Elder Artisan Weaves Alamo Navajo Heritage for New Generations

Elder Artisan Weaves Alamo Navajo Heritage for New Generations

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Photo: Isabelle Pino-Thomas displays about a dozen rugs and blankets at her home in Magdalena, N.M.  (Colleen Keane/Navajo Times)

Part 1. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

ALAMO, N.M. --When 78-year-old Isabelle Pino-Thomas was a little girl, she herded sheep to the Saltwater, Two Hill and Owl Nest areas of the Alamo Navajo Reservation, some of the places that recall the history and legendary events of the Alamo people.

"That way my dad knew where I was at -- with the sheep," Thomas said identifying herself as a member of the Apache clan. When the weather was good, Thomas said she walked two miles across the dry banks of the Rio Salado to go to the Alamo day school.

When she wasn’t at school or herding sheep in the high desert canyons and mountains of south central New Mexico, she watched her mother, Dora Guerro-Pino, create weavings in the distinctive double-weave, eye dazzler style of the Alamo Navajo.

Over the years, Thomas would learn and become so accomplished she would eventually sell her rugs to collectors nationwide and see them exhibited at such places as the Maxwell Museum in Albuquerque and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

A Hard Life

"It's thicker," Thomas said, comparing the Alamo style to weaving in communities 200 miles north on the main Navajo Reservation. But, Thomas was quick to say that her mother didn't give her step-by-step instructions.

"I just watched," she said adding that when her mother thought she was ready, she took her to the next step in the learning process. "From the day my mom told me to separate the wool, I learned everything from her and started making yarns and strings."

Thomas said it was a hard life living off the land without running water and electricity, but it taught her how to be productive and hard working.

"Weaving helps you to think clearly and gets your mind off of whatever is bothering you," she said.
Like an abrupt shift in the high-desert weather, Thomas's life changed dramatically in 1947 at age 12. That’s when she was sent to a boarding school in Albuquerque about 170 miles away from Alamo.

"It was lonely. I missed my parents, my sisters, my brother and my sheep," Thomas said. But, even after the lapse of time, Thomas hadn’t forgotten the designs, patterns and processes that take place in the art of weaving.

At the Albuquerque Indian School, [www.ansbi.org] she earned her high school degree and then went on to get training as a health aide and child care worker. A few years after her training was complete around 1960, she secured a job in Magdalena, N.M., at the dormitories where Alamo students lived while attending school, a place where Thomas worked for 26 years.

While taking care of Alamo children as young as six, Thomas made sure that they had everything they needed--food, clothes, health care, help with their homework, love and attention.

"I was like their Mom. At nighttime, the children had nightmares not being home with their mothers. I was there for them," she said adding that she spoke to them in Navajo. She said she also showed them how to weave, teaching them the designs, patterns and processes, just as her mother showed her. In the process, they also learned how to find the nuts, roots and plants needed to color the yarn.

Thomas used walnuts to color the yarn brown. Around the area, she also found sweet-potato roots and wild tea plants for yellows and lighter shades of brown, such as tan and beige. For wool, she bought fleece from Cochiti Pueblo people who raised black-faced sheep and from neighbors in Magdalena.

Few Continue Weaving Tradition

“I was never without wool,” Thomas said recalling how she washed and brushed the fleece, carded it clean and spun it into yarn at her home in Magdalena. But, even with teaching some of the Alamo students at the Magdalena dorms, Thomas said that she’s concerned that the Alamo style of weaving may not continue.

“I hardly see anyone weaving. They have lost interest in the whole thing; there are very few,” Thomas said as she looked through a large pile of rugs and blankets she had woven during her life. Her daughter, Marlene Herrera, had saved them and Thomas hadn’t seen them for years.

“Weaving needs to continue,” said Jarren Apachito, a senior at the Alamo Navajo community. “It’s the beauty of the land inside the rug.” Apachito is one of the students in Ida Pino’s NavajoCulture and Language class at the Alamo Navajo community school.

“You have to concentrate. If you mess up, it will unravel. It’s like life,” said Pino (Thomas’ sister), who offered an example of how weaving teaches young people lessons that will help them lead good lives.

Pulling out a tray of her double-sided beaded earrings and necklaces, Herrera said she is inspired by her mother’s weavings. “In working with my beads, I patterned some after her rugs, beading both sides like how she does the double-weave when she made saddle blankets,” Herrera said.

“It’s really quite intricate,” said Joy Ann Miler, about of Herrera’s work. Miller manages the Alamo Gallery and Gifts in Socorro, N.M. Located on the east side of Socorro off Highway 60, Miler said the gallery sells work by Herrera and other Alamo Navajo artists to national and international visitors who come there.

Emphasizing that she is following in her mother’s footsteps, Herrera said she also augments her earnings by selling her beadwork. “It helped me get through graduate school,” Herrera said.

“I always taught my children to work,” Thomas said in summing up what she wanted to pass along most to her children. “It all started with herding sheep. Then, I went to a little school and I didn’t quit and went all the way--I did all those jobs. I was at it all the time, every day.”

And ever day in Saltwater, Two Hill and Owl Nest, the story of how one weaver’s dedication sustained the Alamo heritage of weaving--and the good life that goes with it--threads with the desert breeze threads through the area’s history and lore.

Herman Ganadonegro said he could testify to that. Now, in midlife, he is one of the Alamo students Thomas cared for at the Magdalena dorms. “We never said thank you to her. I hope she knows we appreciate her,” he said.

Colleen Keane wrote this article for the Navajo Times with support from a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. The Navajo Times and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation represented Native media in the fellowship, which includes 17 news agencies from across the country.