Skip to main content
  • “Sitting at the Loom Is a Prayer”: Kevin Aspaas Weaves Diné History and Culture

    A man sits at a loom under a tent outdoors.

    Photo by Grace Bowie, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “When we’re sitting at the loom, we’re sitting at the world.”

    Kevin Aspaas is a Diné weaver, fiber artist, shepherd, and farmer based in Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation. He is also a board member of the Diné-led nonprofit organization Diné Be’iiná, which was founded in 1991 to promote and preserve Diné lifeways. Aspaas participated in this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where he shared his story and demonstrated traditional weaving.

    Originally from Jeddito, Arizona, he first learned to weave when he was ten years old. He comes from a long line of weavers, craftspeople, and storytellers. His mother was his first teacher, after she learned to weave from her sister, who learned from their mother. Aspaas became a weaver so that he could continue this legacy.

    “I consider myself fortunate that the textile legacy hasn’t been broken, that it’s still maintained,” he told me.

    “Weaving has opened so many doors to my culture,” Aspaas shared. When he was a child, he didn’t know very much about Diné history or culture. “At that point, it was just about weaving. Nothing else. Just the art form.” Over time, he began to learn the stories of the Diné people. Moreover, elders in his community taught him about the historical, cultural, and spiritual significance of weaving.

    His uncles taught him that weavers should not be angry when they sit down at the loom. “Essentially, we’re putting our energy into the loom,” Aspaas explained. “When you’re not feeling good, and you’re putting that into your weaving, people can feel it.

    “Once I started learning all those aspects, inadvertently I became a knowledge holder within the community,” he said. Although numerous books have been written about Diné culture, Aspaas emphasized the importance of learning these traditions from community members. “It’s different when you learn it from another person in your community. What we have in our communities, that’s what gives it life and maintains its ability to thrive.”

    Close-up on a person weaving on an upright loom, using white, blue, and yellow yarn to created a zig-zag pattern.
    Throughout the second week of the Festival, Aspaas worked on this wedge-woven textile.
    Photo by Grace Bowie, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up on a person weaving on an upright loom, using a wooden tool to pass threads through.
    Throughout the second week of the Festival, Aspaas worked on this wedge-woven textile.
    Photo by Grace Bowie, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    For thousands of years, weaving has occupied a central place in the Diné way of life. According to their creation stories, the Diné people were given the gift of weaving by two sacred figures: Spider Woman and Spider Man. These ancestors taught the community how to carve looms, harvest natural dyes, and weave intricate patterns. More broadly, they taught the people how to weave harmony and beauty into their lives.

    Diné weaving practices and designs have evolved throughout history. Prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists in the seventeenth century, Diné artists primarily wove with cotton. After the Spanish introduced sheep, weavers began to spin, dye, and weave with wool yarn. Diné textiles were also influenced by the traditions of the neighboring Pueblo people.

    Aspaas weaves a variety of traditional and contemporary textiles, including rugs, blankets, tapestries, and clothing. He is best known for utilizing a Diné technique known as “wedge weaving,” which he demonstrated at the Festival. This method, which was first developed in the mid-nineteenth century, produces stunning textiles with unique scalloped edges and zigzag patterns.

    Although Aspaas routinely creates contemporary pieces for art collectors and museums, he also weaves traditional rug dresses, sash belts, and moccasins for fellow Diné. “I make things accessible to my community,” he emphasized. He recently wove a number of sash belts for traditional Diné birthing practices. “It’s really satisfying for my work to be used like that.”

    For Aspaas, maintaining his own creative freedom is a powerful way of honoring his ancestors. In the late nineteenth century, trading posts on the newly established Navajo reservation began to dictate what designs could be woven by Diné artists. Following the expansion of the railroad in the Southwest, demand for Diné crafts increased significantly. To meet this demand, traders pressured Diné weavers to create textiles that they believed would be most marketable. As a result, many traditional patterns and techniques were pushed aside.

    “I create what I want to create because of the hardships they went through—to honor them in that way,” the artist shared.

    White sheep grazing in grasslands.
    Photo by Kevin Aspaas

    Aspaas practices traditional Diné sheep-to-loom weaving, which means that he is also a shepherd, spinner, and natural dyer. He started his own flock of sheep in 2020, after learning from his family and relatives. “It’s a very humbling experience,” he reflected. Caring for the health and wellbeing of his flock is an enormous responsibility—one that he does not take lightly. Every spring, he shears his sheep to ensure that they are comfortable in the warmer months. Each summer, he takes them to the mountains. His favorite time of the year is lambing season, when his ewes give birth.

    “You get to see how well you took care of them in the winter months based on the durability of their fleece,” he explained. If his flock’s wool breaks easily, then he knows that he hasn’t done his job. When Aspaas visits museum collections and sees Diné weavings from the early twentieth century, he can tell whether the weavers took care of their flocks. “It’s evident in the weavings they produced, because they’re very strong, very vibrant, and very powerful.”

    Sheep play a major role in Diné culture and spirituality. “We have this saying: sheep is life,” Aspaas told me. “Sheep opened the door to weaving, to food, to learning about being on the land.” Aspaas’ relationship with his flock is reciprocal. He looks after his sheep, and they care for him in return. “They take care of us more often than not—emotionally, spiritually.”

    After shearing his flock, Aspaas spins and dyes his own wool yarn. Although he has experimented with synthetic dyes, he much prefers working with natural ones. “I haven’t touched those yarns in a while, because they don’t seem alive to me. They don’t have the same spirit to me, compared to something that’s naturally dyed.” Aspaas doesn’t use exact measurements when he creates natural dyes, and he appreciates the unpredictability of his results.

    He mostly works with plants that grow in the Southwest, such as wild rhubarb. This plant, which is also known as Navajo wild carrot, produces a variety of golden-brown hues. His favorite materials to work with are indigo and cochineal, and he loves producing blues, reds, and purples.

    Close-up on a rainbow array of bunches of yarn: grays, turquoise, yellow, orange, and reds.
    Photo by Shannon Binns, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    A woven red sash draped around an old tree stump.
    Traditional Diné sash belt
    Photo by Kevin Aspaas
    A woven made with blue, black, and white zig-zags.
    An example of the Diné wedge-weaving technique
    Photo by Kevin Aspaas
    Three shades of blue-dyed yarn hanging over a wooden rack above a metal pot, with mountains in the background.
    Photo by Kevin Aspaas

    In Diné culture, weaving is a sacred practice. “Sitting at the loom is itself a prayer,” Aspaas reflected. “Every time weavers sit at the loom, it’s a prayer for rain, because everything on our loom is created from moisture.” In the Southwest, where the climate is dry and arid, rain is a precious resource. Without water, Diné weavers would not be able to grow plants or care for their flocks.

    “The bottom of the loom represents the earth,” he explained. “The top represents the sky. The different elements in weaving represent thunder, lightning, female rain, male rain. A lot of it is prayerful in a way.” For Diné artists, weaving is not merely an artform but a spiritual practice through which they can honor ancestors, connect with the land, and pray to deities who have provided the community with countless blessings.

    Much of Aspaas’s understanding of Diné culture came from his uncle, who was a silversmith. “One of the last things he told me was that weaving is an older art form than his, and it’s more sacred than his.” When Aspaas weaves, he feels that he has a responsibility “to be careful, and to be reverent of the sacredness of it. Because it’s not just a bunch of strings being woven together. There’s a meaning and a purpose behind it.”

    At the Folklife Festival, he shared his work and story with the public. “The history of the institution itself is one that’s steeped in colonialism,” he told me. For this reason, it was meaningful for him “to be here on the National Mall and telling our story, telling our truths the way we see it, the way we’ve lived it.”

    Aspaas wants to ensure that Diné culture is not commodified or tokenized. “I’m not obligated to be here,” he commented. “But at the same time, I do feel obligated because—who else is going to do it? Who else is knowledgeable in the things that I do?”

    Aspaas aspires to pass down the weaving tradition to his nieces and nephews. “It’s my hope for them to realize how special this art form is and how unique it is to our culture. That’s what makes us, as Diné people.”

    Close-up on a person weaving on an upright loom.
    Photo by Shannon Binns, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Joshua Kurtz is a writing intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care. He is also a weaver, poet, and fiddle player.

    Kevin Aspaas is associated with GALACTIC (Global Arts Language Arts Cultural Traditions in Indigenous Communities), a project of Navajo Technical University, Diné College, and Indiana University.


    Biggers, Ashley M. “Meet the Next Generation of Diné Weavers.” New Mexico Magazine, July 21, 2021.

    Ornelas, Barbara Teller and Lynda Teller Pete. “Spider Woman’s Children: The next generation of Navajo weavers,” Garland Magazine, December 5, 2019.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.