A Collective Narrative

Native American Weaver Dress*** Native American Weaver Dress***

We use the bed frames as makeshift looms, as we have no other way to construct our garments. We struggle to make beauty in this less than ideal situation in which we are entrapped. We have little control. It is 1887, and we are Navajo women.

In the mornings, we are forced to march; we march to breakfast, to our workshops, to our sleeping quarters. We march until our feet ache but speaking out would be fruitless. We know that rebellion will lead to punishment.

We are holding one red, black, and blue panel, woven through our hands. Our job is not to dye the wool, but to weave it together to make a dress that the White people will buy. This fact discourages some of us, but does not stop the rhythmic pacing of our looms.

We did not learn this method through our mothers, but instead, we listened to the woman (formerly Navajo) instruct us in a way our mothers never would have dared. These ways are foundationally simple, and devoid of any emotional attachment between woman and garment.

For some of us, our mothers didn’t have time to explain the Navajo ways of making such garments. The White woman simply explained that at the Institute, we would be able to learn “from another Navajo.” We feel betrayed.

Some of us were admittedly eager at first. We made the makeshift looms, we worked until our hands bled from the accidental pricking of needles, we tried to learn the quasi-Navajo ways of working with the White fabrics.

For some of us, fitting in, assimilating, was not only a goal but a driving focus. Thus, we worked, smiled, and struggled to grasp to the incomprehensible English letters. It would take time, but eventually, we would be one of them.

And yet some of us wanted freedom, wanted our Navajo homes, families, sisters, brothers, friends. There were others of us who did not even know what they wanted, less than food and a night of dreamless sleep.

There were others amongst us who rebelled. One accidentally broke a leg of our bed frame-spool, another injured a pinky to avoid spinning for a couple hours. These acts were severely punished, so most of us held in our rebellion—saving our energy and biding our time.

Echoing in this factory are the words of Henry Richard Pratt, apparent villain and savior, whose ideals (we are told) influenced the development of the Haskell Institute. Some of us have heard that Dudley Haskell was more of a “good man” than Pratt, but there is little evidence of this (un)truth. Only time will tell if his legacy is of that of a hero or a villain; we cannot see into the future, but we know how easily history can be misconstrued.

Sighing, we take the second panel, and join it in union with the first. The “Navajo” instructor would not have seen this as a spiritual connection, but some of us still do. Though they cut our hair and gave us uniforms to wear, we try not to let go of our home—or our culture.

We hold on, and we give away. The Whites at this place seem to both want us to simultaneously erase our Navajo core and mass-produce our spirit. It’s tricky, because a couple of us have heard whispers of the byproducts of our labors; we hear that “Indian Corners,” places where the White man would display our culture for his own benefit, were the locations where our dress would end up. Not on a Navajo girl for a spiritual blessing, but instead, a shelf in the corner of a private establishment. Some of us realize that these “Indian Corners” are nothing more than ways white men collect our culture as if it’s something they can barter. However, culture cannot be traded, sold, or acquired, because culture is internal. Culture cannot be mass produced.

But one of us creates a spirit line in our dress, and by employing this Navajo weaving technique we show that our technique will never be completely stifled. After this act, we go back to work; the days continue blurring together, as we weave yet another terraced edge design onto yet another dress…

This particular narrative style is called a “collective narrative” or a “we narrative,” coined by Lisa Lowe in her 1996 book Immigrant Acts. In this text, she illustrates the power of telling a collective narrative in order to fully describe the situations faced by people of a minority party. Thus, when writing the narrative, I was playing off of Lowe and authors who employ the collective narrative, such as Julie Otsuka with her 2011 novel The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka employs this particular narrative style to avoid telling a limiting narrative of the Japanese mail order brides; in the same vein as fiction writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (famous for writing the critically-acclaimed novel, Americanah, and her TED Talk on “The Dangers of a Single Story”), Otsuka yearns to construct a compelling narrative that encompasses the people’s experience as a whole, while offering glimpses at the differences in each individual experience. In her TED Talk, Adichie argues that if you view a particular minority experience as a “single story” you are in danger of only seeing one aspect of their narrative and will be ignoring the nuances to their lived experiences. The use of a collective narrative is one solution to the problem of a “single story,” and I chose to utilize a similar style of narrative in order to tell the tale of the Navajo women forced to mass produce clothing in their workshops.

While I have simply given you a glimpse into what the collective Navajo experience may have been like, I strive throughout this argument to be mindful of the “single story” while presenting the facts of Navajo weaving. 

A Collective Narrative