This photograph shows the artists’ works installed in a museum gallery. On the left, a wool rug with stripes of yellow, blue, green, orange, and brown hangs on a wall. To the right is a headless mannequin, dressed in clothing inspired by traditional Navajo designs: a skirt, blouse, cape, shroud, and necklace, all in colors similar to those of the rug.

When They Came Home

  • Ann Futterman Collier
  • Kim Hahn
  • Jane Lilly Benale
Dimensions37 x 29 inches (rug), 52 x 25 x 18 inches (wearable art)
MediumWool, cotton, and silk
CreditImages courtesy of the artists. Photos by Tom Alexander Photography.

When They Came Home is a project initiated by fiber artists Ann Collier and Kim Hahn in 2017 in collaboration with the Navajo weaver Jane Lilly Benale. Jane’s son Malcolm Benally, a Navajo author, served as an essential consultant throughout the artists’ process. The rug and wearable artwork that comprise the finished piece give symbolic form to the devastating impact of uranium contamination on the Navajo community, with a focus on the burden for Navajo women.

From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from the land of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Many Navajo men took jobs as mine workers during this period. The community was not informed of the long-term health risks of uranium contamination, which can cause lung cancer, bone cancer, and kidney failure. The miners unwittingly carried toxic dust on their clothing back to their homes, where it accumulated, exposing the entire community to elevated levels of radiation. Traditionally it has been the job of Navajo women to keep the home safe, but the uranium dust from these Cold War era mines became an ever-present danger, poisoning their homes, their land, and their drinking water. The impact of the radiation continues to affect the Navajo people today. Jane, a Navajo matriarch, has experienced the trauma of uranium toxicity in her own family.

At the start of this project, in consultation with Malcolm, Ann began by dyeing wool in colors that are associated with important elements of Navajo life, such as green pastures, blue sky, and yellow daylight and corn pollen. Wool was selected as a medium because of the significance of sheep in Navajo daily life and ceremonies. From this wool, Jane created her interpretive rug, weaving a prayer for the Earth and a prayer for the stories of uranium contamination to be told.

Inspired by Jane’s rug, Kim digitized and modified the pattern and printed it on silk organza fabric. Ann used the silk organza to make nuno felt yardage, and from this fabric Kim constructed a skirt and cape, modeled after both contemporary and traditional Navajo garments. Kim then created a second digital textile print that was hand woven into fabric for a blouse. Together she and Ann designed the organza shroud, with the intense green color representing uranium pollution spilling onto the body. Lastly, Ann made felted wool balls and used beading techniques to produce an interpretive squash blossom necklace. At various stages in the project, Malcolm contributed his creative perspective on how best to portray and honor Navajo culture.

When They Came Home was featured in the 2021 exhibition Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That installation is pictured here.