Warp, weft and Wal-Mart

  • Navajo weaver Marie Begay begins by carding raw wool from her own sheep, then stretching it during the spinning process. Then she gets to work on a Two Grey Hills-style rug. LEIGH T. JIMMIE PHOTOS

  • Marie at her home in Burnham, New Mexico. LEIGH T. JIMMIE PHOTOS

 

Name Marie Begay

Age Late 60s

Vocation Traditional hand-weaving

Number of sheep owned 80

Where Marie gets her wool Most of her wool comes from her own sheep, though she trades wool with family members to broaden her color choices.

Yarn needed for a typical rug Marie's rugs approach "tapestry" quality, running 50 to 60 weft threads per inch. The rug now on her loom, roughly 3 by 5 feet, could well use a quarter-mile of yarn.

Favorite flour "Blooms in Your Oven" and "White as Snow" say the sturdy cotton sacks of White Rose flour lying around Marie's house. Marie and other weavers re-use the sacks to store wool or deliver rugs.

It's a small sign in a big landscape. "Burnham" is all it says. On a gray morning of ground blizzards, a casual traveler could easily miss it.

Not that casual travelers are frequent in January on U.S. 491 north out of Gallup, N.M. -- and not that Mary Jane and Jackson Clark are casual travelers. The two, mother and son, have traveled this northeastern corner of the Navajo Nation for decades buying rugs for Toh-Atin, their Indian arts gallery in Durango, Colo.

Today, they are visiting Marie Begay, a particular favorite of theirs because of her fine work. Marie follows the old ways of shearing, carding, spinning and weaving wool from her own sheep. To reach her home requires a long drive on rutted roads past the roofless ruins of the old Burnham trading post, past a Navajo chapter house, through miles of treeless winter landscape. Finally, there on the left is the icy track to the small gray house Marie's husband, Matthew, built for her and their six children.

Heat radiates from the Begays' new pot-bellied coal stove this cold morning. Marie's daughter, Shawnda, wears jeans, but her mother, dark hair pulled back from her plump face, wears a long skirt, and her plaid shirt is fastened with a fine turquoise pin. "I lack the patience for weaving," admits Shawnda. But she patiently translates, helping questions in English make their way into Navajo and bringing the answers back again in English.

Marie brings out an album of family photographs, and explains that her mother died young, so her grandmother taught her to weave. Her grandmother was a strong and striking woman, judging by a sepia photograph labeled "born 1870, died 1976." When she finished a rug, she'd ride off to the trading post on horseback and bring home gunnysacks full of supplies.

Marie began to weave when she was 9, her first piece no bigger than the photo album. Though she never went to school, she made sure to send all her children. Daughters Theresa and Julia both learned to weave, but now Theresa is an accountant and Julia is a teacher. Granddaughter Brandy has an artistic streak but, 13 years old and living in Albuquerque, is less interested in weaving than in playing soccer.

Marie demonstrates the laborious stages of making a rug. In a small concrete-block building east of her house, warmed by another pot-bellied stove, stands a traditional vertical Navajo loom. Marie has begun a large piece in her trademark browns, grays, deep black, and the snowy white she gets by washing wool with alkali. Sacks of wool sheared from the Begays' sheep, rough and dirty, are stacked near sacks of cleaned wool, carded wool and handspun yarn. Marie uses wood-handled carders to transform unruly curls into airy fiber she can spin. She spins on her right side, one hand turning the long wooden spindle against her leg as the other hand draws out thin strands of wool.

The piece now on the loom is one Marie began around Christmas. Its design was entirely complete in her head before she sat down to weave. It will take her about a month to finish and some days after that for her hands to heal from the work.

Her weaving sells for more now than when she began -- but then again, she notes wryly, $10 used to buy a lot more. "My mother loves Wal-Mart!" says Shawnda, so they drive to the Wal-Mart in Farmington to buy the White Rose flour, clothes, glasses and shoes Marie's weaving earns.

Electricity arrived at Marie's house just six years ago. Today, community colleges teach Navajo weaving, and entrepreneurial weavers sell their work on the Internet. But the beauty of Marie's work sets it apart. It continues a tradition of craftsmanship all the more remarkable for the remote and rugged setting in which it arose -- and all the more rare in today's world of computers and crowded Wal-Marts.

The author is a freelance writer based in Denver. This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...