Reading the unwritten word at Tread of Pioneers

Museum curator will help explain collection of Navajo weavings on Friday

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Those with a pen and the means to publish may have written history, but those who could not leave behind a written record also have stories to tell.

Some of the stories written on the walls of the Tread of Pioneers Museum take an informed eye to decipher. Curator Kelly Bastone will spend the lunch hour Friday helping the public understand what to look for in the museum's collection of Navajo weavings.

The museum's extensive Native Arts collection was donated in 1961 by Farrington and Eunice Carpenter, who acquired it from the Pleasant family. Though the collection spans several tribes not associated with Routt County, museum officials decided it was worth keeping and displaying.

Bastone couldn't be more grateful. When she arrived in Steamboat Springs from a job at the Denver Art Museum, she was amazed to see the size, scope and historical importance of the collection.

"Most towns of this size are not going to have a collection of this value on a national and worldwide scale," Bastone said.

The Navajo weavings she will discuss Friday were made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a very interesting time in the history of the tribe and the textiles they produced, she said.

"The traditional designs were still being used, but the Anglo markets were just starting to have an influence," Bastone said. "Weavers were at the peak of their creativity."

The Navajo people were semi-nomadic sheepherders, and textiles made during this period were deeply connected to the agricultural process.

"There's a lot more (in these weavings) than what's in front of you," Bastone said. "It starts with herding the sheep, then shearing, carding and spinning the wool -- all by hand. They dyed the wool with vegetable and mineral (elements) that had to be gathered."

The artistry in the rugs and blankets was deliberate, but not full of coded symbols that can be easily read.

"There were traditions, but there were also experiments," Bastone said. "They copied things they saw in rugs from Mexico and from American clothing."

Before the late 1800s, change had been slow for the Navajo.

"But with an influx of new people, now they were having their sheep taken away and their land taken away."

Symbols start showing up in the weaving at about this time.

"There is English text in the blankets, even though they couldn't read it. You'll see an 'E' but it will be backward," she said.

Traditional Navajo weaving continues, but most of the wool is factory-spun and chemically dyed. There are similar designs, Bastone said, but the process is different.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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