Cultural Context

Native American Weaver Dress***

The Spirituality of Weaving

The deep connection between woman and her weaving in the Navajo culture is a connection integrally related to the construction of these garments, or ʼaakał in the Navajo tongue that translates loosely to “garment” (“Tłʼaakał”).

According to Navajo oral histories, Spider Woman is a crucial figure within the realm of weaving. Thomas relates that her family taught her how “Spider woman…constructed the first loom in the third underworld;” she further explains that these “stories or parables explain the construction of [her] loom” as well as gave a methodology for teaching weaving to future generations of Navajo weavers (35). These stories are repeatedly told throughout every stage of a weaver’s development, because, for the Navajo, these stories are their “mothers,” or of utmost importance.

Thus, to separate spirituality from weaving is to separate mother and child, blood from blood. The history of Spider Woman and the practices that the parables teach are not simply “legends” or “stories,” but instead, ways of practicing the techniques of the craft. Therefore, spirituality is integral to the understanding of the Navajo workshop experience, as the spiritual and the art of sewing are intrinsically linked for the Navajo people.

Native American Weaver Dress***

Conclusions: The Persistence of Spider Woman, Against All Odds

This particular dress was probably one of many dresses that the weaver created throughout her time in the boarding school; the design was highly sought after by its White consumers, and thus, many dresses of this pattern and color scheme appear in museums around the United States. For example, an almost identical dress was on display at Kansas State University’s Beach Museum of Art during its exhibition on Native art; thus, two similar dresses have been displayed throughout the past three months—in the same city. Imagine how widespread this design may be at the state level, or furthermore, across the United States. 

Ultimately, this wearing dress speaks of a fraught history of oppression and marginalization. It also articulates resistance. Many women in the boarding school workshops may have been forced to produce items for Western demand and taste (meaning placement in an “Indian Corner”), but the creation of a “spirit line” may suggest holding true to a culture that struggled to remain in their grasp. Hopefully, Spider Woman maintained her hold on the weaving of our Navajo dress, despite every other factor that was determined to tear her away from her people.