A Navajo Weaver

Susie Benally

Benally was born and raised in Pine Springs, where she attended the same elementary school that Sol Worth and John Adair used for their filmmaking classes. Of all of the students, Benally was perhaps the most connected with Navajo traditions. She was a skilled weaver, and began to help her mother, the weaver Alta Kahn, at the age of eight. By the age of eleven, she was weaving sashes with her mother, and at fifteen she was able to weave rugs. During the summer of 1966, Benally was living with one or more of her children at her mother’s house, while her husband served in the military. Worth and Adair emphasized that while Benally was one of their shyest students, she was also, by their standards, one of the most talented filmmakers in the group.

A Navajo Weaver (20:00)

Descriptions excerpted from Through Navajo Eyes (267-8).

Alta Kahn at her loom. Screen shot from “A Navajo Weaver.

Alta Kahn shearing sheep. Screen shot from “A Navajo Weaver.”

Alta Kahn walking. Screen shot from “A Navajo Weaver.”

Alfred Kahn Sr. on horseback. Screen shot from “A Navajo Weaver.”

Alta Kahn holding a finished rug. Screen shot from “A Navajo Weaver.”

Alta Kahn “thinking about the design.” Screen shot from “A Navajo Weaver.”

“Susie chose to depict her mother as she wove a rug. The film starts with a series of short shots showing a Navajo woman [Alta Kahn] weaving at her loom.”

“It then turns to the job of raising the sheep, shearing the wool, digging yucca roots for soap with which to wash the wool, carding and spinning, walking, digging and searching for roots with which to make dye, dying the wool, and putting the warp on the loom.”

“Interspersed with these activities are large sections showing [Kahn] walking and searching for the various materials necessary to make and to complete all these stages in the process of weaving.”

“When towards the end of the film…[Alta]…begins to weave the rug, we see interspersed shots of Susie’s little brother [Alfred Kahn Sr.] mounting his horse and taking care of the sheep, the sheep grazing, and various other activities around the hogan.”

“It jumps from…[Kahn] handling the wool on the loom to the final shots which have [Kahn] standing inside the hogan holding up a series of finished rugs…The same sequence is repeated with a different set of rugs with [Kahn] standing outside the hogan.”

“Of particular note in this film is the fact that there is only one close-up of a face – the “I am thinking about the design” shot…”

Why make a film about weaving?

Worth asked Benally in an interview why she chose to make this film. She replied, ”…why I made the film about the weaving is I’m…always interested in…weaving, so I like…to show the weaving film” (1).

She added that, “…a lot of people like to see the weaving too. They don’t know what weaving is; they never saw…there’s just a few Navajo women they weave, but just a few few. I mean the weaving is going out, and a lot of traders sell the rug out the reservation…And some of these people don’t know about the rug weaving. They thought machine weave, and they don’t want to buy it. They thought that the machine weave it, and it’s too expensive” (2).


Post-Project

Worth and Adair showed Benally’s film at the Flaherty Seminar in August of 1966, at Swarthmore College in October of 1966, in Washington, DC, in 1967, and at the Festival Dei Popoli in Florence, Italy in February of 1967. No documentation has been discovered which suggests that Benally was informed about these screenings.

The film was also shown in 1980 at a panel discussion at the University of New Mexico. [Elizabeth Weatherford, National Museum of the American Indian]

In 1992, Adair and Richard Chalfen visited Pine Springs. Benally told them that in 1990, she had lent her copy of the film to her son, Antonio, to show at a school. After this, the film was lost.

In 2011, the films were shown at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. Benally attended this screening, where she expressed her appreciation and thanked the audience for coming: “I am very thankful for everyone coming. Thank you everyone, is all I wanted to say” (3).