Weavers celebrate Navajo tradition

Eleanore Nestlerode explains color variations among her freshly died yarn. Nestlerode was one of several artisans who demonstrated the craft of Navajo rug-making during the Bosque Redondo “Fabric of Life” celebration. (Staff photo: Marlena Hartz)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Eleanore Nestlerode captures nature on strands of yarn.

In an open-air studio, against a desert backdrop of mesquite and amber, she dunks long coils of cloudy yarn into steaming pots of water. Plucked from their baths, they reveal a spectrum of sunny yellows, poppy reds and indigo blues.

The soles of her black cowboy boots, coated with a layer of dust, crunch against the gravel as Nestlerode scoops up her dyed creations.

Her pallet is the land, she explains. She boils wood chips, insects, flowers, prickly pear fruit, and wild spinach down to a soup to dye skein after skein of yarn.

“These, I asked a carpenter for,” said the Pecos resident, pointing to a jar of wood shavings with a dye-stained finger. “These are logwood shavings, which can make anywhere from a blue purple to a navy black to a light-blue.”

A few feet from Nestlerode, other artisans assembled Saturday under the roof of the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner. They gathered to celebrate Navajo weaving traditions in a festivity dubbed “The Fabric of Life.”

For guests, the intricate process of rug-making was rendered intimate.

Artisan Beatrice Sandoval paced inside, carding — or straightening — fluffy balls of wool. She learned the trade in a classroom 20 years ago, reviving an art once loved by her great-great grandmother, but abandoned by her mother and grandmother.

By nestling the fabric between two palm-sized brushes with metal bristles, and rubbing back and forth, Sandoval can iron kinky wool, preparing the material for the spindle, where, with the pump of a foot, it is spun into skeins.

Even sources of wool were in attendance: Three skittish, churro sheep — sporting dense, nappy coats — were penned outside the memorial building. Their wool is esteemed by Navajos, who favor it for its durability, said Angie Manning, while she raked a hand through their course coats. Manning owns the sheep and is the Bosque Redondo manager.

An avid collector of Navajo crafts, Clovis resident Doyle Potter made the hour-long drive to the Redondo on Saturday.

“The amount of time it takes to make one of these rugs is incredible,” Potter said, a rainbow of rugs displayed behind him. “But it is a dying art.”

Redondo staff members are wrestling to preserve the ancient rug-making methods, eroded by modern machinery. They also intend to preserve an even deeper, sadder story, Manning said.

The memorial, refurbished last summer, is named for the adobe fort that served as headquarters for a prison camp where thousands of Navajos and Mescalero Apache Indians were corralled by the U.S. military in the 1800s.

They were seized from their homes, marched more than 400 miles on foot in the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer, and forced to reside in a tiny reservation along the Pecos River in Fort Sumner.

From 1864 to 1868, more than 8,000 Navajos fought to survive in makeshift camps. Roughly a fifth of the Navajo population died on the “Navajo Long Walk” or in the camps, according to recent estimates.

The Navajo named the site “the place of dread,” according to Virginia Burnham, who hails from a Navajo tribe and heard stories of the Fort Sumner prison camp her entire life.

The Arizona resident has returned to the site three times and sold her jewelry in the lobby Saturday.

“From the stories, it was a very desolate place. Corn and wheat seeds wouldn’t grow. Water was scarce. I can see the pain in the faces of the pictures taken,” Burnham said, referring to a series of photos of prisoners hanging on the memorial walls.

The story of the Navajo Long Walk and the Fort Sumner prison was largely omitted from history and is absent from school textbooks, said the man behind the Fort Sumner Redondo project, John McMillan, a Fort Sumner native.

An urge to bring the story forth and suture rifts between cultures led him to pursue the project, he said.

“Other cultures have so much to give. If we could accept that, instead of dominating…,” McMillan said, his sentence hanging unfinished.

Proceeds from The Fabric of Life celebration are being collected for the construction of another branch of the memorial, which would house Navajo artifacts currently stored in Santa Fe, officials said.