Gilbert Maxwell’s book Navajo Rugs, Past, Present and Future, which was published in 1963, was my first introduction to reading about Navajo weaving. I was 20 years old and had heard my dad give speeches about weaving many times. My sister and I had grown up around weaving, so I had a basic understanding of the art form.
But I really didn’t have a clue about its history.
In 1970 I had just finished a temporary job at the Durango Herald as the Sports Editor and had to find something to do over the summer until I went back to school at the University of Colorado.
I took a job at KIUP-AM, the local radio station, selling advertising. The manager’s idea was that I would go to places where they did not receive the radio station and sell businesses on the idea that as people drove through Durango, they would hear about these attractions in other towns that they were headed to and it would create business.
Now, I probably could make that work today, but back then I didn’t do so well. After calling on about a dozen businesses in Ouray, Colorado (The Switzerland of America) and being rejected, I walked into a Native American art store called The Hogan.
The owner, Jack Gibson, was very friendly and said no to me in a nice way. I asked him why they didn’t have any Navajo rugs for sale in the store and he replied, “I’d love to, but we sold all of the ones we had and none of the traveling traders are carrying them and I don’t have time to go to the reservation.”
I told him I’d be back that afternoon. I drove to Durango, quit my job at KIUP and went to my Dad’s showroom in the front of the Durango Pepsi plant. I asked him how much he would pay me to wholesale his rugs, which was really the only way he sold them back then.
He said he’d pay me ten percent. I had a small car, so I borrowed my mom’s Plymouth Fury convertible, which had a huge back seat and trunk, loaded it up and headed to Ouray.
This is where Gilbert Maxwell’s book comes in. I grabbed a copy as I left the showroom and on the way to Ouray, I basically skimmed it, stopping to read important parts. I am absolutely embarrassed that I did such a stupid thing and forever grateful I didn’t hurt someone or drive off of Red Mountain Pass, but I must have had an angel on my shoulder.
I got to Ouray and Jack bought $3000 worth of Navajo rugs! That put $300 in my pocket and I was hooked. About a week later, I called the office and my dad’s secretary said, “You mom really wants her car back!”
So that was how I sold my first rug, and I can promise you I read Gilbert Maxwell’s book dozens of times after that. It is full of little gems, but back then, one of the things that just stuck in my mind was that only about half of the weavings that are woven can be pinned to a certain weaving area. The rest of them are just general pattern Navajo rugs, which doesn’t make them any less of a weaving.
There were nearly 300 establishments on and around the reservation that dealt with the Navajo people and only a couple of dozen were active in creating unique weaving styles.
There were a lot of nice weavings made that didn’t fit in any mold. Some have elements from one area or another, everyone borrowed patterns from everyone else, but they are really individual efforts.
I thought it would be fun to just feature a few of those today. And, if you can find a copy of Gilbert Maxwell’s book, I definitely recommend it!