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The Pueblo Cotton and Weaving Project
Pueblo weaving and textile arts are among the most ancient traditions still practiced in the Pueblos of the Southwest. It is a tradition that pre-dates pottery by several centuries. Sadly, it is one of the art forms that have experienced a sharp decline since the colonization of Pueblo communities. Despite this fact, Pueblo textiles are still very much an integral part of Pueblo culture and identity as they make up the traditional regalia and dress for religious and other special occasions.
Many textiles and weavings, as well as the materials used, have deep meaning to Pueblo people. Cotton, Gossypium hirsutum, is one example. Hopi cotton is a crop that has been cultivated in the Southwest for over a thousand years. It arrived in this region through trade from Mexico, where the fiber was being cultivated, spun and woven into cloth on backstrap looms by indigenous groups for well over two thousand years. The backstrap weaving tradition is still widely practiced throughout indigenous Mexico, Central and South America. The similarities of some of these techniques with those of the Southwest Pueblos is striking but not surprising, given the long history of interaction among these cultures. Many Pueblo groups have oral histories that recognize and affirm those connections.
Although other plant and animal fibers such as yucca fiber, Indian hemp, rabbit fur and turkey feathers were also used, cotton has had special meaning to Pueblo people. Cotton’s association to rain clouds and moisture is the most apparent. Cotton is cellulose, or plant fiber, which grows in the matrix we know as Earth with the help of moisture from water vapor condensed to form rain. The consistency of cotton fiber is similar to the likeness of clouds, which, to Pueblo people represent our ancestors returning to bring blessings of rain to the people. For these reasons, and because of the amount of effort required to produce them, articles woven from cotton fiber have special significance. In most instances, the woven articles were given to family members or other relatives as gifts to mark certain milestones in life from birth to death.
Historically, cotton was cultivated in the Southwest using dry farming techniques of the Hopi villages of (what is now) Arizona. Early Spanish documents describe these cotton fields as stretching several leagues, which gives us an idea of the major level of Pueblo cotton production at that time. The harvest from these crops was dried and stored for later processing, which included hand ginning or removal of seeds from the fiber, spinning and weaving. This process was the work of Pueblo men. Often, groups of men would gather in the kivas (ceremonial chambers) to carry out this tedious work. With the advent of commercial cotton string and cloth around 1920, Pueblo cotton cultivation experienced a sharp decline.
I am a Tiwa/Piro Pueblo fiber artist from southern New Mexico. I learned from a young age the importance of maintaining Pueblo traditions and cultural values. Pueblo weaving and textile arts have been a lifelong interest and occupation for me. I learned the basics from my grandfather and have been learning more and weaving ever since. I recall observing nature up-close and noticing various structures and patterns that make up the world. I was able to relate those to the various structures and patterns I saw in my family’s collection of Pueblo clothing and weavings—from embroidered designs to the various twill patterns and plain weave structures that make up the tradition.
I was able to combine my passion for fiber art with Pueblo farming and have cultivated heritage seeds in my home garden. I have processed the Hopi cotton I grow there into hand-spun string for both my own weaving, and for ceremonial use.
I have also been teaching Pueblo weaving classes at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque twice a year, in March and August. I offer these classes in the hope of revitalizing the art of Pueblo weaving and to encourage a new generation of Pueblo weavers. I teach students the fundamental aspects needed to understand the history and the ever-evolving aspects of Pueblo textile weaving. They are then able to integrate what they have learned into works of their own.
One of my promising weaving students, Jon Naranjo (Hopi/Santa Clara), is also an avid Pueblo farmer. It wasn’t long before we started brainstorming to think of ways to promote both Pueblo weaving and farming traditions. With the help of Roxanne Swentzel (Santa Clara) and her Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, we developed the first Pueblo Men’s Weaving Project in the spring of 2011, mostly with men from Santa Clara Pueblo. The idea was to examine traditional forms of sustainability, from traditional Pueblo farming techniques to traditional Pueblo weaving techniques.
The agriculture piece consists primarily of planting Hopi cotton. We know that Pueblo cotton was, historically, cultivated as far north as Taos. We had a minimal yield our first year, but we learned from the experience and were able to take many factors into account for this year’s planting. The drought has had an impact on the plants, but we are seeing vast improvement now that we are in the monsoon season.
The Pueblo cotton and weaving project is now in its second year. We are actively searching additional funding sources to help support this ongoing project. For more information or to provide some financial support for this project, call 505.363.1294 or email email@example.com.
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