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By Tracy Dingmann
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
When Mark Winter and his wife bought the rights to operate the historic Toadlena Trading Post from the Navajo Nation in 1997, they immediately made lots of changes.

The old building near Newcomb was pretty run down and lacked much of the cachet it had during its heyday in the early 1900s. So they shored up the floors, rewired the rooms and invited their Navajo neighbors to bring in "really cool old stuff" to adorn the place.

Perhaps most importantly, Mark Winter added the Two Grey Hills Weaving Museum, filled with old photographs of weavers, weaver genealogies and some spectacular rugs, to honor what had once been the pride of the community.

The redoing of the Toadlena Trading Post, which serves as a grocery store, bank, post office and cultural center for northwest New Mexico, has been a smashing success, says Winter.

Except for one thing.
"My wife wanted to have a nice health section with vegetables and everything, but no one would buy them," said Winter. "I told her, 'I guess we're not going to change the diet of the people.' ''

What Winter has changed is the way the community and the world views the renowned weavers of Toadlena.

"Toadlena is to Navajo rugs what Paris is to haute couture," declared Arizona Highways magazine in 1974.

Indeed, rugs by the Two Grey Hills weavers of the Toadlena region have long been prized among collectors for their tight weaves and vibrant colors. The rugs are made in the valley, from the wool of sheep raised there. It is hand-dyed and hand-spun into thread. Weavers have their own styles and intricate designs that shape the rugs, but few of their names and stories were ever known to collectors.

Enter Winter, a dealer of antique Indian art from California who learned about Toadlena and the Two Grey Hills weavers in the 1970s. Winter said he was always bothered by lack of information about the creators of the distinctive rugs.

"It seemed a shame that there was no way to attribute pieces to actual weavers," he said. "So in the late 1980s, I collected some rugs and showed them to some grandmothers (on the reservation), to see if I could identify them."

To Winter's surprise, many of the weavers were still alive. And if they weren't, there were other older folk on the reservation who knew exactly which weavers did which rugs and could be convinced to share old pictures and stories about them.

Unlocking the secrets of the rugs wasn't easy. Often the rugs and their designs weren't known to anyone but immediate family members. In many other cases, Navajos were reluctant to overcome a cultural taboo against talking about dead family members. But by establishing trust and communicating through a translator, Winter was able to break through.

In many cases, Winter bought their rugs on the spot, paying top dollar.

After years of doing this, Winter had enough material to open his own museum, which he did shortly after buying the trading post in 1997. "What better way to understand a people than by studying the rugs of their ancestors?" he asks.

Now, the Toadlena weavers are stars not only in their community but in the world. People come to the museum and trading post and pay thousands of dollars for rugs, thrilled by the personal stories and certificates of authentication that come with them.

A typical 4- by 6-foot Two Grey Hills rug will sell for between $2,500 to $15,000, depending on whether the weaver has a well-known name or not, said Winter. Such rugs contain 10 miles of hand-spun wool and take more than a year to make.

Each year since opening, the museum has hosted a major show of textiles showing the evolution of the Two Grey Hills style. On Saturday, June 15, the museum will open "Dances With Wool: Celebrating 100 Years of Wool Imagery," featuring rugs that depict specific animal or human figures. Prominent among the collection is the work of the renowned medicine man and artist Hosteen Klah, who popularized previously taboo medicinal images in art, said Winter.

The museum has become a point of pride for families in the area, who bring visitors there to see their family rugs and old photographs, says Winter.

He and others are trying to capitalize on that community pride by encouraging young weavers. The passion for weaving seems to have skipped a generation - most weavers are grandmothers at least 55 years old, said Winter.

But in the past five years, Winter says, he has bought 100 "first rugs" from children as young as 4, to encourage their creativity. He also has overseen a weaving club and helped establish a weaving class at Newcomb High School.

"Last month it was shearing season, and all the kids were working," he says.

Plans are in the works for next year to reach the children even younger, in middle school, he said.

Copyright 2002 Albuquerque Journal