Earlier this week, some concern was expressed regarding whether or not the term “Navajo plying” was racially insensitive. I take this kind of thing very seriously. As far as I can tell, the answer is no.
As always, J. Smoov’s video remains the gold standard with regards to this type of discussion:
The first thing I considered was whether or not the term was derogatory (like “Indian giver” or “gypped”). But there don’t seem to be any negative connotations to “Navajo plying” (quite the contrary).
As you may know, the Navajo people have a long history of raising sheep, spinning wool, and weaving textiles. They created the Navajo-Churro sheep breed, and Navajo rugs and blankets are justifiably famous world-wide.
However, I was not able to officially corroborate the theory that the Navajo either invented or popularized this particular plying technique. I emailed a few experts I found online, but have not heard back. If you can provide a citation or the contact info for someone I can ask, I would appreciate it.
Thus, (pending further evidence) I think it’s safe to say that “Navajo plying” is just a descriptive term, like “Greek yogurt” or “Kenyan coffee.”
Navajo woman giving weaving demonstration, courtesy Flickr/Inkknife_2000
The second consideration was whether using the phrase “Navajo plying” is a form of cultural appropriation.
This is a more complicated matter, and cultural appropriation isn’t always a bad thing. Jezebel.com has a very readable and thoughtful article about where to draw the line and why. And here is a fun game you can play when discussing cultural appropriation.
Navajo women demonstrating techniques at 2008 International Sheep Dog Trials, courtesy Flickr/Knoxville Museum of Art
There have been several recent examples of cultural appropriation in the fashion world, which just can’t stop dressing up its models in traditional Native American garb. This is particularly loathsome because it takes one culture’s religious paraphernalia and uses it as set dressing in order to sell a product.
Honestly, nothing I can say about cultural appropriation is as cutting, accurate, or hilarious as this video by sketch comedy troupe The 1491s. It features “footage of 1491s member Ryan Red Corn dancing at the Santa Fe Indian Market interspersed with shots of visitors to the market and examples of appropriation of Native cultures, all set to Irving Berlin’s “I’m an Indian Too,” from Annie Get Your Gun.”
But I feel that the plying technique doesn’t qualify as cultural appropriation. For one thing, its use isn’t disrespectful or dehumanizing to the Navajo people or culture. For another thing, although spinning wool is central to traditional Navajo culture, I don’t think this technique has a large weight of religious or cultural significance, beyond its usefulness in plying yarn.
I think it’s safe to conclude that “Navajo plying” is neither derogatory nor a form of cultural appropriation. Given which, I can make a decent case for the premise that calling it “chain plying” is a form of whitewashing. After all, if this is a Navajo technique, then they deserve the credit for it, right?
Anyway, I tried it, it was a little clumsy at first, but it turned out really well.
And thanks as always for hearing me out on this.