The Burnham weaving style would never have evolved without the determination of Anna Mae Barber. She is the oldest of five sisters, Marie, Alice, Helen and Sandy who created the weaving style. When their mother died, she took on the responsibility of raising the younger girls and taught them to weave. Anna Mae passed away five years ago. She left a legacy of kindness and determination and love. She was an amazing woman.
Anna Mae Barber and Family
She spoke no English and lived a life of incredible hardship. Her husband died in 1970 and left her with eight children.
They lived in a home they built themselves in an area with no electricity (she got that a few years before she died), no water (they hauled water in 55 gallon drums) and she heated and cooked with a coal stove that her church gave her. She and her sons dug the coal out of seams in the ground. She loved her sheep and when her husband died, she supported the whole family with her weaving.
Her rugs were works of love. About 15 years ago she had a heart attack. When she recovered she went right back to weaving.In the end, her kids became her support. Her three daughters are all weavers and great mothers and share the same positive outlook on life that Anna Mae had.
Anna Mae with her Early Burnham Style Weaving
Meals on Wheels from Medicaid started bringing her a daily meal with fresh vegetables and low calories. She had electricity and heat and her family around her. By American middle-class standards, her life may not have looked great, but from a life of not having enough food, having to struggle every day, it became pretty good. She was a happy and vibrant lady. Everyone always looked forward to her bringing her rugs to the gallery.
Burnham, where she lived, may seem like an isolated and desolate place unless you know and feel that country. It is one of the most beautiful places I know. The wide vistas, the beautiful open sky, the sheep grazing watched over by the sheep dogs, the quiet breezes with Shiprock and the Lukachukai mountains in the distance make this a special place.
When I visited her, it was easy to see all the sisters and their families at the same time, as they all lived within a few miles of each other. Not long after Anna Mae’s heart attack, I decided to drive out to the reservation to check on her. When I got there, her son told me that she had taken the sheep to the spring.
“Which way is it?” I asked. “I’ll walk and meet her.”“
I don’t think you want to do that,” he replied. “It’s about five miles.”
This was a tough and determined lady! I had my cowboy boots on and it’s rough country, so I agreed and went to see Marie before coming back. Anna Mae had just returned when I got there and looked radiant! She was showing me the new sheep she had and was just beaming with that special smile. She was a happy woman.
When she died in 2015, my sister Antonia and I headed out to the funeral. We had never been to the church at Burnham, although I had seen the sign pointing down a small road that pointed south. It was a snowy day and the mud was axle deep. Howard and Judy Rowe, friends of her family from Bayfield, had made the trip as well, and we were both glad we had four-wheel drive! The road to the church wound around for a couple of miles and Antonia’s truck powered through. The closer we got to the church, the more cars there were on the road. When we pulled into the parking lot, it was packed. It really amazed me that in this area, where you can seldom see more than a couple of homes from anywhere, hundreds of people had come to pay their respects.
Antonia Clark at Anna Mae's Funeral Service
The only reason I am writing this is that the minister said a couple of things that day that stuck with me. The first was, “Anna Mae is in a better place today, she doesn’t have to deal with the mud!” and the 220 people who had slogged through it that day laughed.
“But really, it is just another day and no day in the Lord’s eyes is a bad day. Every day, no matter how hard it is or how easy it is, is an opportunity to grow and a reason to celebrate the miracle of life. What a miracle it is to be alive! It is what we do with the day that is important.”
And then he talked about her weaving. On a Navajo loom, the weft threads are passed in between the warp threads and then, using a wooden comb, the weaver beats the weft threads down. The rhythm of the beating comb is like a drumbeat. Here is what he said:
“Anna Mae’s loom was set up at the end of her bed. She would sit on a low chair and slowly put the threads in and out between the warps and then beat them down. Over and over, she would put small threads into the weaving and then beat them down.
“Weaving is exactly like life. It will, over and over, beat you down. But if you know where you are going, if you keep your mind on what you want and you keep working the threads of life in the direction you are going, the beating will make you stronger, just like the rug, and you will end up with a masterpiece. It’s where you are going that is important, not where you are.
”She was a special person. I am grateful to have known her!
Anna Mae Barber with her Last Weaving
We recently received one of her weavings that had been in the collection of Harold Tregent, a legendary dealer from Estes Park, Colorado. It’s woven with the hand spun wool from her sheep and dyed with a vegetal dye she created from the Rabbit Brush around her home. It was woven at least 20 years ago. Just seeing that rug made me think of the minister’s words. She was a masterpiece.