On Friday evening, August 9, KanabClass hosted a fascinating talk on Navajo Culture given by John Rich, a descendant of the Bowman-Rich families who originally built the Jacob Lake Inn over 100 years ago. Rich brought two full-size looms and many rare and beautiful Navajo rugs and blankets and the Kanab library was packed with an enthusiastic crowd.

Rich began by explaining the construction of a traditional style loom that could be dismantled and relocated conveniently and easily. Because the Navajo were sheepherders, this mobility was quite necessary as they moved to find new grazing lands for their sheep.

A key theme of this talk was the startling revelation that today’s Navajo people are increasingly forced to abandon their weaving heritage due to the harsh economic realities of modern society. Rich wrapped a very old woolen blanket around his shoulders as he explained its function. Blankets were tightly woven for warmth and effectiveness in repelling rain, but hand-made blankets were replaced in more recent times by imported Pendleton replicas which are far less expensive, and sadly, far less unique.

He talked about the awe-inspiring rugs. The Navajo are well known for their beautiful and artistically woven work. Unfortunately, this labor-intensive art form is also in grave danger of dying because the one-of-a-kind treasures cannot be sold for the prices they are truly worth. In today’s market, it is difficult for Navajo weavers to even earn a minimum wage.

Hand woven blankets and rugs can be quite functional, but were also imbued with the iconic symbolism that allows the Navajo to pass their fables, traditions and beliefs down to their children. Birds, animals, plants and stylized designs are all filled with meaning rooted in ancient origins. Amazingly, these intricate patterns are not written down. Each weaver visualizes her finished piece and begins to weave with the knowledge that her design will build and grow towards completion as she works. (Most Navajo weavers are women.)

Rich told one very touching story about a woman he had traded with for many years and had become a beloved friend. She brought him a ceremonial dress, and although he knew there was no longer a market for such a piece, he bought it as a display because she was in need. Not long after, she asked him if he could please hold on to the dress for a year because one of her young granddaughters would like to wear it for her graduation. Of course, Rich agreed and the dress was in fact “borrowed” and returned.

After that, there was another granddaughter with the same request and the dress was borrowed again. At this time, there is a third granddaughter who would like to borrow the dress in five years!

Needless to say, the audience was enthralled. Rich’s talk was a marvelous evening well spent! When you visit Jacob Lake on your next trip to the North Rim, please tell Rich thanks for bringing us his stories and his love of the Native American culture!