It started in the winter of 1998, after I’d read People of Darkness, a Tony Hillerman murder mystery set in New Mexico, in Navajo country. A local policeman goes to the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction, held at, of all places, the local elementary school, to check on a lead in the case. It caught my interest, which was further piqued when I noticed that an issue of New Mexico Magazine mentioned the rug auction—usually held the second Friday of every month—in its “What’s Happening” pages. I called the phone number listed and got directions.
On a February afternoon, my husband, Ron, and I left Las Cruces for Crownpoint, a town of about 2,500 (90 percent Native American) that lies about 60 miles northeast of Gallup, along NM 371. As we drove, snow started to fall. Once the sun began to set, I became nervous. We were going to a mysterious event in an unfamiliar area, and we hadn’t even booked a hotel. We finally arrived at the school with half an hour to spare. It was now snowing heavily. The full parking lot was our first clue that this was a major event, and the gymnasium, where the auctions are held, was rapidly filling up too. Viewing time for the rugs, all made by members of the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Association, had already ended.
We got our bidding number and looked for somewhere to sit, but our only option seemed to be to stand against a wall. The Anglo bidders sat in the front, while the Navajo weavers and their families sat in the back. From somewhere in front of us, an elderly Navajo woman motioned to us. There were two empty seats next to her. I thanked her as we sat down. She rewarded me with a quick, shy smile and turned back to the auction platform. I glanced at her attire: traditional skirt, blouse, squash blossom necklace, hair in a bun, and store-bought moccasins. The other women her age were dressed the same way. The auctioneers wore the only cowboy hats to be seen in the room. Ron, who wore his Mesilla baseball cap, fit right in with the Navajo men.
The auction began right on time. On the platform, the five teenagers who had folded and arranged the 300 rugs took turns showing them as each came up for bid. Depending on a rug’s size, complexity of weave, and weaver, the starting amounts ranged anywhere from ten to a thousand dollars. Once in a while, a rug was so beautiful that it evoked spontaneous gasps of admiration from the audience. Ron and I cautiously waited to start our own bidding. Since we hadn’t been able to preview the rugs, we didn’t have a sense of what to hold out for.
But after we got started, we were happy with our first rug, a complex design in red, gray, black, and cream. Because the rug had sold higher than its minimum bid, we hoped that the weaver, Eleanor Towne (who had started making rugs when she was nine), was happy. It would have been nice to meet her; we wondered if we might sometime, at a future Crownpoint auction. Next, Ron and I bought a rug that, judging by its simple design and thicker wool, looked to have been made by a beginner. We hoped our purchase would encourage the rug’s weaver to keep learning.
For the next 11 years, those rugs adorned our home, beckoning us to return to Crownpoint. Though we often thought of our auction adventure and longed to buy more rugs there, we didn’t make it back until the winter of 2009. This time, we knew to arrive early so we could preview the rugs and have an Indian taco for supper. When auction time arrived, we chose to sit in the middle of the gym because we wanted to be in the thick of the action. Starting prices were higher than they’d been in 1998, which limited our options. At long last, we won a rug made by Lilly Hosteen, a weaver from Piñon.
We had no idea what to expect when we set off from Las Cruces that day in February almost 20 years ago. What we found was a professionally run enterprise with hundreds of Navajo rugs for sale in every imaginable size, design, and color combination. We love all five rugs we bought during our two visits to the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction—for their unique beauty and for the memorable times we had obtaining them.
Ron and I are looking forward to our next auction, which, we hope, will come sooner rather than later. As for accommodations, there aren’t any in Crownpoint. And though many folks stay at hotels in Grants or Gallup, our lodging will be at truck stops during future visits, where we’ll spend the night in sleeping bags in our Ford Escape. Hotels? Nope. We know our spending priority. It’s New Mexico artwork.
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