To aficionados of Najavo rugs, place names in the Four Corners region evoke striking diversity: the vibrant reds of Ganado/Klagetoh, the ornate coloration of Burntwater, the inventive abandon of Teec Nos Pos, and so on. But even in such a celebrated lineup, the textiles created by weavers of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills area, midway between Gallup and Shiprock, often elicit an extra degree of awe from connoisseurs. On Saturday, May 15, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian unveils an exhibit of 37 works that trace the region’s style through the course of the past century and make a strong case for the primacy of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills tradition.
All but two of the pieces come from the personal collection of Mark Winter, who serves as the show’s guest curator. As the proprietor of the Toadlena Trading Post, he plays a central role in supporting and encouraging the area’s artists. He didn’t set out to run a trading post, or, for that matter, to live in a remote outpost located, as he put it in a recent interview, “at the end of a dirt road, where 25 percent of the weavers don’t speak any English.” He had already spent nearly two decades as a dealer in Southwestern textiles when, 22 years ago, he found himself irresistibly drawn in by the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills style. In 1997, he moved to the community and took over the operation of the trading post, which had closed down the year before.
When he arrived, his interest centered on rugs produced in the region during the early decades of the 1900s. Although many experts placed Toadlena/Two Grey Hills pieces of that era at the summit of 20th-century Navajo weaving, Winter found that scant information was written down about even the finest of the weavers of that time. “In this field,” he said, “we know about cultures, but we don’t know about weavers. It seemed a shame that we could have a 75-year-old work that was acknowledged as a masterpiece and yet it would be an anonymous piece.” He set out to correct that and is now within months of publishing The Master Weavers, a 500-page compendium that documents the textiles of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills area and, for the first time, sets down the genealogies of the region’s weaving families, many of whom he has traced back to the time of the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in the 1860s. As the seriousness of his interest became clear, the community embraced his work. “These grandmothers cared that I cared,” he says, “and they started to participate in the project because they cared about what their tradition was.”
But he was shocked to find that the tradition was in perilous decline — “an exceedingly disappearing art that was slipping away at a faster rate than you can imagine.” Weavers had gradually given up the loom, unable to earn enough from their rugs to justify the time it took to create them. One of the grandmothers who was still an active weaver convinced him to buy one of her rugs, and that opened the floodgates. “Four thousand eight hundred rugs later, we’re in the modern-rug business, and we support about 175 weaving families,” Winter said. Even so, he is very selective. “We only buy from weavers for whom we’ve done in-depth genealogies,” he explained. “That’s because this is an art that is built on traditions that are passed down from mother to daughter or from grandmother to granddaughter. I’m interested in artists whose ancestors developed the style. The entire tradition is contained within about a 12-mile radius of the trading post.” He takes special pride in the fact that, under his stewardship, the trading post has bought 150 “first rugs,” the initial efforts of emerging artists aged 4 to 65. Some of the artists with whom he works dovetail their weaving with unrelated careers, but others devote themselves to their looms full time or divide their working hours between weaving and tending the sheep that furnish the wool.
Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, the Wheelwright’s curator, observes that the churro sheep raised in the Navajo Nation have much to do with the quality of Toadlena/Two Grey Hills textiles. “That variety of sheep,” she said, “has an unusually long staple — meaning the clusters of wool in the fleece — and as a result, the wool can be spun out into yarn that’s so fine we would think of it as thread.” Whereas most Navajo rugs have about 30 wefts (horizontal rows of yarn) per inch, Toadlena/Two Grey Hills rugs typically have 40, 50, or more. Rugs by Daisy Taugelchee (1909-1990), the most celebrated of the region’s weavers, topped out at 115 wefts per inch, and a few contemporary weavers have surpassed even that. “Our average weaver spins as well as the best weavers on the rest of the reservation,” Winter insisted. The higher the weft count, the more precise are the geometric designs, which in some of these weavings achieve razor-sharp delineation. Another consequence of such finely spun yarns is that more time is required to create a piece. A tapestry with a weft of 150 takes three times