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Navajo rugs

SPRINGTIME comes to this small town wrapped in green with horses grazing in emerald fields. But in the land of the Navajo, horses stand lean right now, with rib cages showing after a winter of foraging on the open range. Crows, working in clusters, clean up the carrion left from the cold months. And from horizon to horizon, tans and reds tint the parched terrain -- beauty saddled with barrenness. Both gorgeous and cruel, the land defines better than any dictionary the term ``vast.''

``Navajo Weavings, Navajo Ways,'' an exhibition of 56 Navajo rugs and blankets at Katonah Gallery, brings to this small New York community a touch of that vast land 2,000 road-map miles away -- and a million philosophical miles distant.

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In pattern and picture, in subdued tones and bold colors, these weavings share snatches of Navajo history, myth, and legend. Behind the fibers also lies a life style unique to the largest Indian tribe in the United States.

Navajo myth tells that Spider Woman, one of the Holy People, taught the Navajos how to weave. Most historians say the Navajos learned this art from their Pueblo neighbors, while a few authorities maintain that this Indian people already knew weaving skills before they filtered into the Southwest from northern regions.

The whos and hows of origin, however, seem secondary when one views the perfection of their craft. The current exhibition attests that the Navajos had reached an advanced level of artistry by the early 1800s.

One finely woven fragment, dated 1804, gives a poignant summary of a historic tale.

Preserved under glass, the tattered piece of indigo and white was discovered in 1903 in Massacre Cave, high up in the red-rocked walls of Canyon de Chelly, Ariz. A century before, more than 100 women, children, and old people had fled to the cave to escape Spanish marauders on a slave raid. Unable to reach their prey, the Spanish fired at the cave ceiling, setting off a ricochet storm that rained death. The fragment from this cave is one of the earliest and best dated examples of Navajo weaving.

Calling themselves the Din'e (``The People''), the Navajo today number more than 190,000, with tribal land stretching over 25,000 square miles of Arizona and New Mexico, and spilling into small areas of Utah.

Both the large reservation map on the gallery wall and the exhibition's catalog underscore the contrast in cultures that meet in this small museum.

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The wool-producing sheep are a precious commodity in this land, where weaving is a chief moneymaking craft. It's a common sight to see families in pickup trucks bumping along back roads to transport drums of water, not for swimming pools or lawns or bathtubs, but for their thirsty sheep. The reservation is a rain-hungry land with the comings and goings of herding, rather than calendars and clocks, dictating the life style. There's no strict division of labor when it comes to watching the sheep. Octogenarians and up, as well as five-year-olds and under, take on the task.

But the weaving of wool is women's work. Before this begins, the women shear the sheep, clean, card, spin, wash, and dye the wool, and construct the upright looms. It's estimated that a woman toils approximately 388 hours to make a 3-by-5-foot rug of good quality.

The women rarely pen their patterns on paper but store them in their memories, to be handed down to daughters -- provided the next generation wants to learn. And in line with the Navajo dread of total completion of anything, many weavers still leave a ``spirit outlet'' in their rugs, usually a small slit somewhere between threads.

For the Navajos, weaving is a way of life that wasn't forsaken even during their incarceration (1864-68). These years mark a grim time, when Brig. Gen. James Carleton of the US Army carried out a scorched-earth policy against the Din'e, marching more than 8,000 of them some 300 miles into New Mexico for imprisonment at Fort Sumner (also called Bosque Redondo). Termed the ``Long Walk,'' the trek through snow and cold initiated an imprisonment during which hundreds died from starvation and epidemics. But the women continued to weave. A prevalent design of the period was the ``chief'' blanket with its wide stripes, or stripes with diamond motifs. The exhibition displays various examples of this genre.

Released and back on their beloved land once again (1868), the Navajos turned out blankets that literally burst with eye-dazzling brilliance. Carrying all the flash and flamboyance of modern-day neon, the weavings resulted from two newfound freedoms: pre-spun commercial yarns that took the tedium out of handspinning, and aniline dyes that were not only stable but quick to use. In short, the weavers went wild. They serrated or notched their diamond motifs and used yarns of sizzling colors. Their blankets took on a vibrating quality.

By the early 1900s, weaving was well on its way along another route. Homespun wool was back on the loom, designs took a new turn, and weavers wielded the anilines with more finesse. Behind these changes: the Indian trader. No ordinary shopkeeper, this man. He was born white with a pioneer backbone, a Navajo tongue, and an eye for business. And he demanded quality from ``his'' weavers.

The Navajo's pictorial rugs, a favorite with tourist buyers, come in two categories: those of secular design and those with religious motifs. Most of the exhibition's secular samplings draw from Indian scenes -- corrals, horses, deer, and mountains. Two, however, deal totally with Anglo subjects (the American flag and Santa Claus), but they're unmistakenly Navajo in character.

Although some of the elder, more traditional Navajos frown on putting religious motifs in weavings, it's a common practice today. The gallery displays rugs with yeis (gods, depicted as sticklike figures frequently protected on three sides by a rainbow personification); yeibichais (dancers portraying the yeis); and replicas of sandpaintings.

``True'' sandpaintings represent an important part of Navajo religious ceremonies and are created only by singers or chanters and their assistants. Ephemeral in quality, these paintings are usually formed on the floor of a hogan (Navajo dwelling) and are always wiped away when the ceremony ends. They're not outlets for self-expression but highly stylized patterns held in the memory of the singer or chanter and passed from generation to generation. Scholars prefer the name drypaintings because this religious art incorporates materials other than sand -- pollen, meal, crushed flowers, pulverized charcoal.

When weavers copy the drypaintings, they're careful to duplicate only portions of the whole and omit certain details. Thus, the weavings carry no real religious significance. But as the exhibition's samples show, the women are expert in fashioning segments that emit an aura of the Navajo's deepest religious experience.

All of the rugs on display are beyond purchase; they're museum pieces on loan from both Eastern and Western institutions and museums, as well as private collectors. The show continues through May 25.

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