Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed—
We’re concluding our celebration of Native American Heritage Month by posting a conversation I recently had with 2022 National Heritage Fellow and Diné Textile Artist and Weaver TahNibaa Naataainii. Born in the New Mexico, TahNibaa is a dedicated artist and fierce advocate for traditional Navajo or Diné weaving, yet she’s willing expand them by changing patterns and shapes or weaving different textiles into her work. Because of this, her weaving has deeply impacted both traditional and contemporary textile arts. Living in her ancestral homeland of Table Mesa, TahNibaa embraces holistic Diné weaving practices. This is not just an artform, it’s a way of life – that involves raising and herding the sheep, harvesting and dyeing wool, then carding, spinning before she even begins to weave it on a loom. TahNibaa’s textile art has been recognized in museums and galleries across the country and around the world. She is also a celebrated interpreter of Diné weaving traditions, working with museums and cultural centers to tell the story and process of this remarkable art. I lucky enough to speak with TahNibaa Naataainii last month—here’s our conversation.
Jo Reed: Well, TahNibaa, I have to begin by congratulating you on being named a 2022 National Heritage Fellow. Bravo.
TahNibaa Naataanii: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s an honor to recognized for the work I’ve been doing and as time goes I am learning the magnitude of it
Jo Reed: Tell us a little bit about where you were born and where you were raised.
TahNibaa Naataanii: I was born on the Navajo Nation in the northern area, the northern agency of the Navajo Nation, near the Four Corners area where the four states meet. I was born in Shiprock, New Mexico. And my father, Leo Naataanii, his job took us to Fort Defiance, Arizona. My father was a carpenter and a director of a housing program there. And Fort Defiance at that time was a small town, there was still a lot of traditional people that lived on the outskirts.
Jo Reed: Were you raised with traditional ways?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yes I was, even though it was in the late 60s, early 70s. My mom and my dad were somewhat products of the boarding school system that the government placed upon our people, and even though my dad went to boarding school and my mom also was sent away to school they still held on very strongly to their traditional upbringing, their traditional ways.
Jo Reed: And I know your parents moved you back to your ancestral lands. How old were you, and what prompted them to do that?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yeah. So I went to school in Fort Defiance my elementary years, and my grandmother, Mary Lee Henderson, I remember she would visit us on weekends; it seems like there was frequent visits from my grandmother, and I believe what my grandmother was-- her visits were primarily to tell my mom and encourage my mom to move back to the ancestral lands. My grandmother was getting older, and I believe that my grandmother was seeing changes in her community, seeing just a lot of development, in the community, and I think that she was concerned that the lands where we're originally from possibly might be used for development of some sort. So, she encouraged my mom to make the move back and start raising the sheep, and that's what happened. So about 9 years old we moved back here to Table Mesa.
Jo Reed: What's your earliest memory of weaving? Is it when you moved back to the ancestral home, or was it still when you were in Fort Defiance?
TahNibaa Naataanii: My earliest memory of the actual weaving was living in Fort Defiance. I was, I'm going to say, I think I was in the second grade. My routine was I'd come home and get into my play clothes and play until maybe a couple of hours till dinnertime. But one day I came home, and my mom had a small loom set up for me, and she told me “today you're going to learn how to weave,” she says “you're going to learn how to weave, and after you start weaving, then you can go out and play with your friends when you come back from school”. That was where I sat down, and my fingers touch the warp, and my hands held the comb, my hands opened up the shed with a baton. Those are my earliest memories of weaving. Prior to that we had frequent visits to my paternal grandmother's home, and I vaguely, vaguely remember my paternal grandmother carding wool, working with wool. And then I was started handling that wool, and that's when my paternal grandmother gave me my Navajo name. I was about 5 years old at that time, and she gave me my full Navajo name of TahNibaa Atlo hii gii. TahNibaa Atlo hii gii means “coming into battle with your weaving.” And then maybe two years after that, and maybe a year after that, that's when I started weaving. That's when my first loom was brought before me.
Jo Reed: Was weaving something you loved from the beginning or something that you learned to love?
TahNibaa Naataanii: At 7 years old, I was more interested in watching cartoons and playing with my best friend Marcinda. I was more interested in that. So at seven years old, I didn't really want to learn how to weave, I was resistant to it a little. And then when we moved to Table Mesa, to my current home now, then of course, I was older, I was about 10 years old, 11 years old, and I started weaving more frequently. And we were not living in the town anymore, so I couldn't just ride my bike down to the school or down to the store, the school is 15 miles from here So we come into the desert at 10 years old. And my mother, and she set up another loom for me, and she started showing me more, I started designing my weavings, and that there at age maybe 10 or 11, I believe I begin to feel that that spiritual connection of the weaving, it was speaking to me, and it became enjoyable, and it wasn't a chore to me, I wasn't resistant anymore. As a matter of fact, I had three older brothers and living on a ranch there's a lot of chores you have to do, we had sheep, we had to herd sheep, and we had horses, and we had no running water, we had to bring the water into the house with a bucket. So when the chores were given out, my chore, my job was to go work, to go do my weaving, and I did not mind that. That was my fun space, my fun time. And I don't think I realized what was happening, I didn't realize that the spiritual connection of the Navajo weaving, the magnitude of it, what it was doing to me. And when I was about 13 years old, when I became a young woman, I had a sacred ceremony to celebrate that, and in that ceremony weaving songs were sung for me, and my weaving tools were in there also in my ceremony. So that particular ceremony I believe is kind of the forefront also of me, TahNibaa Atlo hii gii, TahNibaa the weaver, how weaving stayed in my life, the spirit of the weaving.
Jo Reed: You made the decision to join the military. How old were you then, and what made you take that decision?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Well, I was very young. I was just 17, 18 years old. I had just turned 18 years old, and I also graduated at that time. I wasn't interested in college, I know I didn't want to go to college. And what I thought, what I wanted to do was to weave about 10 weavings and sell them and buy a Harley Davidson and go to Rocky Boy, Montana. Of course, at 18 you have no knowledge of maturity, you don't really have a knowledge of maturity. And my father, --I often think of it as laying down the law to me. He just made it very clear to me that I needed to get a job, and I needed to start providing for my own self. And he told me, you like to travel, I know you want to travel, you like to travel, perhaps the military, the Navy's the one I think you would go traveling if you want to travel, he said. And right away I thought about it, and I just thought about the Caribbean, I don't know <laughs>, I just thought about a blue ocean, a turquoise shore, and palm trees. That's what I thought about, and then I thought the Navy would be the one to get me there. and I joined the military then,
Jo Reed: And you remained in the military for five years? Is that correct?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yes. Actually about 15 years.
Jo Reed: Oh, sorry.
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yeah, I did four years of active duty where I was stationed on a ship. And then after my active duty time I stayed connected with the military as a reservist, as a Naval Reservist. So that's where my other years comes in, my 11 years of reserve duty.
Jo Reed: But I know you didn't weave for five years, but you were really drawn to it in various markets as you traveled throughout the world. And you've spoken about a really important moment in the Philippines, and I'd like to just share that if you don't mind.
TahNibaa Naataanii: So I was stationed on a ship, and our living quarters are very small. You have like a two feet by six feet rack that's your sleeping area, and underneath that rack is where you store your clothes, and you might be lucky to have a small locker. And so my weaving-- it did stop for a moment. And so when I was in the military, of course, I was meeting many different people, many people from different nations. And then we went on a western Pacific cruise for six months, and we went to the Philippines to a port called Subic Bay, and the town is called Olongapo. And our ship stayed there for about a month and a half. And I grew lonely, I could feel the distance. And I always remember my father, my late father, telling me no matter where you are, every day the holy people they cross the universe, and they see you, they recognize you. And I was so lonely, and on a Saturday, I went out to the market. I went out to the market, and I was walking about just looking at products. Then I saw these ladies selling woven items made out of palm leaves, and they were like purses, coin purses, hats, placemats, they were just a lot of those woven goods, and then all of a sudden I just started touching all of them. And they couldn't speak English, and of course I can't speak Tagalog, that's the name of one of their dialects, and I couldn't speak that, but I touched every weaving, and it was so comforting to me. And I tell them “I'm a weaver, I know about this, I'm a weaver too.”
Jo Reed: When you left the military, you eventually ended up going to school in Santa Fe for environmental management. And you were weaving during this time. But when you were done with school you decided you were going to weave full time.
TahNibaa Naataanii: Right.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about that decision?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Right, right. While in Santa Fe, halfway through my schooling I begin to weave again, I begin to have the interest to learn more about hand spinning. I learned how to card wool, I learned how to spin, and it was like side by side, and the more I got into hand spinning and dyeing woo,l by the time I finished my school I was afraid because I knew deeply that it's possible I might not work in my field of study, what I've been studying to be, because the weaving was too great, was too strong, was talking to me, was just living within me more and more. And when I graduated, I graduated and I was working part time for the state environment department, and my weaving was talking to me, and I couldn't ignore it. I couldn't ignore it. And then right around that time also, my mom and my dad retired from ranching. They said, “you kids, my brothers and my sister, we're handing over the ranching duties to you.” And I took that as a message to come back home. And I missed home also. However, I know I was taking a risk because coming back to over here there's really no jobs, there's not too many jobs available, but I took that risk. I took that risk, and I'm glad I did, I trusted that, and this is my destiny, it is my destiny what I'm doing. I'm weaving full time, and I'm living as close as I can as being a traditional Dine woman, a traditional Navajo woman.
Jo Reed: You do this holistically. You're raising the sheep, you're shearing the sheep, you're dyeing the wool, you're carting it, you're weaving it. Can you tell me a little bit about the dynamic of that whole process?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Well, yes. For me being a rancher because I've gone to college and I've studied some about the environment, about how delicate our desert is now, and I can understand climate change. My responsibility is not only taking care of the sheep in the very best way I can but also taking care of the land. So living holistically with the land and having sheep means also that you have to be aware of what's available out in the desert, the forage, the availability of water, and it helps you to not be greedy. It helps you to be humble, to be able to understand that it's okay to reduce your flock. It's okay to do that, and we have to do that now more than ever. And so also with the sheep they help you become strong. You become strong because you have to shear them in the springtime. Sometimes you shear them twice a year, because the kind of sheep I have-- their fleece can grow up to a foot, can grow 12 inches. It's hard work. It's not easy work, but it's rewarding. I'm very lucky that my late father comes from another community. I live in Sanostee community. That's where my mom is from. Right next to our community is Toadlena, and that's where my dad was from, and in the summertime for the past 40 years that's where we would take the sheep up to the mountains for the summer. And now I don't believe a lot of people have that luxury. And so we follow that cycle. When the summer comes it's too hot here in the summer, so we'll shear the sheep in April or May, then middle of June we'll head to the mountains and stay in the mountains for about two to three months, and then we'll come back down maybe September, maybe August. Really, it’s is dependent upon the weather.
Jo Reed: What is it about Dine weaving that's distinctive? How is it distinctive?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yeah. Our weaving was created for us. The whole construction of the loom was created by the Spider Man and Spider Woman deities and the other holy deities. They used part of the universe to construct the loom, and when they did that, they created songs. So, a Navajo loom has a lot of spiritual, universal relations. The warp represents rain, and it represents our life, and the tension cord represents lightning. The top of the loom represents the sky, our Father Sky, and the bottom represents our Mother Earth. The corners of the loom represent our mountains. The weaving comb represents White Shell. So there's songs that were made when these items were created, and that's why this way of work, this skill is very spiritual. The skill is very sacred. This weaving has a heartbeat, and you have to give it respect.
Jo Reed: Can we talk a bit about how your weaving has evolved over time?
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yeah. I used to weave regional patterns. The Navajo twill weavings is a pattern that's developed by a sequence of numbers and of pulling so many warps forward and pulling so many warps back to create diamonds, to create double-weave, to create zigzags, to create intricate, tiny diamonds. But when I decided "I'm gonna do weaving full-time"-- my relationship to my weaving became very special, and in the beginning I used to want everything so perfect, sometimes the weaving, it wants to go in on the sides, and you want to pull those out, and the more I tried to correct it to make it perfect, seems like the more the spirit of the weaving showed me that it didn't want to be that, and what my experience told me is the weaving has a heartbeat, and I don't do all this alone. I'm in partnership with this work, and so I have to respect that. And because of that surrender, that acknowledgement on my part, I'm able to receive just a tremendous blessing from it and create in patterns that aren't regional styles that help also to inspire my fellow community, my fellow weavers across the whole Navajo Nation to see and get inspired and say "Wow, I can do something like that" and to be very expressive. There's a powerful energy with it that-- it feeds you.
Jo Reed: You're also bringing your own creative process to it. You're open to the magic and spirituality of it, but you meet it with your own creativity. You incorporate other fibers into your work, for example, so I'm curious about that creative process and how ideas come to you.
TahNibaa Naataanii: A lot of my ideas come in different forms. Sometimes they come in dreams. Sometimes I see patterns in nature, or sometimes I see like a hand-felted art piece that I'll want to create a weaving that has a movement like that or the landscape. I'll have weavings where a customer wants a certain weaving, and I've gone to their home and I've looked at their artwork and taken photographs and come home and look at those photographs now and then and when it feels right, I'll start sketching something. And so taking time and allowing those designs to come. I'm very curious also about how different fibers work, how they behave, how they weave. I didn't realize, but every fiber creates a different sheen, creates a different texture, and now I'm fascinated about texture, and you don't see that in Navajo weaving. But I'm very secure to still weave Navajo-style and put texture in it. I've developed that security over the years because that's part of the creativity.
Jo Reed: I think you might've answered this. You're a weaver, and you're also an advocate, and you're building cultural knowledge both in your community and in the wider world. I'd like you to talk about how and why you began this work, and you're really devoted to this.
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yes, yes. I'm devoted to it… there's different reasons, and a very special reason I do it is the balance that it brings me, there's a beautiful spirituality with it. There's a medicine with it that helps me to be strong, to not be bored, to be able to get into a zone, a creative space so weaving is kind of like my prayer. I need my weaving, and this way of life of being a rancher, of having to go out every morning and breathe that cold air, to throw some hay for my sheep or having to go to the waterhole. We're living in such a changing time right now, and our culture, our way of life is in danger. And it's my hope that my community see how I'm raising sheep and see that there is a way to do it holistically to help heal the land, because the land goes hand-in-hand with our culture, with our traditional beliefs.
Jo Reed: You've been a mentor to a number of apprentices, and I wonder what you try to impart to them. Clearly healing the land has been part of the process, but how do you approach your work with mentees?
TahNibaa Naataanii: When I have an apprentice and I'm a mentor to them, I become their student as well. I don't think that I'm the only one teaching them. I'm open to learn from them too. A nd one of the first things I tell them is "I like to enhance what you know, and I'll help you to blossom it, and I'm also here to learn from you.” And I try to share with them the love I experience with my work, the excitement, the exuberance, the magic in washing the wool, in carting the wool, in spinning the wool, in weaving, in herding the sheep, in shearing the sheep, in feeding the sheep. There's many different aspects of feeling the richness of this way of life.
Jo Reed: You've participated in quite a few cultural exchange programs, and I wonder if there was any one that was particularly memorable to you.
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yeah. I think the one that was memorable for me is when we did a three-generation cultural exchange to Laos, and it was my mother, myself and my daughter. And we went to the villages just to see their weaving, and then we took our weaving too, and we gave them workshops to let them see how we weave. They spun cotton, which is a short fiber, and they spun it so easy. They are just like some professionals using whatever they had on hand. They created a little spindle mechanism with a tire rim, and we took our Navajo spindle, and I think the amazement between the two cultures-- the amazement—is what was neat to see. Even though we live miles, oceans apart and different languages, different cultures, but we have a common language, and that's fiber and weaving and spinning. That's our language, and I think as I'm where I'm at I believe that's a universal language, and whether I go to Africa, South America, Croatia, if we get fiber people together, we all know that language, and that is an honor. That is an honor.
Jo Reed: And I think that is a great place to leave it. TahNibaa, so many congratulations, and thank you for giving me your time.
TahNibaa Naataanii: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. I'm glad we were able to do this, and interviews like this, it helps me too. It's also medicine for me to hear myself and the love I have.
Jo Reed: It's lovely to hear too That was 2022 National Heritage Fellow and Diné Textile Artist and Weaver TahNibaa Naataainii. Please look at some of her work online at Arts.gov—where you can also see a short video about TahNibba, her work, and her way of life. And while you’re at arts.gov, check out the documentary Roots of American Culture—a film about TahNibaa and all of the 2022 National Heritage Fellows. You won’t want to miss it. You’ve been listening to You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us on Apple Podcasts I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.