Cultural Exchange in Croatia – An Interview with TahNibaa Naataanii

In mid-December of 2017 we received an email requesting contact information for one of our Mentor Artist Fellows. This is not unusual, but the sender was the Hrvatsko-Američko Društvo[1] (Croatian-American Society) headquartered in Zagreb, Croatia, invited 2017 Mentor Artist Fellow TahNibaa Naataanii (Diné [Navajo]) to participate in a cultural exchange project with Antonija Rusković Radonić, Director of the Konavle Museum and Gallery. Radonić was selected as the master artist presenting traditional Croatian embroidery and Naataanii for her work using early Navajo weaving styles[2].

The project, Heritage Storytelling – Konavle Embroidery & Traditional Textile Weaving of American Indians, was conceived with the intention of comparing two traditional weaving styles in both Diné and Konavle Embroidery. The exhibit, held in March 2018, centered around the museum collections of traditional Croatian embroidery and included several artifacts woven by Diné people. In addition to the exhibit, there were a series of public demonstrations and panels with Naataanii and Radonić.

Here are two cultures – so far apart from each other and separated by vast amounts of water – and yet our struggles are similar. We are all trying to retain our identity, our cultural ways, and continue living the way of our people.
― TahNibaa Naanaatii (Diné [Navajo]), NACF Mentor Artist Fellow

Naataanii’s interview (below) expresses the pride of two cultures and draws parallels experienced by both Croatian and Native American artists. Naataanii explains how the project opened a welcomed dialogue with the community who were very curious about her way of life. Reflecting on her experiences, Naataanii reveals that the connections she made during the cultural exchange have in turn affirmed her own traditional way of life.

An Interview with TahNibaa Naataanii About Her Trip to Croatia

April 25, 2018


NACF:  Hello, TahNibaa!  Thanks so much for speaking with us this morning. We’ve been so curious about your trip. What would you like to tell us about it?

TAHNIBAA:  My trip was a number of things, actually.  It was, of course, very educational, but at the same time it was very affirming to me as a mother and a weaver.

NACF:  I wouldn’t have expected an affirmation given the cultural differences.  Can you explain in what way?

TAHNIBAA:  I didn’t expect personal affirmation to be my greatest take-away either, but as I am walking this path of not having a 40-hour a week job where I go in and get paid every two weeks?  My work is very different from the usual setting.  My lifestyle as a weaver and traditional Navajo woman is one that recognizes that I am a mom first and an artist second. Of course, that means I am busy all the time. I have flexibility but I also have great challenges.

Like when I participate in an art show it is not always guaranteed that I will make a sale, but then the depth and love of my work provides tremendous gratification anyway. Croatia helped me embrace that. I went to the Konavle region of Croatia, and there I worked alongside another artist, a woman kind of like me. She does embroidery work, has children and came from a traditional family like mine but without the colonialism interference. However, there  are other cultural parallels.  Because of the recent wars in the early 1990’s, that traditional way of life and that family cohesiveness was altered. Unfortunately, sometimes with that kind of change, communities, families, and cultures never bounce back to the original roots. We both identified with the impact this had had on our lives.

For me the connections I made were affirming for who I am. My people have gone through a lot and we are going through a lot still, but yet we have a cultural stronghold. We continue to have a very strong way of life that keeps the culture intact, although that is not to say this isn’t threatened. The experience was affirming that I am right where I should be and it mattered that I continue on as a rancher, weaver and mother raising my daughter within the right dioramic view of the world.

NACF:  Are you hoping that bringing her up in this way, your daughter will want to follow your traditional path?

TAHNIBAA:  We want our children to experience our lives and choose them, so yes. I want her to be a weaver, but that is not promised because change is a constant in our world. I am very fortunate that after being in the military and going to college, when I decided to come home my weaving had retained its stronghold on me. I returned to weaving and rediscovered the beauty of it.

NACF:  How did you experience the people and the culture of Croatia?

TAHNIBAA:  I was amazed with the culture. There is a very great pride there, but there is a sadness too. Probably like my culture is some ways. We are surviving but we are being tested by alcoholism, technology, violence, synthetic drugs and even synthetic friends on Facebook!

NACF: (Laughter) Oh my goodness, synthetic friends. We could have a very long conversation about social media but it’s probably been said before. So, did you see anything that the Croatian artists are doing that would make sense within your arts practice?

TAHNIBAA:  Yes, actually. I am a weaver but I also describe myself as a fiber artist. For instance, I do a lot of hand-felting and also work a lot with silk material, silk fiber and silk fabric creating scarves. I am now beginning to paint our Navajo motifs on there, so in a way I am using another medium but with traditional input, which the Croatian artists are doing also.

NACF: As your arts practice, and hence your livelihood, depends to a great degree on weaving, it would seem that these other mixed media pieces would be much easier to monetize than traditional works with the thousands of hours you might invest in one magnificent piece.

TAHNIBAA: Yes, I like to label these other fiber art pieces as my bread-and-butter items for shows.  In Croatia, the main traditional work that Antonija, my cross-cultural colleague, did was embroidery. It is time-consuming like weaving, but rather than making the traditional embroidery and colors previously used exclusively for their clothing, she has expanded her embroidery into decorative items. Some of these are wall-hangings, but she also decorates objects like glass cases and other things using these traditional designs.

Antonija was also working with silk scarves, kind of the same thing I am doing, reflecting her cultural tradition. Antonija and I – I’ll have to email you her last name as the Croatians have long names with a lot of alphabet characters we’re not used to –  really developed a sister bond. We gave each other inspiration and exchanged a very good energy. She got inspired to continue her work – just as I did – and it was an amazing feeling to connect that way.

NACF:  Did this inspire any cultural exchanges in techniques?

TAHNIBAA:  Oh yes, it did. I had been wanting to paint on silk for about two years, but I had not had the time to fully explore it. We ended up exchanging knowledge. She gave me a workshop on the silk and the paint and I returned the knowledge by showing her how to wash wool.  I also fixed her spinning wheel, as she had not realized it was broken when she bought it at an estate sale. So, in that sense, we made a cultural exchange, but a private one between the two of us.

NACF:  Was there anything Antonija demonstrated about a Croatian traditional practice that surprised you?

TAHNIBAA: Yes, and it was pretty fascinating. She told me what the traditional embroiderers had done before – but now do only on a minimal scale – was raise the silk worms and harvest the cocoons themselves. In my understanding, the silk starts as an egg the size of a small seed. In order for the silk worms to hatch, the eggs have to be kept warm.  They roll them up in a cloth and then place it in between a woman’s breasts for several days so they can incubate.[3]  It struck me how they have to nurture those eggs, just like us, but with our baby lambs. Sometimes the ewes don’t like their lambs so the lamb is rejected by its momma, or the momma doesn’t have enough milk, and then we have to nurture them. If I tell you we have a lamb who is still trying to sleep inside the house at night, you can see why I understand. That’s how I related to what the Croatian women are doing with the silk worm eggs.

NACF: Can you tell us about your fiber work and how that might compare with the Croatian work?

TAHNIBAA:  Antonija is painting traditional architecture with that traditional design onto the silk, silk shawls, handbags, and clutches.  She uses paint on the silk – commercial paint. For the traditional dyeing of materials, they dye material with different plant dyes and like us, every region has their own specialty in plants and plant dye derivatives.

NACF:  What impacted you the most about your trip?

TAHNIBAA: It was very powerful to have this dialogue with a traditional woman from a completely different culture, but it was bigger than that.  The dialogue didn’t only happen between me and Antonija, as a similar dialogue happened among the children. Together we spoke to at least 500 kids, so when the dialogue happened, a special enlightenment seemed to occur. The entire community came to listen to both our talks which included elders and littles ones and everything in between. From what I understand, the children were extremely eager to hear me speak. They talked about me saying things like, “this Native American woman, this Indian woman is coming, and she’s going to say something.”

I have to laugh about it, because sometimes children can view things in such a romanticized way with their natural sense of wonder. You know, I think I was very exotic in their eyes to begin with, but then I was also sharing who I am – and truly who I am. For instance, during the second part of the exchange in the city of Dubrovnik, I stayed in a hotel nestled under a beautiful mountain abutting the Adriatic Sea. That mountain was quite significant and you could see the people took stones from it to make their homes, as everywhere you looked you would see these stone houses. That mountain resonated with me – back home we also have our sacred mountains – so I felt compelled to sing a mountain song. I sang to introduce and identify myself but also to connect with my surroundings.

The song’s intent was to convey, “I am a child here and I am showing my respect to you as I sing this mountain song.” Even sharing that knowledge and singing that mountain song surprised these children. Maybe they were also surprised to see this very traditional woman appear in a 21stcentury venue, but whatever they retained from the experience, it was a fun and joyful interchange.

NACF:  So, what kinds of questions did they ask during the panels?

TAHNIBAA: They were very curious about our way of life. One of the questions they asked me was, “What is your routine on any given day?”  I told them that on most days when I wake up at 5:30, I wake my daughter up too, as she has to get on the school bus at 6:15.  After I wake her up, I go outside, do my morning prayers and make an offering. Then I go back inside and make something for her to eat before she leaves. Then I begin my work day on the ranch. I feed the horses and the sheep.  If they need water I drive to get 300 gallons of water – not from a hose but from an artesian well in the earth.  After I have hauled the water back, I will do the other chores the animals need.

Somedays I don’t get to start my weaving work until 10:00 o’clock, as all my chores with the sheep and the horses have to be finished first. Then I work until my daughter gets off the bus at 3:00. My 81-year-old mother lives with us and needs my help, so I make lunch for everyone too. After that we each have other chores we do. Maybe one day I’m going to wash the wool, one day I’m going to warp[4], or do felting but most days I do a lot of weaving.

NACF:  You mentioned you do other fiber work. Can you tell us a little more about that?

TAHNIBAA:  I mentioned the felting and I also work with fiber and silk fabric. The type of hand-felting I do is called “nuno” felting. Felting in general is a skill that a lot of Indigenous cultures have used. They do it using different techniques. There is heavy weight where you can make heavy garments and bags and there is light weight felting for garments that are lighter.  I am trying to learn a lot more about the heavy weight felting. In fact, I am searching for an opportunity to go to Mongolia, as I want to apprentice with a traditional felter.

NACF:  To me that feels so adventurous, I am guessing Croatia was not your first international trip?

TAHNIBAA: No, no it wasn’t.  I’ve been doing international visits for about 15 years. The last one was to Japan in the spring of 2017. An ambassador there saw a photo of a shawl on my old website. It wasn’t for sale, so he asked to borrow it for a few years so he could display it in his office. I agreed and in exchange for the three-year loan, they provided travel and lodging for my three-generational household.  We showed them our weaving, and they shared many things about their way of life and their weaving. As you know, the Japanese have traditionally worked with silk.

NACF:  So how did this trip compare to other trips you’ve made to other countries?

TAHNIBAA:  I guess this Croatia trip ultimately was the most inspirational, as it was such a strong affirmation of my way of life. Here is a country, a place that was in war just recently, and these people not only survived it but with their art.  After the wounds inflicted by war, they are just beginning to blossom and sprout again, so it was a beautiful thing to experience. Particularly with the women folk – although perhaps there might be some men who do embroidery work – it’s nice to see that rebirth. I think perhaps because the Croatian people understood and appreciated my cultural grounding, they felt comfortable expressing a sense of pride about their own culture and lineage.

That affirmation I spoke about earlier wasn’t just personal. I kept thinking, here are two cultures – so far apart from each other and separated by vast amounts of water – and yet our struggles are similar.  We are all trying to retain our identity, our cultural ways, and continue living the way of our people.

NACF: We’ll look forward hearing about your future adventures. Thank you so much for sharing these fascinating experiences with us, TahNibaa.

TAHNIBAA: It was my pleasure.

[1] The Croatian American Society is the oldest non-government organization in Croatia which promotes cultural, educational, and scientific cooperation – as well as all civil liberties – between the Republic of Croatia and the United States of America.

[2] Naataanii has won many awards including at the Santa Fe Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Heard Show in Phoenix, Arizona.


[4] Warp is the wool stretched in place on a loom before the traverse weft is introduced during the weaving process. The warp must be strong as it is held under high tension during the weaving process.