Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 21-44
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Elle Meets the President:
Weaving Navajo Culture and Commerce in the Southwestern Tourist Industry
Laura Jane Moore
During the spring of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt included a two-hour stop in Albuquerque while on a speaking tour through the western territories. The Commercial Club of Albuquerque chose a Navajo woman, called Elle of Ganado, to weave a gift for the president--a textile rendition of his honorary Commercial Club membership card. Club members provided the design, which Elle wove quickly in hand-spun red, white, and blue yarn. During his tour of Albuquerque, Roosevelt visited the Commercial Club, where he received Elle's blanket, and he stopped by the Alvarado Hotel's Indian Building, where he met the weaver herself. An Albuquerque newspaper reported that upon meeting the weaver, the "president gave her a hearty shake and told her how much he appreciated her work. The little speech was interpreted and pleased the Indian woman beyond expression." 1
Although her own thoughts were apparently "beyond expression," Elle's image spoke volumes to turn-of-the-century Americans, showing New Mexico as not only conquered but commercialized, safe for investment and safe for statehood. Indeed, Commercial Club members orchestrated this performance as part of a statehood campaign, a drive for integration into the social, economic, and political life of the United States, an effort that would not pay off for nearly ten more years. Elle and the president's meeting suggests ways in which race and gender, regional and national politics, culture and commerce interacted and were inextricably linked as the twentieth century began. The pivotal role that Elle played in Roosevelt's visit reveals that while we tend to think of women like Elle as marginalized historical figures, they were far from peripheral to the unfolding of twentieth-century American history. Not only can we better understand such women by placing them within the larger economic, cultural, and political context [End Page 21] of their times, but we can better understand that context by putting a woman like Elle at its center.
Elle of Ganado, also called Asdzaa Lichii' (Red Woman) in Navajo, was born to the Black Sheep Clan and lived in the southern part of the Navajo Reservation near the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona. She might have been about fifty years old at the time she met Roosevelt, and she lived until 1924. At the suggestion of trader John Lorenzo Hubbell, she and her husband Tom began spending substantial periods of time in Albuquerque beginning in 1903 after the Fred Harvey Company opened its Indian Building as part of the Alvarado Hotel complex at the Santa Fe Railroad depot. Together with other Navajo and Pueblo families, they worked as arts and crafts demonstrators within the burgeoning southwestern tourist industry. 2
Most scholarly literature on southwestern tourism examines the ironies and complexities of images of Indians portrayed as purely nonindustrial producers of "traditional" handcrafts, "outside history, outside industrial capitalism" that had begun to emerge at the turn of the century. 3 Elle's Commercial Club blanket, however, unabashedly declared the link between Indian art and turn-of-the-century capitalism. It is a reminder that those who worked as demonstrators were, like all Americans at the time, entering new kinds of economic relationships that would affect their work and their communities in profound ways. Beyond their ideological implications, then, these tourists sites were workplaces to which a number of Native Americans agreed to travel for extended periods of time. The sites were also cultural crossroads at which negotiations took place between employers and employees, between young corporate and rural America, between white men and Indian families, between metropolitan and peripheral economies. This essay explores the contours of these crossroads, the compromises demanded and the benefits promised various participants. 4
The Fred Harvey Company, it has been said, "invented" the Southwest as "America's Orient." Fred Harvey was an English immigrant who opened his first restaurant along the...