Old Glory Deconstructed

Juanita’s Loom with Textile

Another great hybrid art object and “strange tool” is this tapestry created by Juanita (Navajo, 1845–1910), who brought it to Washington DC to commemorate the signing of the Bosque Redondo treaty in 1874.

Textile scholar Kate Kent calls this weaving one of the first Navajo pictorials. Purposefully incomplete, we get to see its guts, and while half of the textile depicts a version of the American flag, the other half is a kind of “eye-dazzler,” so named for its brilliant colors and patterns.

This is not just a trade object or curio created for the White market. It is “art for art’s sake,” meant to be displayed on a wall. It is also a history lesson. It may even be a kind of treaty! Juanita wove the two textiles from different ends of the loom, but then stopped in the middle. Kira Dominguez Hultgren considers that Juanita is showing us the important space left between the two worlds, but also how both worlds are under construction. “She weaves here, and no further.” Hultgrent:

“In Loom with Textile, Juanita pledges her protest to the flag. Woven with the loom bars and yarn bundles still in place, this U.S. flag is in the midst of construction….By leaving the flag on the loom, Juanita exposes how the symbol of the U.S. nation is more than an image. As a loom, the flag becomes a construction tied to a machine that operates to bury the nations and people with whom it comes in contact. Yet in Loom with Textile, Juanita is its operator.”

A color warp

Usually, the weaving conceals the warp, so most mid-19th century Navajo weavings were done on natural, undyed wool warps. But here Juanita draws attention to what is usually hidden. Through the use of a color warp, which she leaves unwoven in the middle of the textile, Juanita is able to embed a counter-narrative that runs the entire length of the artwork. As a way to speak about treaties, perhaps she is also pointing to a mutual dependency between nations, how both sides depend on hidden relationships.

The Crosses

Is that even an American flag, or is it an example of strategic failure? To the initiated, this isn’t just an American flag. Those stripes harken back to the first-phase chief blankets. Stripes signified wisdom and power already. Like stars and crosses, they are much older than the American flag.

Moreover, those crosses are not just “stars” and “states” but are also symbols for the four holy mountains which demarcate the Navajo homeland, Diné Bikéyah. The cross also signifies the four directions and four holy winds, which are gods, and it is a reminder of the four worlds that emerge and unfold into ours. Navajo crosses also connote the important “whirling logs” story.

Some of them are separated from their canton. Hultgrent argues that the crosses outside of the canton can be read as places or people that will never be included in the United States, people who will not be counted. The separated stars also form a constellation that could be Cassiopeia, the great mother, but it could also be the tale of Scorpio or the Navajo rabbit.

The Single Blue Star

One of the most striking moments in the piece is the appearance of a single blue star outside the canton. Hultgrent thinks the blue star may function in a similar way to the loose warp strands in the middle of the weaving. “It shows what lies beneath. For every cross that is woven in, Juanita must leave out that much blue yarn from the weaving….For every state added to the U.S., something or someone is excluded or extracted. To add a star, to draw a reservation boundary, to put Navajo land in relationship to the U.S., is to bury or erase an alternative set of relationships to the land that existed before colonialism. Juanita both enacts and refuses this erasure by weaving back in the blue yarn that was extracted.”

Bright colors signal darkness

One Navajo elder told me that the white crosses in Juanita’s textile also represent tombstones, and crosses all lined up like that suggests a massacre.

The zig-zag pattern in the bottom portion also represents a massacre to those who know art history. The appearance of bright, colorful yarn is associated with Bosque Redondo and The Long Walk, where over 2,000 Diné and Apache died, and remember, this weaving was created in the midst of the signing of the Bosque Redondo treaty. Like ledger art, the colorful weavings are also proof of war crimes.

While in the prison camps, the government-issued baize (cheap flannel) blankets were unraveled, unspun, and rewoven into blankets that were made of Indigenous patterns and stories. Moreover, the pre-spun Germantown yarn, combined with the daily internment during this period, freed up a lot of time for the weavers to work on their new, eye-dazzlingly complex patterns.

More colors were added to Navajo textiles as they became available by unraveling traded fabric from Mexico and by importing the colorful yarn from Philadelphia.

It is said that women’s knowledge of weaving helped indigenous peoples survive cultural genocide.

Three other female artists who work with deconstructing the American Flag in order to exercise agency and bring attention to colonial violence: Merritt Johnson, Erica Lord, and Sonia Clark. Let’s look at their work next to Juanita’s and see what happens.

In Johnson’s new installment of her Exorcizing America DIY video series on youtube, her calming voice describes exactly how to make a ladder out of an American flag, in both English and Spanish. I asked Johnson why she remixes the flag specifically, and she made some really important points:

“The US flag has been used as a symbol of settler claim, ownership and to assert the sovereignty of a settler government on Indigenous land. It’s present at borders and federal and state buildings and parks as a reminder that there is no public land, there is no acknowledgment of Indigenous connection to land alongside the US Flag, as many Indigenous nations have flags. So to make the flag into something that functions to oppose the power and sovereignty of US border enforcement makes sense to me. It’s a simple action, and it’s a form of creation through destruction which is sometimes necessary, it connects to so much of life and survival in terms of how energy is converted and how living things survive. Remixing is a form of agency as well, it makes space for multiplicity and intersectionality of voices and experiences.”

Multi-racial Athapascan artist Erica Lord also creates art using the flag. Her “American Land Reclamation Project,” is an installation that explores the repetition of broken treaties in US-American history. Using only the red stripes from the flag, the blood, Lord creates one prayer tie for each of these broken treaties and suspends them from the ceiling with sinew. Prayer ties are often filled with tobacco, and for many people, tying knots is a kind of praying used for healing. Lord’s bundles are filled with dirt from reservations and tribal lands, and she installed mirrors on the ceiling, walls, and floor of the square room to further multiply the prayer ties.

Finally, Sonya Clark is known for her performances where she simply unweaves flags, or she unweaves and then reweaves them into something else. Sometimes she adds hair.

Painter and Professor of Art