By Dottie Indyke
A Navajo weaver does his part to maintain cultural traditions
In Morris Muskett’s world, weavers are more than mere artisans. They are the philosophers and keepers of the culture, the truth-sayers who dispense words of wisdom even when those words might hurt.
Muskett, who is 30 years old and Navajo, lives in Church Rock, NM. He is not shy about articulating what he observes around him. “In my work, I’m trying to convey that Diné [Navajo] people in the 19th century, before the Long Walk, were a strong people. Today, we are weakened. We are allowing the mainstream culture to replace and displace our whole traditional culture,” he maintains.
In his award-winning sashes, rugs, and wall hangings, Muskett expresses the two universes that he inhabits: he weaves contemporary abstract interpretations of icons from Navajo ceremony and sand paintings. He retains the traditional methods of his ancestors to do so. Three years ago, while traveling in South America, he noted qualities that the best Peruvian and Navajo weavers shared: One was a willingness to take design risks and the other was the use of a high warp and weft count. Muskett now makes both priorities in his work.
Nearly all his pieces are made with the wool of Navajo Churro sheep and dyed with plants such as sagebrush, cochineal, and logwood. He has experimented with vats of purple cabbage and indigo fermented in human urine, once a common Navajo practice, and developed intricate methods for making certain that his dyes do not run. Skeins of yarn are dyed in very small lots to insure that the color is perfect and to make each finished piece unique. Muskett weaves entirely on the vertical loom that Navajos have used since their nomadic days more than 600 years ago.
His obsession with perfection has helped win him a dozen ribbons at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market. With research scholarships from the National Museum of the American Indian and the Peter S. Reed Foundation, he has studied indigenous textiles at the Smithsonian, learned Chilkat and ravenstail weaving techniques native to the Pacific Northwest, and discovered striped Navajo chief blankets from the 1800s that have had a major influence on his work. A cashmere belt which garnered best of division at this year’s Heard Market was purchased for the Joe Ben Wheat collection at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“Beyond painting and sculpture, the general public doesn’t give permission to Native artists to create contemporary art, especially in textiles,” Muskett protests. “When people think of Navajo rugs, they think of geometrics and regional styles. Collectors and traders can’t get past the stereotype.”
Like many modern artists who create functional objects, he rails against those who would classify him as a maker of craft, rather than art. “Craft is something unoriginal, unintellectual, and a piece that the viewer has no emotional reaction to,” he argues.
That Muskett grew up to be an artist is somewhat surprising given his family’s encouragement in other directions—directions he has also explored. They wanted to see him in a more mainstream occupation, earning a steady living. Early on, when he expressed an interest in weaving, his mother bluntly told him that weaving wouldn’t get him anywhere. So he acquiesced, earning a degree in civil engineering from New Mexico State University with the idea of returning to Navajoland to bring running water to remote locations on the reservation.
His goal of helping his tribe already has been achieved through his work as an environmental engineer with the Indian Health Service in Gallup, NM, and now as a regulator of air pollution for the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency, the first such program in the country instituted by a tribal group.
Meanwhile, every evening he makes the 43-mile commute from Window Rock to his native Church Rock—his art-making center and the place where he meditates, with the guidance of his ancestors, on the issues facing his land and people. As he weaves, the two become intertwined, his art reflecting his love of nature and his concerns for the future of the Diné who, he believes, increasingly succumb to the selfishness and prejudices of the outside world.
“Being grounded provides stability in our lives, what the Diné call ‘hozoji,’ or the ‘beauty way,’” he says. “This is reflected in our thoughts. My work says something about our current state of being. I try to spread the message … and what better medium to do it in than Churro wool?”
Muskett’s work may be seen at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, Phoenix, AZ, and Santa Fe Indian Market, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in “Native Arts” August 2005