Hastiin Tłah: medicine person and weaver

By Nate Wulff

With the Evalyn Clark Fellowship, I traveled to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico for research on an individual named known as Hastiin Tłah, a medicine person and weaver who lived near Newcomb, New Mexico in the Navajo Nation. Completely unfamiliar with the region, its culture, and its landscape, I felt traveling a necessary part of my process to better contextualize Tłah within a place and my thesis within the present dynamics of Southwestern culture. The latter proved especially fruitful. In both cities (along with the transit between them), I witnessed the extent to which Native populations and culture influenced the area. Their presence differed greatly from the areas in which I have lived—Poughkeepsie, New York, and Roanoke, Virginia. That experience offered an urgency and importance to my thesis unobtainable through other means.

The resources to which I gained access through the fellowship proved equally rich. Despite a limited scope due to the weather-related delay of my trip, I found key sources to supplement and strengthen my argument. While at the University of New Mexico Zimmerman Library of the Humanities, I uncovered a book by George Wharton James describing the beginnings of sacred image blankets written in 1914, which preceded Tłah’s work and the influence of traders Arthur and Franc Newcomb. This piece established a precedence that provided a means to better illustrate the influence of others on Tłah’s work and the innovations Tłah established in pictorial weaving through spiritual leadership. The newspaper archives at the library provided less exciting results since Franc Newcomb included the articles about Tłah in her biography of the weaver, but the previously mentioned find more than made up for it.

Visiting the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, I saw the legacy of Tłah, who co-founded the museum with Mary Wheelwright. There, I met with Lea Armstrong, the assistant director of the museum, who is in the final stages of a book on Mary Wheelwright. This conversation supported much of my previous research and even provided me with some new context to understand the ways in which Franc Newcomb advocated for Tłah to others like Wheelwright. But the most important part of this visit was the realization that the museum had erased Tłah’s gender. The museum’s position, “we don’t know, and we don’t care,” struck to the foundation of my argument and provided a clenching epilogue that demonstrated the ways in which historians still participate in a gendered colonial violence against indigenous gender systems. After this trip, my thesis had a beating and bleeding heart that connected past and present in new and vital ways.