As a little girl, Navajo weaver Sarah Natani remembers watching her mother, who was a weaver and potter, work.
“She used to let me help her finish a piece by weaving just the solid part. I guess she didn’t trust me with the colors,” she says, laughing.
By the age of 9 or 10, Natani started weaving on her own, and now, 60 years later, she teaches the traditional art of Navajo weaving throughout the country and at her home at the base of Table Mesa in the Navajo Nation near Shiprock, N.M.
Natani recently spent a week giving a workshop at Hillcreek Fiber Studio, located in the Little Bonne Femme Creek Valley, off of Route K in Columbia.
As the students worked, Natani walked around offering advice and sharing stories, which gave relief to the hard work of sitting long hours at the loom.
“Sarah is such a wonderful storyteller,” says Carol Leigh Brack-Kaiser, who owns Hillcreek Fiber Studio and has been friends with Natani since the two met at a workshop Natani gave in San Jose, Calif., in 1990. This is Natani’s 10th year visiting Columbia and giving workshops at Brack-Kaiser’s studio.
Many of Nitani’s stories are light-hearted, but at least one takes a serious tone. As a child she was forced to moved away from her family to attend a boarding school intended to teach assimilation to Native American children. Although it was only about 16 miles away from Table Mesa, sometimes nine months would pass without seeing her family.
“We didn’t have an automobile back then, and it was a half a day’s ride by horse. Now it is only a few minutes away by car. I missed my parents so much,” she says.
Now, she keeps family close. Her youngest daughter, who continues the weaving tradition, lives next door, and Nitani has passed on her grazing rights and sheep to her. She is helping to teach her native language, Diné, to her 4-year-old granddaughter Winter Rose.
Teaching weaving has taken her as far away as China and Italy. In Italy, she says the interpreter was often late, and so she and her daughter would teach by showing.
“They learned so fast,” she says.
Natani says that teaching her art to anyone who wants to learn, not only to people from the Navajo Nation, is something that she loves and that is important.
“Our arts won’t die out if we teach them to others. The way that I see it, I don’t see color in people. They have a right to learn.”