Thursday, April 29, 2010

a short lesson on the navajo has been inspirational in several ways. it started when i had the opportunity to invite an anthropology professor to talk to my class about navajo kinship patterns; the navajo are matrilineal and matrilocal and it was interesting to hear someone explain that. i then went to a guest linguistics luncheon that he gave; and finally, i showed a short movie to the class which was an overview of the navajo; their listening, as a class, is quite weak, but some people were able to hear the movie reiterate the points of the speaker.

one weaver talked about how he thought about his grandmother every day, and took care to put patterns of weaving that came down through her family, into his weaving. as sheepherders, the men had been weaving "since the beginning of time"...and, they never finished a rug (I had heard this before), because the process was more important than the finished product. they were able to express a little of what navajo spirituality meant and why it was so attractive to us, and so different from ours. a famous story involves white anthropologists trying to get a word out of the navajo that corresponded to our idea of "God" (a single mono-masculine guy) and coming up with only "hola-hei" which we now know to mean "i don't know - really! i really don't know!" their view of God was really quite different.

so what did i find inspirational? several things, besides the linguistic side itself, which reminded me that i live on the junction of cultures, and interlinguistic punning, every day. first, i have always maintained, perhaps alone in this world i know, that quilting is a perfectly normal thing for men to aspire to; there's nothing especially feminine about it, besides what the culture artificially places on it. second, it is a responsibility of an artist to pass down things from one's family, as well as from one's culture; in other words, i need to educate myself on the wallace tartan, what it is and what it looks like, and how to make it into a quilt, as the wallace inheritance is what i receive through my mother (though it then is through her father, and his father)- but in general, i should be looking upward through the kinship tree for my inspiration. i know little about my ancestors, though my parents freely tell me whatever they know; most are lines on a page known by their names, birth and death dates. people write me occasionally looking for more information, because i've put a few complete files on the web. i have a long-term goal to organize everything i know; i'm a long way from it.

the quilt is almost done. the story of it may not be believed. i had no role models; i never knew another male who made quilts. having received quilts from my mother, through her ancestors, who were unclear to me but clearly not my grandmother who i knew, i had only what i had in my hand to look at, and wonder who exactly they were. thus i had this idea, given these shirts and pants that had a kind of durable quality but weren't much good as shirts or pants anymore, that it was what ancestors do, to make this stuff and pass it down. and so, i started, and it took over thirty years. it didn't have to, but it did, because i had to stop every once in a while, for seven or eight at a time, to get my sense of purpose restored.

but the thirty-year part of it is going to recede into its history, because i have another name for it now: the hawkeye quilt. in the end, i decided that it needed black and gold on its outside, against the advice of my wife btw, as black and gold are not considered colors that necessarily go with every other color of the rainbow. i decided this, because the granddaughter who is its recipient, must be connected to the hawkeyes in some other ways besides the monolithic hayden-fry bird symbol that is connected to most iowa things that are given to her. hayden fry was able to make illegal all other bird logo hawkeyes, and able to make his ugly bird dominate the landscape for many years, but he wasn't able to take the black-and-gold hawkeye pride away from us altogether; and, the hawkeye spirit, and idea, will be here long after he's gone. he's not an enemy, btw; he was a loyal hawkeye, a good football coach, probably even a nice guy; his main weakness, however, was following the bad advice of some overzealous and severely misguided marketing reps. and we, as a result, have to rummage to find good iowa sweaters. but even that will happen; if i can't find one, i'll make one.

back to the navajo: one other thing reminds me of my quest with scottish gaelic and the scottish gaelic words to the song "blackbird" which i found the other day. the urgency of keeping a language alive is a cultural thing and no longer has to be bound by geography, any more than it has to be destroyed by the horrific circumstances that gave it death blows (see yiddish). to the navajo poet who said, every time i speak navajo it's an act of resistance, i say, yes, but it's harder for the navajo themselves to learn it, because the older folks somehow expect them to get everything right, as perhaps the language should be part of their blood. no, only the blood is part of your blood. the rest is in your head. and the journey in your head is like the quilt itself: it's not finished 'til it's finished, and even then, it would be a shame to make that last stitch.

i look at the last few stitches of my quilt, and think of many ways to make it better, but time is running out. at some point, it will be what it is, and that will be it. no problem; there are more on the horizon.


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