figures.

Blankets woven after 1868 are referred to as Late Classic Chief Blankets. Today they remain one of the Navajo’s most valued pieces for art collectors around the world.

Thea:  How long does it take to make a typical chief blanket?

Gail: The more finely woven Chief Blankets would take up to 6 months to weave. 

One of the most talented Navajo weavers making Chief Blankets today is Kathy Marianito, who creates them for the Navajo Churro collection. This is a premier collection of contemporary Navajo weavings that start with traditional Churro sheep, whose wool is hand washed, custom spun, and dyed in small batches.

Kathy is an award-winning master weaver who grew up learning to weave while listening to stories of her ancestors who negotiated the Navajos release from Fort Sumner and tales of “The Long Walk.”  Her work today is a collaboration with Steve Getzwiller and takes weaving to a new level.

You watch an interview with her here.

Kathy Marianito has a fascinating story! She ran away to avoid getting married at age 15. Read about it here.

kathy marianito navajo chief blanket


Thea:  Zuni Fetish necklaces typically represent many animals. What are the most revered fetish animals and why?  

Gail: Indian fetishes are hand-carved pieces that represent the spirts of animals or different forces of nature. They were used in an effort to master forces beyond their control. I am not sure if any single animal that is the most revered, but some of our favorites include the badger (persistence), bear (strength), bobcat (clairvoyant), and turtle (tenacity). 

Thea: What should consumers look for in authenticating Native American jewelry when making a purchase?

Gail: The best thing to do, if you are a novice, is find a reputable dealer to purchase from.

zuni fetish necklace

Thea: Do you have a story to share of a meaningful experience with a Native artist?

Gail:  Elsie Bia has come to our gallery to demonstrate Navajo Weaving at our openings and at the last show I really enjoyed having time to sit and talk with her about her weaving.  She showed us how the finish a Navajo rug and explained how it was done years ago before needles – by using a very small thin and straight twig.  It was also very soothing to sit and watch her weave and listen as she used her weaving comb to tap the yarns into place.  A wonderful experience.

native american heritage month
Elsie Bia

Elsie Bia is one of the last master weavers from the Chinle area of the Navajo Reservation. Her family upholds many traditions, and raises sheep on land overlooking Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly, a sacred place in Navajo country.  Elsie uses the same type of traditional upright loom that has been used throughout history to make rugs by hand.

Elsie’s grandmother taught her how to weave, and she has many famous weavers in her family including Ruth Ann Tracy, Irene and Helen Bia, and Ellen and Lucy Begay. Elsie carries on the 400-year tradition and artwork of the Navajo and recently joined the famous Navajo Churro Collection Legacy.

Navajo weavers are dwindling in numbers, as the young people are not taking it up like they have in the past.  We work directly with some of the best Navajo weavers working today – with the Navajo Churro Collection.  Learn more about The Navajo Churro Collection.

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