Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land was cofounded by a group of Diné and me, Carol Halberstadt, in November 1998 to help deal with a number of problems facing the Diné of the Black Mesa region—both residents of Hopi Partitioned Land (HPL) and Navajo Partitioned Land (NPL). The majority of the Diné in the region live a traditional way of life based on shepherding and the sale of wool and weavings, but the prices they received for their work were unsustainable. Weavers were regularly paid around $50-$100 for weavings resold in the retail market for $400-$600, and the going market rate for their rare churro wool was 4 to 6 cents per pound. We formed a grassroots association to enable the Diné who previously had little or no access to the wider marketplace to reach end buyers directly and sell their products for fair trade prices.
We used our Western SARE grant to focus on marketing in 2003 and 2004. With our new marketing approach, we sold almost 400 weavings, handmade spindles, weaving combs, wool and mohair through the Internet and other venues. We also launched a handspun yarn wool-processing enterprise in July 2003, which allows the Diné who don’t have sheep or time to hand-process wool to buy affordable raw fleece and handspun yarn.
We also participated in cultural survival bazaars between 1999-2004 where a weaver, medicine man, apprentice medicine man/silversmith and their translator gave presentations and demonstrations of spinning/weaving, dry painting and jewelry making. One of our Diné advisory council members and two Diné high school students gave presentations and participated in a Cultural Survival forum for New England area educators and high school students on endangered languages.
We also participated in Handweavers Guild of America “Convergence” festival, selling our weavings at the WARP booth in the summer of 2004. We placed a full-page four-color advertisement in the “Convergence” guide, an edition of 10,000 distributed to all participants and galleries throughout the Denver area.
We exhibited and sold Black Mesa weavings and other crafts from December 2003 to March 2004 in conjunction with American Craft Museum in New York.
We also engaged a part-time Diné field coordinator to organize and manage the handspun yarn processing enterprise at Hardrock, including the successful completion of our first large handspun yarn order for warp and weft (16 lbs) for a weaver in Wyoming, who is extremely happy with the warp and weft yarn received. Wool-into-yarn processing has continued, with an additional total of about 23 lbs. to date, as well as the management of internal trade among the Black Mesa area and other Diné. A total of $4,957 was paid to Diné wool processors in 2003.
We worked to change the market for Diné wool by paying $1.60/lb directly (compared to the local market rate of 4 to 6 cents per pound) to the Diné woolgrowers at our first two wool buys with funds raised primarily from the sale of their wool and weavings, and $1.65/lb in 2004. At our three wool buys, all the churro wool brought in by the Black Mesa area Diné was purchased. Thirty-five households participated in our first wool buy, 50 in our second, and 53 in our third.
Since the launch of our wool-processing enterprise in July 2003, made possible by the grants received for 2003-2004, we have discovered that making the transition from an all-volunteer part-time enterprise to an early-stage fulltime enterprise—still comprised primarily of volunteers—is a difficult and sometimes bumpy process. We have learned the true cost and time required to hand-process churro wool into yarn, which was an unknown until last year when we began doing this and keeping careful records of the process.
Throughout the project, we have also confirmed a number of positive features, including:
• The quality of the wool and weaving yarn produced by the Diné is very high
• The willingness and interest in traditional wool processing among the Diné is equally high, particularly among experienced wool processors, people who long ago knew it well but abandoned it because of a variety of reasons, largely economic and also among young people who were willing to apprentice without pay to learn the skills
• The links among land, water, sheep and goats, and wool and weavings are profound and powerful as a source for sustainable economic development and cultural continuity
• Flexibility, community-centered growth, patient and sustained efforts and broad collaboration is crucial to development and success
• This project makes sense for the Diné and offers a practical and achievable vision for their own future
At the IIRB wool buy, about 1,000 lbs. of churro wool from Diné woolgrowers was purchased at the “Sheep is Life” festival in Tsaile, AZ, at an average price of $2/lb.
Individual Diné woolgrowers and weavers sell their wool directly at fiber festivals and on the Internet and radio.
The nonprofit organization Diné be’inna emphasized in its 2004 brochure a marketing approach similar to ours, which is based on identification and outreach to specialized niche markets.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND NEW HYPOTHESIS
We recommend continued and increased support of fair-trade marketing of wool and weavings, fiber festivals, Cultural Survival bazaars, and other venues.
I recommend more research be done to identify the niche markets for our products, identifying the best way to reach these niche markets. Research should be done in what works best in the marketing of churro wool and weavings.
Just as the U.S. government subsidizes wool, corn, wheat, and other agricultural products, thought should be given to setting up a subsidy program for indigenous intellectual/cultural property and heritage. There is also a need for a revolving fund to pay advances to weavers whose work is currently sold on consignment. This would change the livelihood and sustenance of the weavers.
A consensus should be conducted of the number of churro sheep in the Black Mesa region and throughout the Navajo Nation in order to help promote fair trade prices for all Diné woolgrowers.
An MIT public service program awarded two students with the opportunity to work with our organization at the wool buy. They installed and set up a computer lab there and taught two weeks of classes on computer use. They also carried out a major road, reservoir, and windmill survey together with our field coordinator.
We had an exhibit and film presentation as a special event for community adult education at the Newton Public Library, in Newton, MA, in August 2003.
We participated in multiple informative presentations including one at a wool sale to the Boston Area Spinners and Dyers Guild, one given by MIT students for the Western Hemisphere project, one at “Navajo Sheep Wool Forum” and one at a day-long symposium for New England area educators/teachers on American Indian cultures. We also participated in several workshops held in collaboration with Navajo Textile Program.
I also served as a consultant on a documentary film project based on the book Swept Under the Rug: A Hidden History of Navajo Weaving, by Kathy M’Closkey.
We’ve had multiple articles published in American Sheep Industry Association News, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Voices, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy News, Sheep! Magazine, Countryside Magazine, The Record Stockman, Knits Magazine, Gallup Independent, Albuquerque Tribune and Navajo Nation Times.