An Arizona cowboy has dedicated his career to preserving a Native American art form.
Steve Getzwiller’s truck serves as a mobile office during his monthly journeys to the Navajo reservation. As he turns off of the Arizona highway onto little more than a dirt trail, bouncing across the deep ruts created by the long-gone spring rains, his cowboy hat slides back and forth across the dashboard.
He knows just about every spot on the rez where he can get a cellphone signal. When he has one, he takes the opportunity to check in with his wife, Gail, back in Sonoita, or with the Navajo weavers he is going to visit in their homes and hogans.
This quiet cowboy, whose ranching heritage goes back generations through Arizona and New Mexico’s territorial days, clear back to the Republic of Texas, is considered one of the premier collectors and dealers of Navajo weavings in the country. But for him, these visits aren’t purely business.
“It’s more a family relationship than a business one,” he says. “It’s a collaborative partnership, and when you consider I’m working exclusively with the same weavers for 10, 20, 30 years, it tells you something about the relationship.”
Which is, truly, a deep one. Getzwiller started working with the mothers and grandmothers of some of the women now weaving for him today. And over time, they have come to trust him.
“There’s definitely mutual respect,” he says. “I’m their banker, employer, counselor, friend. Their problems become my problems.”
Getzwiller knows the region well. He grew up on a ranch in the southeastern corner of Arizona and spent a lot of time as a kid in Dragoon hanging around the Amerind Foundation, a museum and research center for Native American arts and culture. Archaeologist Charles C. Di Peso, who directed the foundation for 30 years until his death in 1982, helped to spark the young man’s imagination, inspiring him to study anthropology at the University of Arizona and start collecting weavings at the first opportunity.
“I was able to afford my first Navajo weavings when I was 18 by trading my childhood collection of .22 rifles,” he says. “After I got out of college I just went out and started living it — traveling to the reservation and buying and selling pawn jewelry and Navajo weavings.”
In those days, he made the eight-hour trek twice a month, as one of several hundred licensed traders. “In the early days, when all the trading posts were there, there was a lot of disdain for me [from the other traders], even though I worked closely with them, brokering the sale of several trading post rugs for them,” he recalls. “The traders used to call me a ‘hogan hopper,’ because I started working directly with weavers. Interestingly enough, I’m the last one standing.”
Part of Getzwiller’s success can be attributed to the fact that, from the beginning, he was not simply interested in the sale, but also in enabling the women to market their work to the world. He encouraged them to experiment and expand their designs while keeping many of the traditional patterns. His philosophy dovetailed with the desire of the Diné to preserve their own culture while incorporating the best of others into it.
“The goal of my life’s work in Navajo weaving has been to see how far I can push the envelope, how much I can improve contemporary Navajo weaving, bringing it to its highest level possible,” Getzwiller says. “That’s what was accomplished at the turn of the 19th century by a very few dedicated traders with the Navajo, such as Juan Lorenzo Hubbell and J.B. Moore.”
Hubbell, who established his first trading post on the Navajo Nation in 1878, worked with Navajo weavers to increase their sales and become self-sufficient by showing them the classic patterns that could yield the highest profits and encouraging high standards, from quality dyes to tightly woven fibers. J.B. Moore, who owned a trading post in Crystal, New Mexico, emphasized marketing, offering a printed mail-order catalog and branding distinctive regional designs.
For all he’s done, Getzwiller has been likened to a contemporary Hubbell or Moore. He encourages the use of the traditional Churro wool, which comes from a sheep species that was nearly wiped out twice by the federal government but still managed to survive. (The fifth-generation cattleman even purchased his own flock, which is now in the care of a Navajo family.) He has also introduced silk and alpaca fibers to traditional weavers, creating a new market of wearable art.
Getzwiller has further encouraged weavers to use some of the most valuable and historic natural dyes, such as indigo, lac, and cochineal, instead of the more readily available commercial aniline dyes. “I’m definitely not a chips-and-swatches kind of guy,” he says with a grin. “Many of [the dyes the weavers use] are based on some of the more successful things that have come from the last 100 years or so of Navajo weavings.”
Whether the resulting rug designs are muted or vibrant, Getzwiller offers the same advice when it comes to incorporating them into your home. “Remember, it’s art,” he says. “In my recommendation — with any dealings of art, paintings, whatever — I suggest that you don’t base your upholstery on your art. I always recommend you stay as neutral as you can [with the furnishings] so everything works together.”
Steve and Gail’s home is a perfect example. Thirteen years ago they moved from his childhood home and ranch in Benson, Arizona, to the grassy, oak-covered hills of Sonoita. While the move added another hour to Steve’s monthly commute to the reservation, the adobe hilltop home became the perfect showcase for his weavings.
“My business model is unlike anyone else’s that I’m aware of,” he says as he gestures around the massive room where he spends time with clients. Here, weavings are not just on the beautiful mesquite floor, but also hanging on the walls alongside Western paintings and draped on the backs of chairs. The room is furnished with pieces from the classic Arts and Crafts period that embrace and enhance the beauty of Navajo textiles.
The Getzwiller home doubles as their Nizhoni Ranch Gallery (nizhoni is Navajo for “beautiful place”). When customers are seated in the comfortable leather chairs, gazing out on the grasslands of Sonoita, they often are blown away when Getzwiller presents with a flourish a dazzling blanket or rug.
“With regard to collectors coming here, we’re by appointment only, which is sometimes intimidating to someone because they feel an obligation,” the dealer says. “But it’s primarily so that Gail and I can give our full attention to them, as much as we possibly can. I enjoy sharing, and this,” he says, gesturing around the room again, “is what they came for.”
He calls it an “ambitious mom-and-pop,” with Gail handling much of the business and bookkeeping end of things, as well as keeping up with the website. A large monitor connected to their e-mail accounts is always up and running in the kitchen, allowing the couple to see questions and orders coming in. “We make sales on a daily basis on the Internet,” Getzwiller says, “and I’m having fun with the website, pushing that envelope too.”
Over the years, Getzwiller has handled thousands of weavings, many of them fine antiques from different periods. Which is why he decided to establish the Churro registry, to record each piece along with the artist who created it. “There’s no way of knowing who the earlier weavers were,” he says. “I can identify certain weavers by their weaving style and quality, but not who she was. But in a hundred years we’re going to know who all the ladies I’m working with are, because there’s going to be a record. And that’s important to me.”
Preserving the past while looking ahead to the future is a priority for this cowboy, who sees the art form gradually and quite literally dying out. While he is currently working with weavers from ages 17 to 90, he understands that the outside world with its focus on instant gratification is now part of reservation life. Spending months — even years — on one weaving will become a thing of the past. And, Getzwiller realizes, his own role as trader will someday end, as his two grown children pursue careers of their own in much different fields.
“One of my goals at this point in my life is to share my collection through various museum exhibits,” he says. “I’ve done a few in the past, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to share various aspects of the collection, which will help the public understand what a great art form these pieces represent.”
As he sits back, reflecting on what he’s accomplished, his eyes hold a satisfied look.
“My job is the best one I know of, because it enables me to do what I most enjoy doing, and that’s working with Navajo weavers and seeing what can be accomplished in new areas with their work,” he says with a slow smile. “This is absolutely a truly American art form. But we’re all only keepers of these things for a few decades. And then we’re gonna share them, one way or the other.”
To contact Steve Getzwiller and the Nizhoni Ranch Gallery, call 520.455.5020 or visit www.navajorug.com.
From the August/September 2013 issue.