Barbie gets a Navajo makeover by master Diné weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas
GREY HILLS, Ariz. — When Navajo Grey Hills weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas saw the original Barbie dolls — all blonde hair, blue eyes and 1950s clothes — she certainly didn’t see herself.
That version of Barbie stood alone for many years until the first edition Native American Barbie was released in 1997 as part of the company’s “Dolls of the World” collection.
Teller Ornelas bought one of the 1997 Navajo Barbies for herself and another for her daughter, Sierra Ornelas, but she wasn’t happy with the outfit. She told her daughter she would weave an outfit for them one day, and she did.
Now, Teller Ornelas’ efforts to authenticate the Navajo Barbie are drawing renewed attention with the opening of the “Barbie” movie, which is prompting Indigenous women to give the character a Native flair that is missing in the popular movie.
In addition to Teller Ornelas’ authentic Navajo weavings, a special Fish Camp Barbie has also been created by an Alaska woman.
Teller Ornelas, an acclaimed master Navajo weaver, hails from five generations of weavers who raised the sheep, sheared them, and dried and spun the wool to create intricate, sophisticated rugs and tapestries.
“I felt like I had to do something,” she told ICT recently. “It was more just doing it for myself.”
I wasn’t out there to make a statement. I just wanted to make her look better and to dress better.”
Teller Ornelas is a top-featured artist annually at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix, and was among 10 Indigenous artists selected by United States Artists for the 2023 USA Fellows awards, which offer an unrestricted $50,000 prize in 10 different disciplines.
‘They deserved better’
Teller Ornelas grew up near Two Grey Hills on the Navajo Reservation, where her father was a trader.
She learned to weave from her mother when she was 8 years old, continuing the tradition of the Two Grey Hills-style that is identified primarily by a double-diamond layout with geometric designs and natural colors.
She remembers the first Barbies coming out in 1959, when she was five years old. But don’t call her Barbie.
“Yes, my name is Barbara,” she said. “It’s always been Bobby — I was a tomboy — or Barb. But never Barbie. No one ever calls me Barbie.”
Teller Ornelas still has her first Barbie in its original box. The manufacturer, Mattel, was quite pleased with the Navajo doll — which it deemed a “princess” — when it came out in 1997.
“‘The Princess of the Navajo’ doll is rooted from Navajo, the land of tribes where people worship land, nature and spiritual heritage,” Mattel said. “This Barbie doll is wearing a ritual and mild color woven shawl with symbolic and elegant designs on it. The turquoise-colored beads necklace with a ‘squash blossom’ pendant of this Princess of the Navajo doll looks utterly appealing. This Barbie doll’s concho belt in silver and turquoise tones goes with the dress flawlessly. The earrings and a sunburst broach of this Barbie doll complete her Navajo look.”
But the Navajo Barbie nagged at Teller Ornelas.
“I just didn’t like that she was in these cheap clothes,” she said. “Her velvet was just so super thin. And her calico skirt was somebody else’s interpretation of a Navajo woman; I really didn’t like that. I thought they deserved better if they’re going to represent being a Navajo woman, to represent the culture.”
“Her hair was in a bun, but it was held together with a twisty tie.” she said. “And then she had these plastic black shoes and no moccasins.”
Teller Ornelas set out to make outfits from scratch. She based them on the idea of the Three Sisters — not corn, beans and squash, but her and her two sisters.
“I really had a great time doing it, putting it together,” she said. “It made me feel like I was still a kid playing with Barbies. I bought those little necklaces from a doll maker at the Shiprock Flea Market, but I took them apart and I made them into smaller necklaces for the Barbies. They are real silver and tiny stones. I saved some of the squash blossom pieces for the earrings.”
For the dresses, she took inspiration from collections in museums.
“My sister Linda Teller Pete and I, we have been teaching weaving for over 25 years and we do a lot of consulting work with different museums,” she said. “Every time we go to a different museum, they ask us to come look at their collection. We always gravitate towards the dresses, and discuss what the dresses look like and who owned the dress. What kind of person wore that dress? Where was she? Was she captured? Was she one of the ones that hid out in the caves? All these imaginations and stories just kind of run through our heads.”
One of the dresses had a lot of red and black, and it stuck with her.
“When I started them, my daughter would just laugh at me, ‘Oh, Mom, you have so much work to do. You don’t have time to play with dolls,’” she said. “It took me a while to spin my yarn, because I wanted to make my yarn even thinner than usually what I went with. I do a lot of miniatures, so I have small looms. I set up my work for the dresses side by side and did them all the way across together at the same time.”
It was tricky work, as Teller Ornelas was really making a dress pattern that she had never done before, making holes for the head and arms as she did the weaving.
“It took a lot of thinking, trying to figure out how you’re going to do certain things, but the month I did it all on my own, I didn’t follow anybody’s pattern,” she said. “I just came up with the idea, and then I bought leather and materials for the moccasins and I sewed them together and used the black shoes that they have on as a template for their arched feet. I sewed it together and decorated it with beads all the way around. I took yarn and I made her hair ties.”
Each doll was customized for the sisters.
“I did one for my sister, Roseanne, she was a very hard disciplinarian for me learning how to weave, that’s where I got my skills from,” she said. “I honored her with a more intricate design … “Then for my younger sister Linda, I consider her the voice of our family, so I did a zigzag line where it looked like she was talking. Then for me, I consider myself a child spirit of weaving, so I put woven crosses on my piece. I called them the Three Sisters to honor my sisters.”
The real deal
Teller Ornelas finished the dolls in 2018, and won the Innovation Award at Heard Market and another award at another market.
“Navajo girls walked up and just stared at them,” she said. “It was good to see this because I would have loved to see this as a kid,” she says.
With the release of the Barbie movie, a subversive matriarchal marvel from Mattel, there is renewed interest in her exquisite dolls. She is looking forward to the photo booths in theater lobbies where a person can step into a Barbie box for a picture and be a life-size doll.
‘I want to dress up in my woven dress and go over there,” she said, “and be a real-deal Navajo Barbie.”