Maria Suarez: Hello. Welcome to the Arizona State Museum podcast. My name is Maria Suarez and I'm a creative writing senior here at the University of Arizona. In November 2008, I interviewed Barbara Ornelas, who's a Navajo weaver that currently lives in Tucson, about language and the women in her family.
Maria: How has speaking both of those languages [Navajo and English] shaped your life in some way?
Barbara Ornelas: As a child, you know, I went to boarding school. And I was told not to speak my language. If I did, I was punished. But through the years, my language got stronger. I was able to use it to talk to my parents, my brothers and my sisters, and my friends.
It's just something that stayed with me. It's much easier for me to think and speak in Navajo than I do in English. I use both of them every day. But for me, it's much easier and more comfortable to speak in Navajo.
Very strong, strong women. I know that both my grandmothers, on my mom's side and my dad's side, had overcome so many obstacles. But their number one goal was to keep the family together, and keep the weaving strong in our family.
Early on when I was a kid, my grandmother, my dad's mom, always told me that weaving is what holds your family together, and if you hold onto your weaving, you won't have a problem. I always believed that. To this day, I believe that. They bent over backwards with their weavings to take care of their family.
Just from watching them, I know what hard work is all about. When my husband was in school, we just concentrated... We lived on what I made with my weavings. I remember the times, how they struggled, and I knew that I would make it just by watching them.
So with their strength, I was able to accomplish what my husband and I did. I think I passed that on to my daughter and she's running with it. She knows that, in her heart of hearts, she has the beat of her grandmother's. And she's a very strong woman.
When I was young people, would ask me, "Who are your heroes?" And I would say "One them would be my daughter," because she's one of those people who doesn't wait for things to happen. She makes things happen.
Maria: How did you get started on weaving and what kept you at it?
Barbara: I'm the fifth-generation weaver in my family. It passed down through my grandmothers and my mother and my sister. It's something I grew up with. Everybody in my family is a weaver. Everywhere I went, everyone we went to visit, my father's family generally, and they were always weavers.
So, it's just something that's really, really strong in my family. But as I was growing up, I was doing weavings in the summertime and going to boarding schools the rest of the time. And so when I graduated high school, I told my family that I'm not going to be a weaver anymore, because I'm done and I'm leaving.
But it didn't take me long to go back to it, because I feel that for me weaving gives me my balance, it gives me my heart, and it's what keeps me strong. It's who I am.
When I was born, my grandmother always told me that someday you're going to understand what it means to be a weaver. Then I never did, growing up, in high school, because I fought it all the time. When it finally grabbed me, I totally understood what she was talking about.
Maria: And your daughter, does she weave as well?
Barbara: Yeah, my daughter basically grew up the same way I did, where she fought it a lot. She hated being told what to do, but she turned out to be a really, really good weaver. And it keeps her strong. She lives in D.C., and she weaves in her basement apartment. It's so cool to see.
Her weaving is just so different from my work but it's her, you know? When you look at her weaving, you just see her. It makes sense.
My son is also a weaver. I also taught him. I never expected him to be one, but when he was about eleven, he came to me, and he said he would love to learn how to do what I do. I thought "Well, why not? We have a lot of men weavers in our tribe, why not him?"
So he learned how to weave and he's real good, he's real excellent. He won the Best in Show in the children's show at the Heard Museum in 2003. They both do really well with their weavings. I feel like the sixth generation's secure [laughter] when it comes to Teller weaving.
I think weaving has kept my family together. It's something that we really cherish, and I think it's really made my family strong. My daughter and I will argue and stuff, and then we come back together and talk about weaving. My mother and I wouldn't see eye-to-eye on things, but one thing we could always talk about was weaving. That just brings everything back.
I remember, as a kid, my mom's mom, my grandmother coming over with her wool. She would have this huge ball of wool that she would spindle. She would sit there and just gossip with my mom. She'd spindle the whole ball and she goes, "That's it!" when she was done. She says "That's it, now I'm going home," and she would leave. [laughter]
But you would just time her visits by how much wool she had on her little ball. I remember my grandmother and my aunt and everybody getting together and working on wool. They'd all drink coffee, and laugh, and gossip. It's just something that holds my family together. It's something really unique and precious I think we all cherish.
Maria: I have one more question, which is if you had one message to give to young Navajo women and girls, what would it be?
Barbara: I would say that the Creator gave you a strong spirit. He gave you the freedom to explore your every desire within reason. He touched your heart to make you a better person.
He touched your heart to help you help your neighbors, and teach your young ones about what being Navajo is like. Teaching the weavings, teaching the joy, the basketry, the sand paintings, and teaching what it's like to be Navajo.
I think our culture's really strong, and there's a lot of outlets they can go to for help. I think that, especially with young Navajo women at the helm, like my daughter, we're going to be OK. I don't know if that makes any sense, what I'm saying, but I just feel like there's hope in the world when people feel hope.
Maria: Thank you for sitting down today and talking to us.
photo of Barbara Ornelas by Maria Suarez Ruiz