Paul Begay interview excerpts for Voices of the Colorado Plateau web exhibit
Tape 1, side A
I was born--my mother belonged to the Gap-in-the-Rock Clan, the Tsédeeshgizhnii clan. The Navajo society, we are made up of a matrilineal clanship system, meaning that we will carry on our mother's clan. So all my brothers and sisters, we carry on our mother's clan. I was born for my father's clan, the Deer Water Clan, Biihbitoo’nii. In the Navajo way of thinking, Dad is just a visitor to our home, so we teasingly refer to Dad as our "in-law," because Dad is married to Mom, who is the same clan as I am. We tell Dad to go get a job and support us. There's a lot of teasing going on. It's a way of life in the Navajo society.
So I was born for the Deer Water Clan. In the Navajo way, we're told that in order to know who you are, you must know four clans. Because it's a matrilineal clanship system, I must also know my maternal grandfather's clan, my mother's father's clan. He belonged to the Bitter Water Clan, the Tódích’íi’nii. My mother's mother's clan is the same clan. I already know that, because it's a matrilineal clanship. Mom carries on her mother's clan. I must also know my paternal grandfather's clan--my dad's father's clan. His clan will be different. Dad's mother's clan are the same, because he carries on his mother's clan. My father's father's clan, my paternal grandfather's clan, was from the Towering House Clan, Kinyaa’áanii. So in order to know who I am, I must know these four clans. Name is irrelevant. Name doesn't really mean anything to the Navajo society. In order to identify yourself to another person, who you are, these four clans we share. In this way you know who you are, and who the other person is, and you greet each other accordingly. He might be a brother, a father, a mother, a cousin--that's the way you get to know each other. So in identifying myself, I will tell this person my four clans. I am of the Gap-in-the-Rock Clan, born for the Deer Water Clan. My maternal grandfather belongs to the Bitter Water Clan, and my paternal grandfather belongs to the Towering House Clan. Now he knows who I am, and when he tells me his four clans, I will know who he is, and we greet each other.
And so we became sheepherders at a very young age. Of course our father, grandfather, or older brother will accompany us in the beginning. But that will not last forever. You're expected to become a sheepherder at a very young age, and you go out on your own. Eventually, you will be joined by other brothers. This is not to say that only the boys herd sheep--the girls also will do that. There are cases where only the girls are born into the family, so they become sheepherders. But most of the time, the girls' chores will be at home--preparation of meals, the wool projects, the weaving--those are taught the child, the young girls at home. And so they stay with the mother and the grandmother, and their teaching and their learning is done at home. And so as young boys, we're out there herding sheep all day.
I remember my grandfather telling me that the sheepherding process is an all-day job. He would stand to the west, and with two fingers, go like this, sideways. "You do not head home until there's two left," he says. Meaning that this is the land, and this is the bottom part of the sun. And so this is the time when you will head home. That will give you enough time to take the sheep back home, put 'em into the corral, the sun has set and you've done your job. You will not be heading home when the sun is still up. There's a lot of grazing time left. You're wasting that full day here. So these were the teachings given to us by our old people. This is the way to herd the sheep. You had learned how to identify certain plants. In case you didn't eat, you can dig up a certain type of a plant, and chew on the roots, drink the juice and the hunger will go away, so that you can last the rest of the day. These are the things that is taught the young child.
[skip a little after Underhill asks another question]
...in the springtime, that would be time for shearing the sheep, taking the wool off. The women there will be helping the men. Very seldom will you see men and women working together, but this is the time when the whole family will be working together. So a lot of shearing is done, bagging them, getting them ready for the trading posts. A lot of the wool will be set aside, and they will save those for their own rug-making. They will go through the washing process, the preparations, the dying, the carding, the spinning, and all through what will become a rug, which will eventually be sold to the trading post. But others in bulk form, in bags, will be taken like that to the trading post. Back in my younger days, when I was a small child, I remember we only had wagons with a team of horses, and being that we lived about twenty-five, thirty miles west of the nearest trading post, Dinnebito Trading Post, it took at least a whole day to travel there and back. You had to make your purchase, I guess, pretty quick, so that you can beat the sun. But many times I remember the sun had set and they would come back, our families would come back. But wool would be sacked, and they would put it on the wagons and they would take it. And there the wool was sold. Back in those days, a couple bags of wool will buy you a lot of stuff. That was the way it was.
When a sheep is butchered, the skin is saved. It is stretched and pinned down on the ground to dry. After it dries, it's all rolled up so at times you might have nine, ten, eleven sheepskins all rolled up. These were even taken to the trading posts to be sold. And a couple of these sheepskins, that was my spending money for me, because I did a lot of herding sheep. And many times when a sheep is butchered, I would save it and put it up there on top of the arbor shade, save it for the next trip to the trading post. And if I have two or three of 'em there with me, that would give me a ticket to go to the trading post also. It was something to look forward to. All the other times, if I didn't have a sheepskin up there, my job is to go out there and herd the sheep. But when I had a couple of those sheepskins, I knew that I could take it to the store, take it to the trading post, Mom and Dad will sell it, or my grandfather would sell it for me, and I would get the money. And I don't quite remember, I think it was always like kid stuff, something sweet that you wanted to buy, or something that will last a long time, that you kept in your pocket.
Of course, Navajos are not community-oriented people. There's clans living together. Our group of clan consisted of probably about five or six hogans, dwellings, and that made our big family there. Mom and Dad and the kids, my brothers and sisters and I, we had our own hogan. And aunt and uncle over here had their own hogan. Grandpa and Grandma, they had their own hogan. So we all lived in this small area. And being that they're not a community-oriented people, the next group of clans lived maybe four or five miles away. So they were bunched up like this, many miles away. Of course there's visitations, people keep in contact, but your families stay together like this.
Ceremonies is done all the time on the Reservation. And so what they began to do was buy these fabrics, and they began to use it in the ceremonies. They would have this patient...Towards the conclusion of the ceremony on the last night, they would fold these blankets, fabrics, within about one yard square, and the patient will sit on top of that, and the singing and the prayers go on all night. At the conclusion of the ceremony in the morning, the patient gets up and the medicine man rolls this fabric and the blankets together and he puts it on his horse, ties it on the back his saddle, and he rides off. It's used as part of the payment for the job or the service rendered. And so that became a common practice.
Now, when we got into the education system, I read a book, and I was told by people in the education world, that the Navajos were not weavers at all, and that they had learned this art from the Pueblo Indians. And so one day I went home and I told my grandmother, I said "We were told that we learned this art of weaving, this culture, from the Pueblo Indians. Kiis’ áanii bits’ ‘áádéé’, from the Pueblos." And she told me (chuckles), anything that she disagrees with, or anything that my grandfather disagrees with, he or she will correct you, sit you down right then and there and correct you, and tell [you] their version. Because of the strong belief in the mythology story, my grandmother sat me down there, and she told me that a long time ago in the mythology stories it is told where we learned the art of weaving. It was not from the Pueblo Indians. She says that like many Indian tribes, the earth is our mother, and the sky is our father, and everything that exists, like I said before, is related to us—crawling creatures, the winged beings, the four-legged creatures, the plants, the trees, the mountains, the valleys, the waters, the air, the darkness, the light, the sun, the moon. They're all related to us. "And so one day," she says, "the sun came up, our father the sun came up." Back in the mythology world there was only holy beings existed on earth, and one day the sun spoke. And the sun spoke and he says, "Why is it that I travel many miles, many distances each day, and I give you the light and I give you the warmth, but when I set in the west, I spend my lonely nights by myself? I need somebody to be with me, be my companion, to spend my nights with." And so the holy people came together. Now, before these holy people came together, there among them was this spiritual woman. They called the spiritual woman Changing Woman. Now, this woman became a woman. Before she became a woman, she was called White Shell Woman. Now, there was a white mountain. In the Navajo mythology or the cultural teachings, you have four sacred mountains: the white shell in the east, the turquoise mountain in the south, the abalone in the west, and the obsidian, the jet, in the north. And the Reservation is within these four sacred mountains. During that time in the mythology world, in the beginning, they saw to the east a mountain, this white shell mountain, and there were many mountains around it. One particular mountain had a cloud hovering on top. And so the holy people got up in the morning and they heard a child cry, and they didn't understand where.... It appears that the crying of this child was coming from this mountain that had this particular cloud hovering on top, floating on top. So the holy people went there, and sure enough, they found a child there. Seems to be abandoned. They looked around, they didn't find anybody around. The spirits spoke to them, and it was a gift to the holy people. They picked up the child and they took it back down to where they lived. Because the child did not belong to anybody, it didn't have a mother or father, the holy people helped each other and they raised the child until she reached the age of puberty, and a puberty ceremony was done for the child, this little girl, this young girl. At the end of the four-day ceremony, the conclusion of the ceremony, she became a woman, so they changed her name from White Shell Woman to Changing Woman. Now it appeared when the sun spoke to them, that the sun requested a companion. The holy people thought spiritually, "Oh, this is why the child was sent to us. It was meant to be this way, that we send this woman, who's now called Changing Woman, to be with the sun." So the Changing Woman was sent to the west to be with the sun. There, they had a spiritual union. From this spiritual union it resulted in the birth of two boys, twins, one called Monster Slayer, the other called Child Born of the Water. But they had one main reason for being born, these two boys. The reason was that they will travel on Navajo land and they will kill off all the monsters that should not exist in today's world. There were many monsters, enemies, that preyed on the people, the Navajo. And their job was to do away with all these bad creatures. One day they were doing their job, and they were walking down this valley and they heard somebody singing, a beautiful voice coming from afar. And they looked in that direction, but they didn't see anybody, so they began to follow the sound. And the closer they got, the singing became louder and louder, but they still couldn't see anybody, until they came upon a hole in the ground. They looked down there, and sure enough, there was somebody down there. There was a woman, and the woman was weaving a rug. The boys quietly knelt down, and they looked down there, and they watched. The woman was happy, that's why she was singing. She was happy because she just had a little piece to go to complete her weaving on the rug. The boys watched. The woman completed her weaving, she took the rug off the loom, and she walked in that direction. And the direction that she walked away, a line followed her. "So, my grandson," my grandmother says, "When you look at a spider web somewhere, in your home or someplace, look closely, and if you don't see a spider there, you'll see a line, the direction that the spider departed. That's why when you make a rug, in one corner of the weave, there should be a line that comes out to the end of the rug, we call the spirit line. That is to pay tribute, to honor the Spider Woman that we learned how to weave from. It was not the Pueblo Indians we learned how to weave from, it was the Spider Woman. Therefore, the line should always exist in an enclosed--(draws a square with his hands) [In] a rug with a border, there should be a line that comes out. When you leave this line out, that means that you will leave your mind open to think of new designs. If you don't leave the line in there, you close the rug, then you've enclosed your mind, and you will have a hard time thinking of new designs. New techniques, new designs will be gone. And so this is the reason why the line should be there." So it is the Spider Woman, this is the spiritual woman that we learned how to weave from.
Now, being that the belief among the weavers is that we learned from the spiritual woman, she don't need no measuring device. She, beforehand, understands what kind of a rug she will begin to weave, and she will begin to weave--run the wool back and forth, the strands of yarn and the wool, back and forth, and she begins to weave. What they have, the intricate designs, all these, they are usually identical. From this side, if this rug was one piece here, it would be the same as it is over here. I can never understand how my mother does that. She weaves from the bottom all the way to the top. When she completes the weave, a rug something like this (gestures toward rug on the wall behind him) with a very intricate design, I fold it in half when she completes it, and it's exactly half and half. And sometimes I will get a straight pin, and maybe put a straight pin right here (again gestures toward rug behind him), and maybe another one right in the middle of this diamond here, and another one maybe right in the middle of this grey area here, fold it, half and half. Then I turn it around, when I turn it around, it's exactly where I placed it on the other side. Now how does that happen? For the weaver, it's the power of the spiritual woman, the Spider Woman, that makes it happen. This is the way they think when they're weaving. The only measuring thing that I see when my mom is weaving, is she'll be weaving and she'd use her hands. "Oh, it's about three [hand spans] there, three there," and she'd go back and forth, and that's her only measuring device, is her hand. But it's not determined. When I wanted to draw a rug, I get out a ruler or a yardstick, get out a piece of paper, and I measure it out. This is the way a lot of people understand. They think that the Indian people do this. But the weaver just begins to weave. How does it happen? By the power of the spirit of the Spider Woman.