The Soul and Song of Weaving: Barbara Teller Ornelas

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Barbara Teller Ornelas is a fifth generation Navajo weaver in the Two Grey Hills tradition. With her sister Lynda Teller Pete, she co-authored Spiderwoman’s Children: Modern Navajo Weavers Today (Thrums Books, 2018). Barbara is the recipient of a 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Award. She will work with apprentice Velma Craig to create a 30-minute teaching video documenting tapestry weaving and the corresponding Navajo words. BorderLore editor Kimi Eisele spoke to Barbara about growing up at the Two Grey Hills trading post, and the worldwide language of weaving. (Feature photo by Steven Meckler)

BTO: I always introduce myself in Navajo because it’s a sign of respect, and so you know who I am also. In English, my name is Barbara Teller Ornelas. I’m of the Edgewater Clan, Born for Water that Flows Together. My grandfathers’ clans are One Who Walks Around and Red Bottom clan. I’m from two Grey Hills, New Mexico. My parents are Sam and Ruth Teller, and this is who I am. I’m a fifth generation weaver in my family passed down through my mother’s side of the family. They’re all traditional Two Grey Hill Weavers.

BL: What does that refer to—Two Grey Hills?

BTO: Two Grey Hills is in New Mexico. It’s 60 miles north of Gallup, 32 miles south of Shiprock, and 12 miles off the highway. It’s a small trading post. My father was a trader there for about 40 years. I grew up at the store. It used to be a post office, a dry goods store, a food store, where you got your gas, and where you traded for your animals and got hay. It was just like one big mercantile store. But all that is gone now because Walmart’s only 60 miles away. They still sell weavings and convenient sandwiches.

The weaving that is called Two Grey Hills is done with all-natural blended wool. We get natural brown from the sheep and also white, and then we blend the colors. We use a carding tool and we add a little bit of white, a little bit of brown, and we mix it up to get the light browns. Then black and white creates the greys. Depending on how much black or white you put in, you get different shades. You always make sure you have enough wool to blend because you it’s hard to get the same exact blend later on, because every year the sheep’s wool gets either lighter or darker and you can’t really tell how much you put in.

Some of the greys of the Two Grey Hills style of Navajo weaving are visible on this nearly finished tapestry

BL: And other areas have their own name for weavings?

BTO: Right. The Navajo reservation is very big. It’s almost the size of Connecticut. In each area, there are different styles of weaving, mainly named after trading posts. Ganado, Yeibichai, Coal Mines, Wide Ruins, Chinle, Klagetoh. All these other trading posts have their own individual styles of weaving. For Two Grey hills it is all geometric patterns and natural colors.

The weavings were used as blankets and floor coverings, and in olden times we had woven dresses. Then they found out that they could trade their weavings for goods, for animals or whatever, so the trading posts started buying the weavings and people were using them to cover floors or to put on the wall as a decorative item. When the Navajos got rounded up and moved to Bosque Redondo [Fort Sumner] to be prisoners of war, they found calico skirts and velveteen tops because the Spanish women were wearing them, so the woven dresses went to the wayside. But nowadays if there’s a big ceremony, like somebody is graduating, they always go back to the woven dresses.

There are also different weights. In Persian weaving, they say so many knots per inch. In Navajo weaving we call it weft, so many weft counts per inch. Anywhere from 20 to 40 is considered a heavy weave. You can put those weavings on the floor or use them as saddle blankets, and they last forever. The medium weave is anywhere from 60 to 80, and those can go on the floor, but also on the wall for decorative pieces. What I do is called tapestry weave. Anything over 80 wefts per inch is considered tapestry. My work is anywhere from 108 to about 122 wefts.

Balls of yarn
Tapestry yarn

BL: When you were growing up what was your relationship with the sheep. Were you part the process of gathering wool?

BTO: My grandparents on my dad’s side had over 200 heads of sheep at one time. That was their livelihood. I remember my grandfather waking up at three or four in the morning to take the sheep out. I used to follow him. He used to sit on top of this cliff and watch the sheep roam around and sing his morning prayers. I always loved the sound of that voice, his voice singing. He would catch me and say, “You can’t do that! This is my personal time with my Creator. You have to have your own time.” But he would have a big smile on his face because he knew I loved doing that.

They lived in the middle of nowhere, between Chaco Canyon and Bisti Badlands. Basically, no running water, no electricity, no nothing. I spent most summers with them living out there with them because the white trader at the trading post didn’t want my dad’s kids to be around. We went to boarding school, to Toadlena, and so the only time we got to go home was Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and then summer vacation. But he didn’t want us there during the summer, so my father used to ship us over to his parents’ place. I was used to electricity and television and indoor plumbing at the trading post. We would lay there at night in the evenings and say, “I Love Lucy’s on!” or “Green Acres is coming on!” My grandfather would say, “You don’t need that. Here, I could tell you stories.” He would tell us these amazing stories about First Woman and First Man. I didn’t realize they were creation stories until later on. At night, he would turn on the flashlight and it would shine on top of the Hogan and use his hands to tell the story. So that was our television.

My two brothers would help with the sheep with my grandpa and I would help my grandmother in the Hogan. She set up a weaving for me, so my very first weaving was a twill weaving, and which is really different process. When I took my loom home after the summer, my other grandmother, my grandma Susie, blew a gasket. She goes, “What are you doing? You’re not supposed to be a twill Weaver. You’re Two Grey Hill weaver!”

But I would sit with my grandmother Nellie, my dad’s mom, and she would tell me stories about Spider Woman, and how weaving came to be. She used to sing these beautiful songs when she was warping, and she would sing these songs when she would start weaving, and she was singing songs when she finished her pieces. I grew up listening to that. Now I’m a teacher. I teach everything about Navajo weaving to people. But the one thing I keep for myself is the songs and the prayers. I never share that because that’s my personal gift from my grandmother to me. The only people who have heard those songs are my kids, and my grandson.

BL: It reminds me what you said about your grandfather having his own time with his Creator.

BTO: Right, yeah. This is my own time with my Creator.

Storage boxes full of yarn
Wool of different weights in Barbara’s studio.

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandmother and my two aunts and my mom, the four of them would shear all the sheep. As little kids our job was to capture the sheep and hold them. My cousins and I we would get the giggles so bad. You can’t hold on to sheep when you’re laughing so hard. My father made these huge screens and we would put on the wool on top of them to dry the lanolin out. Some we left in the sun, but the browns we left under the shade because we didn’t want it to get lighter. And the darkest brown, we’d save to dye for black using aniline dye, which is coal tar base. They would leave the wool out for a week and every day they would sift it and swish it until the lanolin was dried out. Then they’d get these huge buckets, fill them with hot water and soap, and wash all the wool. After it was dry again, you have to sit there and sift them because you don’t want it felting, which was our job as kids, to sit there and fluff.

I learned the legends, the stories and the myths of weaving from my grandmother. I learned to basically weave from my mom, but my techniques, my designs, I learned from my sister Roseann. My sister Roseann was an amazing weaver. My dad built this loom for my sister Lynda and me to weave together, facing each other. My mom would put a weaving for Lynda on this side and one for me on the other side, and on the days when we were fighting, she would put a sheet in between us. But my sister Roseann used to walk around with this yardstick. We hated that yardstick because she would tell us, “Weave an inch, and then let me know.” So, we would weave a whole inch, and then she would measure–that inch had to be all the way across, even, and if it wasn’t, you had to redo it. She did everything by numbers. I didn’t realize that that there was so much math in weaving.

When I when I was little, I would draw my designs on paper. My grandma Nellie and Roseann would come near me and say take it away. They go, “You gotta see it here [on the loom].” It was a struggle for me to see it. Whereas with my sister, it was easy. But now I totally understand it to where it’s a second nature for me. When I look at buildings, I see designs. When I see trees, I see designs. And I remember them when I come home and I’m like, that’s what I want to do.

Barbara Teller Ornelas working on her loom
Barbara Teller Ornelas demonstrating a tapestry weave on her loom.

BL: It’s like a language. The designs you are working with now, they’re your own?

BTO: Yeah, they’re my own. A lot of it is based on what my mom did. And on what my sister Roseann did, and I just kind of add my own spin to it.

BL: Is it a meditative process?

BTO: It’s like going into a trance where you’re just so focused on just working that you forget that the things are around you. I play music when I’m working.

BL: In your studio here, I’m looking at maybe 500 CDs.

BTO: At least! I have more in the other room.

BL: What kind of music do you listen to?

BTO: Everything I can get my hands on.

BL: Like, Taylor Swift?

BTO: Oh god no! Not everything! I don’t really like pop country or pop rock. It’s like weaving you know? Weaving is like, when you’re doing it, it has a soul; you feel the energy and you’re one-on-one with it. When I’m listening to music, I can feel the musician’s soul. I can hear the words and I can feel what they’re saying. You can’t do that with pop music and the electronic stuff and because there’s just there’s no spirit behind them.

My love of music comes, in part, from my grandpa. He listened to Hank Williams all the time. When I saw him with his horse coming down from the cliffs, I would run over and would sit in front of his saddle and he would sing Hank William songs. He’d ask, “What do these words mean?” He only knew Navajo. So, my second-grade mind was trying to interpret all the songs.

Again, I went to boarding school from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade. There’s a lot of good and bad, but for me, mainly I really had a great time. When I first got there, I was five, six years old. This was the first time I’d ever met a black woman, Miss Wooden. This is also where my love of music comes from. Miss Wooden brought all the Motown. She had us dancing to James Brown and we would we would do halftime shows for the basketball games. We were dancing to Smoky Robinson, The Supremes, James Brown. For hours I would sit next to her and just play her records on the record player that she had. When I was in fourth grade, this other lady came in, Miss Johnson. Miss Johnson wore a lot of perfume, so they called her Poison Gas ’cause you could smell her before you could see her. Miss Johnson was from Tennessee, I think. She was a white woman, and she brought Elvis and Carl Perkins and Tony Joe White and all these rockabilly people. I gravitated toward that. To this day, maybe three fourths of my collections is all rockabilly music.

I have music from Peru. When I went to Peru, I was looking out for musicians and I’d buy their CDs. A lot of my CDs are not well-known people because I go to concerts and then whoever’s opening, I’ll buy their CDs. And when I went to Uzbekistan, I bought music there, and I went to Kyrgistan and bought their music. I just have this thing about music.

Barbara Teller Ornelas in her studio
Barbara Teller Ornelas in her studio with just some of her CDs.

BL: So you’ve traveled to all these places sharing your weavings. What are some things you noticed about similarities and differences between the work?

BTO: We’re so similar. It’s like we all grew up as weavers in one family and then we all went our separate ways but kept what we learned from our house and we took it with us. Weaving has its own voice. The very first time went to Peru, I was sent there by the State Department, and they took me to a women’s shelter, where there must have been 30 women. When I got there, they were calling me “Little sister.” I’m short! But I was taller than they were. The director of the shelter told me she kept telling my story to them, about a Navajo woman who wove all her life and who raised two children that are also weavers and put them through college with her weaving. “And that’s why they’re calling you a little sister because your story encourages them.” One of them told me that because of my story, her son is going to graduate soon to become a doctor.

When I was explaining to them my work, it was translated into Spanish and then Quechua. When they were telling me their stories, it was the other way around. But when it came to weaving, they already knew what I was saying, because there’s that weaving language. The same thing happened when I went to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. I’m explaining my work and all the weavers are nodding. We all have the same tools. We have spindles. We have carding tools. And we have cones. I felt at home. When I was in Kyrgyzstan, they gave me my own yurt, and I was like, This is my Hogan. A Hogan has to have a hole at the top, so does a yurt; it has to face east, same. Every morning you get up, you walk out, and there’s sheep everywhere or in Peru, alpaca, and it’s the same thing. We were the middle of nowhere in Bukhara in Uzbekistan, and they gave me a little bowl and it was mutton stew. Everywhere I went, I felt at home.

BL: But at some point, you left home in New Mexico and now you live in Tucson.

BTO: When I graduated high school, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. My guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material. I think he told that to most Navajo students. So I went to Phoenix and went to business school. I did that for a whole year and then got a job with insurance company. When I left for Phoenix, I told my mom I’m done with weaving, I’m never going to weave again. I’m going off on a big adventure, wherever. Two months later, I called my dad at the trading post. I told him, I can’t do it. It’s too lonely and I’m bored and I miss home. He goes, No you can’t come back. What are you gonna do? Stick it out and see what happens. A week later they came, and my mom brought a loom. She said, “I know you don’t want to work on it, but this has been your best friend since you were a baby. You just have your best friend at your house. It’s going to make you feel better.”

By then I had made some Navajo friends and they would come over to my apartment look at my weaving. “Why do you have one of these in your house?” they’d say. Or “I think my grandmother used to do that.”  So I said, “What happened? How come your mom didn’t learn? How come you didn’t learn?” They’d say, “My mom had a job and nobody wanted to teach me.” That’s when I realized that weaving was strong and my family. My grandfather always told me, keep weaving. Stick with it. It’s always going to take care of you. And it’s always going to keep your family together.” And that’s so true.

BL: Eventually you started selling in galleries and then museums.

BTO: Right. [One gallery owner] said, You’re too good for galleries. You should be working with museums. He said the Heard museum is having an art show this weekend. You should go down there and see if you could get a table. So I go to the Heard Museum. And I’m just green as green can be. I go in and I go, I want a table for the art show this weekend. And they’re all looking at me like, What are you talking about? These people put in applications, they paid their booth fees months in advance. If you want to do it next year, we’ll be happy to give you a table and but you have to apply. The woman’s name was Peggy Fairchild. I’ll never forget her name. She asked me, What do you do? I’m a Navajo Weaver. And her eyes just lit up. She goes, let me see your work. I put it on the table. She said, We never do this, but I want you be here tomorrow. Make sure you bring a tablecloth and business cards. I’m like, What in the world is a business card? The next morning when they opened the doors, these two doctors, husband and wife from Flagstaff, came straight to my table. He looked at it and he looked at me, and goes, “How much?” I go, “$4000.” I was so scared. He goes, “We’ll take it,” and he wrote a check and then he just rolled it up and took it under his arm and he just walked out. Thank God my husband had sense enough to take a photo of them holding the piece. I worked with the Heard almost 10 years doing that. And then Peggy said, “You should do another Indian market. Try Santa Fe.”  So we went in 1983, and did the same thing. I had no idea about applications. Nothing. I just showed up over there and said, “I have something on the loom. I have finished pieces.”  

Later another lady recommended me for London, the British Museum, and for an exhibit of American arts. Everything from Chicago Blues to a graffiti artist from New York, a Seminole patchwork from Florida, a kachina carver, a potter, Nathan Jackson from Alaska who does the totem poles. They put us up in at the at the British Museum of Mankind and Prince Philip came and got to see us working. My son Michael was six weeks old. People thought he was a prop, sitting in a cradle board right next to me as I was weaving. People would touch him and poke him. Finally, we had to put a sign on him saying, “Please don’t touch the baby. He’s fragile.” But it was a lot of fun.

BL: You are a recipient of an SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. Who is the apprentice you’ll be working with?

BTO: One of my students, Velma Craig. She comes from a weaving family, but the weaving was broken. Both of her grandmothers were weavers, but somehow her mom didn’t learn. She wanted to fix the broken weaving in her family. She wants to bring it back.

Resources

Navajo weavers Barbara Teller Ornelas & Lynda Teller Pete weave on their looms in Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Learn more about their weaving in the TEACHERS episode of Craft in America, now streaming at pbs.org/craftinamerica and craftinamerica.org

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