Wanda’s brown eyes stared blankly at the empty loom. Her hands were folded in her lap, and her long black hair danced in the breeze. For weeks Grandmother and twelve-year-old Wanda had planned and prepared for this rug. They had sheared the sheep and then washed and dyed the wool, using native dyes made from roots, berries, nuts, and plants.
Grandmother’s wrinkled hands had showed Wanda how to card the wool and spin it into yarn. Wanda had watched carefully, for this was to be her first rug, her very own creation.
Grandmother’s head peeked out of the nearby hogan, her hands busy patting a piece of fry bread into shape. “You must work, Wanda Kieyoomia. The rug will not weave by itself.”
“But Grandmother, won’t you draw out the design like you have before and just let me weave it?”
“No, Wanda. You cannot become a real Navajo by weaving the designs of others. You must weave your own story into the rug. You must prove yourself worthy of your people.”
Wanda turned back to the empty loom. She picked up a ball of black yarn and stared at it.
What can I weave? she wondered. I have not had a frightful experience of bravery as Kathy Silentman did. I have never met a great person as Elvira Tak did. I have nothing important to weave into my rug.
Wanda threw the ball of black yarn to the ground and walked into the hogan. Mother and Grandmother were just finishing the fry bread.
“We have made fry bread just for you,” Mother smiled. But Wanda did not seem to hear.
Mother’s long skirt rustled and her silver and turquoise jewelry clicked to the rhythm of the crackling fire. Finally she asked, “Have you decided whether you will go to the white man’s school next year, Wanda?”
Wanda shook her head. She did not want to go; she was a Navajo and had no use for white man’s ways. But how could she tell Mother? Why were there so many problems and decisions all at once?
“You must decide soon,” Grandmother reminded her. “The time is growing short.”
Wanda did not want to talk about her decision just yet. After she had finished the dishes, she tried to get away while Mother put the little ones to sleep, but Mother stopped her.
“Wanda,” Mother said as she pulled the covers over two-year-old Roberta. “You cannot delay longer. The man from the placement bureau must be told the day after tomorrow. And there is one other thing, my daughter.”
Mother Kieyoomia walked to the door and motioned for Wanda to follow. They walked to the loom. Mother smoothed her beautiful Navajo skirt around her as she sat down. “Wanda, do you remember cousin Victoria?”
“Yes, she’s been at the white man’s school for three years now.”
“And do you remember how she tells of the many things she has learned? Now she is helping her family by teaching them.”
“I know she has learned many things,” Wanda answered, “but Mother, they are white men’s things. We are Navajos, and I only need to know how to cook and weave and take care of my hogan.”
“That is what I wanted to tell you, Wanda. I am glad that you are proud to be a Navajo, but we must progress with the white man’s world. Your father and I have decided to move to one of the new houses on the reservation.”
Wanda jumped to her feet. “A white man’s house? Move from our hogan?”
“Yes, Wanda. It will be much more comfortable for our large family.”
Wanda stared first at the balls of yarn and then at her mother. Then she turned and ran into the sagebrush-covered hills. Her long skirt wrapped around her ankles as she ran.
Suddenly she fell into the sand, panting hard to catch her breath. Slowly she rolled over and looked at the fluffy white clouds floating through the sky. A white man’s house? How could they do this? We are Navajos. I will always be a Navajo! I will not adopt the white man’s ways.
Her eyes began to fill with tears, but she choked them back. A Navajo does not cry, she reminded herself.
Suddenly she had an idea. I will weave into my rug the story of our people, she decided. I will remind Mother and Father of how our people have been treated. Then they will not want me to go. She jumped up and walked back to the hogan, thinking about the design of the rug.
The news that Wanda had started her rug spread quickly among the women. It is an important event when a girl weaves her first rug all alone. Everyone smiled as they agreed, “Wanda will be an asset to our people just as Victoria has been. We will be proud of her.”
The words stung Wanda’s ears, making her weave faster and faster. But Victoria left our people for three years. How can they compare me to her? I will not go to a white man’s school! I am a Navajo!
Wanda’s fingers ached as she gathered up the balls of yarn for the night. “It will be a beautiful rug,” a voice from behind said. Wanda looked up, startled.
“Hello, Victoria,” she said softly as she went back to her work. “I did not hear you come.”
“I’ve been watching you. Your fingers are nimble and sure. What will your rug tell, Wanda?” Victoria asked. “My first rug was about my grandfather.”
“You wove a story rug?” Wanda questioned.
“Of course. I am a Navajo.” Victoria sat down next to Wanda and ran her fingers through the sand.
Wanda stared at her. “But you have been living with white people and going to white schools!”
“Yes, to help my family and my people. I have learned many things from the white man, but I am a Navajo. I want our people to have the best of both cultures. Then we will have both the good things that the white men have and the good things that our people have always had. Someday you will go to school so you can help too.”
When Victoria left, Wanda’s old thoughts and feelings buzzed through her head as she compared them with what Victoria had just told her. All night she thought of it, tossing and turning as she tried to sleep.
As the delicate half-light of morning was beginning to creep into the valley, Wanda hurried out to her loom.
Her hands worked fast and sure as they had done the day before, but on her face was a smile of peace. By nightfall the rug was completed, and everyone gathered to see Wanda’s work.
Father Kieyoomia was the first to see the small rug. He looked at it a long, long time. Finally he turned to Wanda. “I am proud of you, my daughter,” he said. “Most girls tell of things that have happened. They are past; they cannot be changed. But you have told of the future, a future you will help to make by going to the white man’s school and learning about the world. Then you will bring the good things you learn back to us, your people. You are a real Navajo.”