Daisy Taugelchee: World's most famous rug weaver

(Courtesy photo)

Daisy Taugelchee poses in front of a painting of one of her classic rugs.

By Ernie Bulow
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 13, 2011

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Nobody seems to know why the trading post and the famous rug weaving area are known as Two Grey Hills. Anyone who has visited the area sees two, possibly three, buttes of buff and ochre - neither hills nor gray colored.

In 1897 a man named Joe Wilkin sold his post in Crystal, N.M., up in the Chuska Mountains, to the now-famous trader J. B. Moore and relocated at Two Grey Hills.

The Bloomfields, who have a town named after them, were one of several big Mormon families who would own a chain of posts in the Four Corners. George Bloomfield bought the fledgling store at Toadlena ("water bubbling up") in 1911.

That same year a Navajo girl was born to a family in the immediate area. She was only 6 when her mother died in childbirth, followed within the month by her maternal grandmother.

Neither woman is remembered by name, consistent with Navajo custom, and the girl was known simply as Little Man's Daughter. Little Man was the youngest son of an accomplished weaver named Sagebrush Hill Woman. Her daughter, Mrs. Police Boy, is also remembered for her talent.

Not a bad environment for a girl to learn the art of weaving.

Tragedy continued to dog the young girl when her father passed at an early age, leaving his daughter an orphan at 11. Sagebrush Hill Woman died just a few years later.

Though Little Man's family were the best of the early Toadlena/Two Grey Hills weavers there are few left today.

Off to school

Typically, when the young Little Man's Daughter (Hastiin Yazhi Bitsi) went off to school she was given the name Daisy Marion Yazzie. Her sister was dubbed Mildred.

Daisy went to Albuquerque Indian School for a couple of years, and then the Indian school in Phoenix for two more. That was the longest and farthest she would ever be away from Toadlena.

In the late 20s Daisy married a man names Chee Taugelchee. "Chee" means red in Navajo. As a temporary first name - Navajos have baby names - it is given to boys with ruddy complexions.

Since Taugelchee is a slight corruption of Red Mustache or beard, his name could be translated as Rufus Red Whiskers. Daisy would have her name spelled more than 20 different ways over the years including, on a ribbon from the Gallup Ceremonial, Daisy Doglatch (presumably by a Li'l Abner fan).

Mark Winter, the man who has spent decades documenting and encouraging the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills textiles, with his partner Linda Larouche, has identified an example of her work dating from 1930. Other documented pieces from the 30s are in various museum collections, indicating a high level of artistic sophistication when Daisy was still in her early twenties.

At the risk of oversimplification, the Two Grey Hills design usually features a complex stepped or serrated diamond of several layers, enclosed in a border or borders, and executed in all handspun, natural wools.

Sheep around Toadlena actually come in a variety of tans, grays, browns and golds. Only the black wool is enhanced with dye.

A unique style

Early in her career, Daisy would sometimes use her own version of the Storm Pattern design, and a style Winter calls "snowflake."

Like any great artist, though Daisy's work is easily identifiable as belonging to the local tradition, they are also easily identifiable as her own.

These days calling a hand-woven textile "machine made" would be highly insulting, but 80 years ago it was a term of high praise.

The Toadlena ladies were already running 60 threads to the inch, but Charles Herring (who married Bloomfield's daughter Grace and eventually took over the post) thought Daisy could easily exceed that count.

Little did he know, as we say.

Winter gives both Bloomfield and Herring high marks as traders.

"If they hadn't encouraged and taken care of their weavers the way they did, treating them like family, there wouldn't have been the textiles we see," he said.

Herring wrote that after Daisy took his challenge and wove the 80 wefts per inch textile it became her only style. And her preferred size rug measured four by six feet on average.

She won first place at the Ceremonial in 1944 with a similarly fine weaving. She won consistently for the next 40 years. She took both first and grand prizes in 1946. Grand prize in those days was equivalent to best in show.

By the time she was 35 she had won, according the Winter, "all the top honors available to a Navajo weaving artist."

Winning every contest

The fineness of her weaving style caused the Ceremonial board to create a new classification for it, actually several new classifications.

Herring had Daisy weave a special rug for his wife, which won both first and grand prizes in the 1947 competition. Typically a single rug might win the top honors at the Ceremonial in Gallup, the Navajo fair, and one or more fairs in Arizona, including the state fair.

Once Charles Herring left the Toadlena post Daisy's weaving output was up for grabs and she sold to a variety of traders, many of her creations passing through the hands of Russell Foutz of another trading dynasty in the Four Corners area. She continued to win every competition she entered.

She apparently didn't feel a strong loyalty to the new trader at Toadlena, Fred Carson. When the historian Frank McNitt came to interview and photograph her for his seminal work, "The Indian Traders," Daisy completely shut him down. He was so disconcerted by her behavior he wrote about it.

Through the 50s her reputation continued to grow and she went on winning the top prizes wherever her rugs were shown. At this point she was not only the most famous Navajo weaver but she wove the most expensive rugs in the trade. Though, like most Native artists she probably never got what she deserved, her greatness and the superior quality of her work got her some handsome prices - sometimes in the thousands of dollars for a single piece.

In the 1960s she was still winning all the ribbons at the Gallup Ceremonial. In the summer of 1963, while working barefoot at the loom, her house was struck by lightning and burned down. She woke up outdoors with her shoes on. Navajos have a special respect and fear of lightning. Coupled with that, Natives of the Southwest believe they are vulnerable to witches if they become too successful and too rich - and Daisy was both.

Prizewinners in museums

Daisy's rugs that once sold for hundreds now fetch tens of thousands of dollars, though most of her prizewinners, being well documented, have found their way into various museums around the country.

In 2004 the U.S. Postal Service put out a series of postage stamps honoring Native artists called Art of the American Indian. One of the stamps issued had the image of one of Daisy's masterpieces, which is currently housed in the Denver Art Museum. It is a less typical design, having three columns of elements, rather than the diamond motif. The museum's catalog card for the piece includes several errors of fact, but the 1948 weaving is one of her most interesting pieces.

Daisy passed away in 1990, leaving behind a large number of weavers who had either learned from her or been influenced by the excellence of her work. She was buried near Toadlena.

In the tradition of George Bloomfield and Charles Herring, Winter, with Linda and his son Justin, have established a close rapport with the weavers of Toadlena and the textile tradition there is alive and well. Mark takes special care in encouraging new weavers and purchased a large number of "first" rugs from locals, usually descendants of the master weavers of the area.

The Toadlena/Two Grey Hills tapestries are still the most traditionally made, most beautiful and most sought after of all Navajo weavings.

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