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Book Review: A New Deal for Navajo Weaving: Reform and Revival of Diné Textiles

by Rhiannon Sorrell on 2023-11-22T14:38:55-07:00 in Art, Diné Studies, Native American Studies | 0 Comments

Written By Dr. Christine Ami, School of Business and Social Science, Originally published in Tribal College Journal

A New Deal for Navajo Weaving (2022) investigates Diné textile revitalization programs during the New Deal era, a period in which assimilationist goals clashed with federal, philanthropic, and religious efforts to perpetuate Native American cultural arts practices. Caught within the storm, Diné weavers, sheep, and textiles withstood fluctuations of trader demands, government funding, and non-Diné weaving enthusiasts’ need to define the paramount characteristics of Diné textiles. Throughout, Diné weaving practices endured, albeit with discrepancies regarding what classified as a quality Diné textile and who set those standards.

Contributing to the existing volume of etic Diné weaving studies, Jennifer McLerran offers an approachable read of New Deal-era policies, events, and organizations whose impacts on Diné textile productions and sheep husbandry practices remain traceable today. The most compelling enlightenments include: (1) assessments of initiatives spearheaded by non-Native religious, philanthropic, and government agencies to perpetuate Diné weaving; (2) evaluations of the weaving program at Wingate Vocational High School; (3) revelations of the variety of sheep breeds used by Diné weavers, including hybridizations of the Navajo Churro Sheep to produce quality mutton and wool for Diné economic sustainment; (4) presentations of research projects conducted at the Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory identifying desirable characteristics of Diné textiles; and (5) recognition of (unheeded) Diné female weaver voices during curriculum development and criteria establishment of quality Diné textiles.

The book’s connection between Diné weaving and Diné ontology and epistemology is minimal. Rather than interlacing Diné ways of knowing throughout, heavy quotes from master weavers serve as bookends while the text’s core segregates itself from cultural entanglements (with a minor exception to introductory explications of natural dyes). The absence of interwoven associations metaphorizes the New Deal era’s desired goal: preservation of technique but purposeful loss of engaged cultural teachings. Moreover, in attempting to offer a platform for female weavers, this text ignores the existence of male Diné weavers during the New Deal era (or today).

Despite these reproaches, the challenges and ultimately failures of the New Deal-era weaving initiatives that McLerran highlights remain true. Grant and philanthropic funding are temporary, Indigenous fund-receiving entities often fail to prepare successfully for post-award program sustainment, and non-Native supporters of the cultural arts often overstep their roles, pushing for what they believe necessary for Native people. This makes A New Deal for Navajo Weaving a must read, especially for Indigenous STEAM directors of government and philanthropy funded programs, as well as non-Native organizations with missions to perpetuate Indigenous practices. As the former Navajo Cultural Arts Program grant manager, reading this text forced a muchneeded self-assessment of how to respectfully create, implement, and sustain Indigenously grounded curriculum.

Christine M. Ami, PhD (Navajo) is an NEH fellow, author of the blog “Dismembering,” and a professor of Native American studies, Navajo cultural arts, and Indigenous human-animal studies at Diné College.

A New Deal for Navajo Weaving: Reform and Revival of Diné Textiles is available for checkout at the Tsaile Campus Library. The call number is E99.N3 M314 2022. Click here for checkout status and availability. 

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