by Linda Myers
(note: This piece was written for the September 2011 ANE newsletter. Weaving Wild Horses is the theme for this year's rug show to be held in Park City in November. The inspiration for the theme came from the Whitehair family who are described in this article.)
In the Native cultures, the horse has always been honored for bravery and grace. The horse is a soul mate and a comrade.
Most native cultures decorated their horses by beading bridles. The Navajo made turquoise and silver bridles as well as beautiful saddle blankets. In the early 1930's some of the weavers started making handspun rugs depicting the horses, sheep, and cattle. I began asking weavers about seven years ago if they had ever woven any rugs with horses, sheep, or cattle. Most of the Elders replied that they wove the more traditional designs.
When you meet someone like Martin Whitehair, you feel not only his love for horses, but a deep sense of the understanding and respect he has for horses. Has trained many horses.
His brother, Wayne, had a beautiful three-year-old golden mustang stallion he named Bucky. Martin felt deeply connected to this horse and began drawing pictures of Bucky and other horses.
Martin and his wife Rena had grown up riding horses and they taught their children to also ride at a very young age. The girls have participated in many horse races. They all seem to share their dad's love and respect for horses.
When I asked Rena and Martin if they could weave a rug with horses in it, Martin said he would draw a horse that Rena could weave into the center of a Chief's Blanket. The first horse rug had Bucky, the golden mustang in the center of the rug. Rena and Martin then began working on their horse rugs together. For the last few years, they have designed many different one-of-a-kind horse rugs.
Rena began weaving when she was about seven years old. Her mother, the late Sarah Robertson, taught her how to weave and also told her to weave for a living, not as a hobby. Sarah raised and supported ten children through her weaving.
She told Rena to think of her weaving as a full-time job. Weaving rugs is the only source of income for Rena and her family.
When her daughters were around six years old, she began to mentor three of them to weave beautiful horse rugs and other styles as well. Miriam and Marty have grown up weaving to help with the family's needs. Bobbi Joe is in her teens and likes to weave and help design the rugs, while Marklyn and Israel, her only son, are up-and-coming weavers.
I have great respect for Rena and Martin and their family. It is very challenging to carry on the traditional way of life in the modern world today.
Rena also weaves many other styles of Navajo rugs - Storm Pattern, Two Greyhills, Ganado, Pictorials, and the Tree of Life.
This last year she has been working on Blue Canyon design rugs that are very intricately detailed. One of the featured rugs that will be in the rug show is a beautiful Blue Canyon rug with a golden mustang.
Each of the girls has been working on their own designs of horse rugs for the opening night of the show when several will be auctioned.
Martin and Rena are both very humble as they share about their work. Martin states, "We were not brought up to speak about ourselves or to share what our personal goals were. ". Each of these horse rugs they are weaving for the show comes from a deep place in their hearts.
It is very moving in my life to see what came from a desire to see horses woven into rugs again and to watch the rugs become beautiful stories of a family's love for horses.
Someone asked me once, "What is your most favorite rug? You've sold so many in the last 25 years." I have watched many of them weave rugs just to sell for food, but the rugs I enjoy most are the ones you feel are a deep part of their lives, and they hold it for a moment before they give it to you for you to take and sell for them. It has a story of their lives woven into each day, and you feel that release of themselves.
I want to thank Rena and Martin and their family for creating these rugs. And to all the weavers who are trying to weave horse rugs and make it a part of the show, I feel their trust and love and their desire to challenge themselves.
It has been a beautiful journey to this year's show.