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An inside look at the Navajo weaving tradition, passed down through generations

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For centuries, the lives of Navajo people have been intertwined with livestock - specifically, one particular breed of sheep they've relied on for meat and wool. The tribe is well known for weaving the wool of Churro sheep into colorful clothing and tapestries. Those weavings can fetch thousands of dollars from collectors, but they have far more than monetary value. Raising Churro sheep and weaving their wool is an important way Navajo people pass cultural knowledge from generation to generation. KSJD's Chris Clements visited a Navajo Churro sheep celebration.

CHRIS CLEMENTS, BYLINE: Inside a crowded farmhouse on the edge of the Navajo Nation, weavers are demonstrating how to spin, dye and treat wool from Churro sheep, which they consider sacred.

ROY KADY: Hello. My name is Roy Kady. I am from Goat Springs, Ariz.

CLEMENTS: Kady, who's in his 60s, is standing outside, wearing an ornate turquoise necklace, earrings, bracelets, and a white hat. He's considered a master weaver, part of centuries of Navajo citizens who've carried on traditional beliefs that date back to the 1500s when Churro sheep arrived with early Spanish colonists.

KADY: I'm filling these big shoes that my mother wore as an agropastoralist.

CLEMENTS: Tyrrell Tapaha is Kady's student and his grandson, who's here at the event. For decades, he's benefited from soaking up Kady's mastery of Churro sheep weaving and herding.

TYRRELL TAPAHA: There's always been weaving in my life, whether it be his work, my grandma's work, or my great-grandma's work.

CLEMENTS: Even after years spent as his apprentice, Tapaha says he's still eager to learn and connect with a master of the craft like Kady, whose tapestries are often brilliant shades of lavender, red, pink, and orange.

KADY: For instance, Tyrrell - hey, I want to do this. I want to weave a human form. Do you have any ideas how I could do that? And so I just share with him...

CLEMENTS: Tapaha has been learning the tricks of the trade since he was very young. When he was only 8, Kady had him teach a class on the art of finger weaving at a nearby chapterhouse.

TAPAHA: Teaching kids how to finger weave, made me feel like I had something interesting to contribute, let alone, like, just share space with people.

KADY: I was once them, their age, somewhat, taking that unknown path and wondering where my life would be. It's been a wonderful journey into old age. It makes me happy. It fulfills me.

CLEMENTS: And Tapaha knows that Kady's teachings will live on with him.

TAPAHA: At least it'll last my lifetime, you know? And I kind of hear that in how Roy talks about his contribution to the space is like him being an older person now and kind of seeing that handed off.

CLEMENTS: After the morning's presentations, it's time for lunch. The weavers roast mutton, a Churro sheep they slaughtered earlier in the day. Participants of the sheep celebration gather around the grill, watching the fire hiss and sputter as the mutton cooks. It's common for every part of the animal to be used. Nothing, not even its hooves goes to waste.

In 1863, the U.S. military forced Navajo people to leave their ancestral homelands and relocate to an internment camp. It's known as the Long Walk. They weren't able to bring Churro sheep with them. Many Navajo died from malnutrition, and many of the sheep they left behind didn't survive either. It almost led to the extinction of the Churro sheep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

CLEMENTS: Navajo people were allowed to return home four years later. Some tribal members who'd managed to escape the Long Walk, kept some Churro alive. And today, thousands of Churro sheep live on or near the Navajo Nation. After lunch, apprentice weaver Benjamin Mutton, who's not Navajo, explains how wool is prepared.

BENJAMIN MUTTON: You need soap because of the friction. You need, like, a lubrication. For the fibers to knot all up like that. They get knotted up.

CLEMENTS: Mutton, like many weaving apprentices, also herds Churro sheep.

MUTTON: You can also blend fibers with the Navaho Churro.

CLEMENTS: Each weaver at the event has their own table, crowded with examples of their work. There's multicolored rugs, boots, saddle bags, and hats.

MUTTON: You can use dog hair, you can use horse hair, you can use human hair, any kind of fiber. You can blend it and you can make all these different things that you see here.

CLEMENTS: Community celebrations like this one happen year round, where students learn about spinning and dyeing Churro wool and the history that lives in between each thread. The Navajo Nation celebrated Sheep Is Life week in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

CLEMENTS: For NPR News, I'm Chris Clements. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Whitney
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Chris Clements
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