Jeanne Salt is the daughter of the Navajo guide and translator for RBMVExpedition, Max Littlesalt, and is aunt to Lithuania Denetso. She has been a long-time collaborator with The ONWARD Project, hosting us and sharing her art and stories.  Growing up Jeanne lived in the canyon lands of the Navajo Reservation in Northern Arizona in the mid 1900’s and she remained in the area as an adult.  

She has shared with us memories about her life growing up in the canyons, helping to raise the family sheep and taking care of crops while moving within the area seasonally. Her mother, Gertie Austin,  like other Navajo women, lived in close proximity to the Expedition camps and helped raise the meat and goods that were part of economic transactions through her husband, Max, to supply critical support for the survival of the ongoing six seasons of the RBMVExpedition.

In a recent interview Lithuania conducted with Jeanne, she gave details about her daily routine as a girl with her many chores which included helping to take care of the family sheep. Jeanne attended several Arizona and New Mexico Boarding Schools and she was part of the first graduating class of Kayenta High School, now known as Monument Valley High School.  To further her education she pursued studies at a women’s college in Texas, earning degrees in Accounting and Theology, after which she earned a teaching degree and a Masters Degree at Northern Arizona University with continuing education certificates from Grand Canyon University. Jeanne taught preschool and kindergarten but her favorite was fifth grade.  She later became a teaching instructor and school principal and for the last twenty years she served her community as a pastor.

Jeanne is an accomplished textile artist whose weaving and felt work hold beautiful details and are very special one-of-a-kind pieces. In her work with other weavers Jeanne was dedicated to reviving Navajo wool working; she explains that it was an integral part of family economy during her growing up. We are excited to share with you a sampling of her work interspersed with excerpts from her interview with Lithuania.

Transcript for Jeanne as interviewed by her niece, Lithuania, in 2020.

Lithuania: How long have you had sheep?

Jeanne: My parents had sheep for I don’t know how long but I grew up helping with the sheep when I started walking. 

Lithuania: So you’ve had been around sheep for a lifetime correct?

Jeanne: Yes, my whole life.

 Lithuania: When you moved back to the Canyon in the 1980’s was it then that you wanted to start your business with sheep? 

Jeanne: Back then I just had the family sheep and all I did was help, because I had a full time job being a teacher. 

Lithuania: So when did you start your business?

Jeanne: 1990’s. 

Lithuania: Talk a little about your sheep. Which one did you first start with? The Sheep of Life? Or did you start having people come to your home. What started first? 

Jeanne: Sheep is Life organization with the Navajo Tribe and I used to just go over there and visit their fair which was in June every year. And I just wanted to watch and all my life while I was a teacher, I had an interest in working with wool. And my mom did a weaving when I was little and I was interested in learning how. 

Lithuania: Did she teach you how to do it? Or did you learn as the years went along?

Jeanne: I didn’t learn until I was retired from being a teacher and one day I started learning from the Sheep is Life experience. I noticed that they were using more Churro Sheep Wool. Churro wool, that is what their fiber is called, it’s so long-about 12 inches if you don’t sheer it every year, and so one day my brother Larry started sheering for me and he said, as long as you have Churro Sheep I’ll come up and sheer the sheep for you. And I started that and renting a ram from one of the neighbors in Shonto and so one year Larry sheered and had all the beautiful wool and he said, what are you going to do with this wool, and he said I’ve never seen such beautiful wool. And I said, I’ll learn how to use it. It’s a resource. So I keep on going to Sheep is Life conference every year, and I learned how to felt wool. And then from there on I started. 
Lithuania: What made you think of bringing people to your home and starting your monthly get togethers, what made you interested in doing that?

Jeanne: From Sheep is Life I noticed that they explained a lot of things, weaving and things that you can make with felt. I practiced at home to make some fiber sheets, felt sheets and then I read about it in the magazine and I knew that it could be made into a lot of things. And so after I have enough experience making the felt, and then the Sheep is Life director and she says we can come to your place once a month. We’ll come to Kayenta and we’ll do a demonstration with you and work with you so that happened about a year into the process and someone found out. He happens to be a male weaver, named Phil Singer Jr., Master Weaver, and so he came to one of our events one day and he showed his pieces at shows and conferences and so we started out and then we said well since he’s a weaver, I feel more more confident to say that we can start teaching. So together we started once a month and after one year, the Sheep is Life organization said you’re on your own, so we brought it to my house and we started inviting people that we want to revive the Navajo weaving because when I was growing up that was the economy, you sold your rugs for grocery and clothing and a lot of things so we wanted to do that and Phil goes to shows and he sells these products there and so we started that about five years and then we heard about the Flagstaff conference, Fiber Festival, and we have been going every year. That’s where we take our products and we were work as a group-we call ourselves Kayenta Fiber Group. And so they can make things and we took their items and we sold them at the festival in Flagstaff every year and we made a little profit, with enough to pay for the event. People began to notice what products we had to sell and people were buying skins from me and they started using our products. 

Lithuania: How many sheep do you have today?

Jeanne: We land users we prefer grazing and so I had to cut down on the number of sheep I have and I only have five sheep. And they are still grow their wool quite a bit longer. 

Lithuania: Are you currently weaving right now or are you still separating and processing your wool that was sheered in May? 

Jeanne: I’m doing both. I have a set of blankets, set up, but I am still trying to find the yarn to start with. So I’m doing both and am also cleaning it and thinking about taking some more wool to the mill to have it processed. 

Currently Jeanne resides with her brother’s family in Tucson, Arizona.