Native American twine weaving is a dying art. This Kansas artist taps 'surrogate ancestors' to revive it.
A Haskell Indian Nations University student journalist gained national recognition during the pandemic advocating for free speech. Now he’s turning his attention to bringing back traditional textile weaving.
Jared Nally grew up in Colby, Kansas, and says he always felt like he walked in two worlds, or two cultures, with Kansas Miami and Volga German roots.
Now, he says, "it's really interesting because I do revitalization efforts on both sides."
To honor his German heritage, he's explored food culture and changed his sleep system to a straw mattress. And as a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, he's learned traditional fiber and textile techniques.
"I think the stereotype is wearing furs and being clothed in buckskin," he says. "There isn't this level of understanding of the intricacy of textile traditions that were here and established in our communities."
When Nally arrived at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, his focus was on “curating a community around fiber craft.” He started the Haskell Handweavers, a group to revitalize tribal textiles and worked on coiled baskets.
But, in trying to juggle classes and a job at McDonald’s and getting back to the dorms around 2 a.m., he felt like he was missing out on campus life.
“So to balance that," he says, "I saw the student newspaper as an opportunity to go to student events, be able to write about them and be more involved.”
It was also a way to earn some extra money. So, while working on his degree in Indigenous and American Indian Studies, he started writing for The Indian Leader, the country’s oldest Native-American-run student newspaper. He eventually became editor-in-chief.
Early in the pandemic, things got a little tense. In October 2020, then-university president Ronald Graham sent a directive. Graham was critical of Nally’s reporting, including attempts to learn more about a staff member’s death, and threatened disciplinary action.
“My role as a student journalist changed dramatically on what I saw myself and the needs of the community,” Nally says. “And so a lot of that effort was put into giving students voice and getting information out to the student body and the Haskell community.”
Nally sued Haskell, and, earlier this year, a district court ordered the university to adopt policy reforms to protect the First Amendment rights of students.
The Native American Journalists Association awarded Haskell’s paper its 2021 Free Press Award.
But the truth was Nally wasn’t sure about a career as a journalist. So now he’s busy trying to hone other skills — and revive a tradition that hasn’t been practiced in more than a century: twine panel bags.
Inside his West Bottoms apartment in Kansas City, Missouri, with concrete floors and lots of natural light, Nally shows an in-progress twine bag on a loom. His ancestors likely used a bag like this to store food and clothing.
“So I've wanted to create a piece that really showcases the size of the bags because a lot of them were about two feet wide and this will be the biggest one I've made," he says.
"But I think it really highlights how cool some of our textiles were," he adds, "and kind of the ingenuity behind it.”
This bag, a commission for the Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology opening next year, is geometrically abstract. Nally expects it will take about 80 to 90 hours to complete.
“So you have these two colors that you're weaving in kind of a triangle grid and whatever leg of that triangle goes above the other color," he explains. "You're able to move the colors from foreground to background or vice versa and you can create geometric shapes.”
Tribal communities, Nally says, have always had to strike a balance — in thinking about the next generation and ways to preserve culture.
He says there’s a phrase about "language going to sleep" until it's safe to bring it back.
“And it kind of seems antithetical to stop using language or stop certain cultural components, but that was really important for the continued survival,” he says.
“I mean we faced boarding schools, forced sterilization," he says. "There are a lot of hurdles in creating a next-generation that could continue those crafts.”
Nally says native languages are in use again, thanks to tribal linguists. His callback to the community is revitalizing textiles, such as finger weaving and twine panel bags.
There's one existing example of a twine bag at the National Museum of the American Indian, he says, that's tied to the Miami tribe and dates back to 1860-1890. But that leaves a big gap in generational teaching. So he’s had to study historic bags and archives for inspiration.
"I've had to rely on almost surrogate ancestors," he says. "Museum objects allow me to look at them and understand parts of our traditions and what the maker was thinking or how the maker worked on a piece."
In August, he's headed to graduate school to study environmental science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with a focus on sustainability and relationships to place.
Reviving traditional textiles, he says, is one way to re-learn those relationships with places. And since there aren’t really instructional books or YouTube tutorials, he’s creating digital resources.
"That kind of falls on the current makers of the bags," he says, "to pass that knowledge on."