For many years, regional weavings have continued to change and evolve, but still within the recognized regional guidelines. In the late 1970's, a group of five sisters from the Burnham area on the Navajo Nation began a new journey in the history of Navajo weaving. They began to combine patterns and designs from all of the weaving areas, along with pictorial elements and patterns of their own. When their mother, Priscilla Begay, passed away, it became the responsibility of Anna Mae, the oldest sister (carding wool in photo at left), with the help of the next oldest, Marie, to raise Alice, Helen and Sandy.
As young adults, they realized that the only way to make a living and remain living on the reservation was by weaving. They did not want to weave according to the "rules" of traditional weavings. The sisters won't say which of them began their new designs. No longer were they required to match their patterns end to end, no longer did every weaving have to have a border on all sides, and no longer were their patterns repeated. They began to experiment and combine patterns from across the reservation, sometimes covering one pattern with another and sometimes creating entirely new ones. Alice was the first to depict women holding rugs from different areas over their arms - becoming literally two or three styles in one weaving. They also decided to use natural hand spun wool (cleaned wool below right; Marie spinning below left), for they realized this would set them apart.
Because they had a limited number of sheep, they obtained sheared fleeces from Utah State University, where a program is in the process of rebuilding herds of the original Navajo sheep, the Churro. This breed can live easily in the desert southwest and provides wonderful strong, long wool which can be finely spun. Churro wool was used to create many of the great wearing blankets the Navajo wove in the 1800's. Virtually eliminated during war and government sheep population control experiments, the breed is being brought back by private breeders and the program at Utah State. We are fortunate to be able to acquire this wool and give it to the Burnham weavers for their wonderful rugs. The sisters dye this wool, using both aniline and natural dyes - plants, minerals, tea, walnuts and even potpourri! Initially, the Burnham weavers experienced considerable opposition from traditional thinkers.
Fortunately, Jackson Clark, II, saw these weavings for the exceptional new art they are, and purchased the weavings the sisters brought to our gallery. The first years their pieces were entered in the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial, they weren't judged because they didn't fit into any particular category. Later, the Intertribal established a category for Natural Hand Spun Wool, and these women win it nearly every year.
The Burnham weavers have grown in number, although it is still primarily a family affair. Anna Mae's daughters, Laverne, Lorraine and Bessie, and Marie's daughters, Theresa and Julia, soon began to follow the lead and experimented with their patterns. Recently, Bernall, Alice's daughter, and Ursula, Sandy's daughter, have been bringing weavings to the gallery.
Today many people copy their work and many do it well. But unlike traditional patterned weavings, their designs are constantly changing and evolving. The Burnham weavers have carried Navajo weaving to a unique level of fine art.