On a warm Saturday in late February, Elsie Bia was outdoors in Sonoita, hard at work at her loom. A basket of woolen yarns was at her feet, dyed in the rich earth colors of Dinétah, the Navajo homeland: maroon, green, tan, white and black. Bia, 64, was deftly threading the colored strands through the taut warp yarns.
“Since I was 14, I’ve been weaving,” she says. “My mom taught me. I’m from a long line of weavers.”
She had already spent a month on the piece, weaving abstract patterns around the bottom of the tapestry and starting on the deep red background. The next two months would be devoted to the centerpiece: a tall, thin human figure rendered in an angular geometry. It was to be a woven image of a Yei Be Chei, one of the human dancers who portray the Yei—Holy People or gods—in traditional Navajo ceremonies.
“I’ve done different kinds of these,” Bia says, adding that the first weavings she ever made, under the tutelage of her mother, Annie Bia, were Yei Be Cheis.
Bia works on commission for Steve Getzwiller, a trader who owns the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery, weaving works that he later sells. Normally she weaves at her home in Chinle, the Navajo town at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly, but this day, with the help of her daughter Ramona and grandsons Kevin and Dylan, she’s hauled her loom to Sonoita, and set it up on the Getzwiller’s porch.
Her demo of her ancestors’ art helped kick off Woven Holy People, the gallery’s remarkable exhibition of traditional Yei Be Chei weavings. The show has some 65 weavings total that depict Holy People and other figurative images. A few of them are fresh from the looms of Bia and other contemporary Navajo artists, but the bulk are prized historic works from the first half of the 20th century.
Displayed on every wall of the gallery/ranch house where Getzwiller and his wife Gail live (one even covers the big-screen TV), the weavings abound with images of feathers and corn, birds and clouds and stars. Most distinctively, they’re peopled with the Yei Be Cheis. The long, tall Holy One vary. Most of the early works are by unknown artists, but Getzwiller dates them by examining the wool, he says. The quality varied wildly decade to decade, in tandem with the tragedies wreaked on the Navajos, from the deadly Long Walk that forced the Navajo into exile in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico in the 1860s to repeated government slaughters of their cherished sheep.
Getzwiller fears that nowadays the high art of Navajo weaving is endangered not by government pogroms, but by the fading away of Navajo language and cultural traditions. Like other indigenous groups, the Navajo find their practices being eroded by global culture.
Bia, whom he calls a master weaver, is a case in point. She had nine children, and none of them has taken up weaving.
“It’s my income,” she says. Plus, it gives her pleasure to follow the path of her ancestors, making the diyogí—or rugs—that they once crafted.