To many Navajo, weaving blankets means much more than…well, blanket weaving. The painstaking process of shearing sheep, spinning and dying wool and carefully plaiting fibers into distinct Dine images stirs a cultural connection for those seeking a deeper indigenous identity.
Being Navajo—the language, customs, even the dusty landscape—is explored vis-à-vis the challenges of contemporary artisans in the 2007 documentary, Weaving Worlds. Directed and written by Dine filmmaker Bennie Klain, the film gives an intimate view of the Navajo Nation far away from the curio shops and Indian motel marquees familiar to most travelers.
What we learn is that the Dine weavers who craft the textiles sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars are hardly getting rich off the deal. Quite the opposite; it is the white traders who reap the financial largesse on the backs of artists whose rugs hang in the homes of affluent American and Europeans. Despite the unfairness, the weavers define the value in what they do beyond mere dollars and cents.
“If there’s no more sheep, if there’s no more farms, if there’s no more streams; if I can’t walk the land with my kids and show them the natural plants and vegetations— that’s what’s going to kills our language,” artist Nicole Horseherder says in the film. “That’s what’s going to kill our culture.”
The weavers speak Dine throughout the film. Not a gimmick, Klain’s use of subtitles reinforces the commitment these folks have to keeping their traditions alive; from the elders to the graduate-degreed mom introducing her kids to customs that span centuries. In one scene, for example, it’s hard to for a non-Native to appreciate how preteens can revel in yanking out the intestines of a freshly slaughtered sheep. Nevertheless, watching the ritual demonstrates the cultural differences between kids on the Navajo Nation and suburbanites weaned on Lunchables and Lean Cuisine.
So the weavers weave while the traders prosper and the tourists spend in blissful ignorance of what they’re buying and why it is all so significant. The complicated relationship between the sellers and artisans is interwoven (no pun intended) throughout the documentary underscoring how the culture is under siege. Weaving Worlds reveals the longstanding history and the non-too-subtle racist attitudes that allow the exploitation to continue to this day.
“I’m an important part of the Navajo culture,” one trader boasts. “A lot of people depend on me to buy these rugs.” And just when you thought people couldn’t be any dumber, a white buyer is nonplussed by the artists speaking Dine. “I thought everybody could speak English here in the United States…”
Hence the irony and disquiet on the Navajo Nation. Yes, their kids wear Harry Potter and Spiderman t-shirts and listen to hip-hop. Yes, they do speak English. But a small and determined group on the reservation is sounding the alarm—it does matter that their progeny has a connection to the traditions steeped in the sandstone cliffs of Monument Valley. And if that means they have to shear sheep, spin and dye wool and carefully plait fibers into distinct Dine images then so be it. As Weaving Worlds ably shows, making blankets is a metaphor for a people reclaiming what is theirs long after the traders leave and the buyers head back to their cul-de-sacs.
Weaving Worlds (2007): Leighton C. Peterson and Kristina Mann -Producers; Bennie Klain – Writer and Director; Nancy Schiesari - Cinematographer; Jayson Oaks - Editor; Aaron White - Musical Score
Weaving Worlds has been screening at film festivals throughout the United States and Canada. For more, watch the
Weaving Worlds Trailer