A Posting by Sam Slater, Emerging Artisan
“Sam, does this road look familiar to you?” Christine yelled back from the driver’s seat to the passengers of the rattling van that traveled along the spider web of dirt roads that extend out from the Newcomb Chapter House. I nodded my head despite the fact that while I had offered my services as navigator, I had never actually visited the Toadlena Trading Post before. By way of Narbona Pass, we had crossed the Chuska Mountains—the backbone of our Nation that separates the stateliness of Arizona and New Mexico—on our class’ search for remnants of the trading post era that once dominated the Navajo economy.
This road, an arm off of old Route 666, sparked my imagination as I began visualizing shimásaniyéé, Ruth Roessel, riding her horse to the Round Rock Trading Post, where she first caught the eye of my cheiiyee. The focal point of the story practically materialized before my eyes with the emergence of our sandstone Shangri-La from amidst the area’s namesake grey foothills.
Arriving at the Toadlena Trading post, I felt as if we had transcended time and space. Between the ladies hand spinning wool by the coal-burning stove, the floor-to-ceiling stacks of rugs, and the collection of century-old saddle blankets, it didn’t take long to realize we were someplace special. A sign reading “Toadlena is to Navajo rugs what Paris is to Haute Couture” didn’t hurt to hammer in that point either. In fact, it seemed that my day dreams of an era of filled with horses hitched in front of trading posts fit perfectly with the theme of Toadlena’s museum exhibit, “Saddle Up!”
Just behind the meat counter now used to display weaving tools, stood a wondrous collection of fifty or so saddle blankets from as far back as 1850. Despite being in theory utilitarian weavings, (despite the lack of wear), these weavings were aptly called “Sunday best blankets.”
The guiding influences of the traders were very much still evident in several of the other style weavings located on the far side of the trading post. So much so that I could pick up elements mirrored in the Persian rugs of shinálíí asdzaaniyee’s home in New York. My paternal grandmother’s travels throughout the world filled her home by way of the many treasures she brought home with her, including rugs from the Near East - batik tapestries from Indonesia and Navajo rugs woven by my maternal grandmothers. This background made it all the easier to connect how weavers incorporated global design elements into their Navajo aesthetic, contributing to and absorbing strands of Navajo beliefs in the process.
Other rugs, especially those with the richly dyed Germantown wool, transported me back to the Navajo Nation, specifically, to my maternal grandmother’s stories of learning to ride horses without a bridle and only a saddle blanket, if she were lucky. The manner in which she would tell these stories also seemed to transcend time as one minute she would be swaddled in a cradleboard and the next she would be wrapped around a saddle blanket a top a horse, as if she went from an immobile infant to a child riding horse back with not even a baby step in between.