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Mary Holiday Black

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Mary Holiday Black introduced innovations that helped spark a renaissance of Navajo basketweaving. She borrowed ideas from other Native American crafts, using both geometric designs and images with religious significance. Here, she works in her home on the Navajo reservation in Halchita, Utah. 1994, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
View from Mary Holiday Black's home in Monument Valley, Utah, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Mary Holiday Black at work in her home, Navajo Reservation, Halchita, Utah, 1994, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Mary Holiday Black at work in her home, Navajo Reservation, Halchita, Utah, 1994, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Mary Holiday Black at work in her home, Navajo Reservation, Halchita, Utah, 1994, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Mary Holiday Black at work in her home, Navajo Reservation, Halchita, Utah, 1994, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Basket by Mary Holiday Black, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Rainbow Yei basket by Mary Holiday Black, Simpson Family Collection, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Basket by Mary Holiday Black, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Basket by Mary Holiday Black, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Home of the Butterflies basket by Mary Holiday Black, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Basket by Mary Holiday Black,  photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Fire Dance basket by Mary Holiday Black,  photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Mary Holiday Black holding one of her baskets, with her daughter, Agnes Black Grey, and her grandchildren, Navajo Reservation, Halchita, Utah, 1994, photograph by Carol Edison, courtesy Utah Arts Council
Mary Holiday Black. 1995 National Heritage Fellowship Ceremonies, photograph by James V. Gleason, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Mary Holiday Black was born high atop the Douglas Mesa near the northern boundary of the Navajo reservation in Utah's Monument Valley. A member of the Bitter Water Clan, she was raised in a community of traditional Navajo artists and religious practitioners and never learned to speak English. Her mother was a rug weaver and her father was a medicine man. At age 11, she learned to weave rugs from her mother and baskets from a friend of her grandmother's. She learned not only the techniques of gathering, cutting, dyeing and weaving the willow (sumac), but also the rich store of meaning associated with baskets.

Women in the community have maintained the tradition of weaving ceremonial baskets at the same time they weave rugs to sell to trading posts. Even when rug weaving offered greater economic incentives, Black remained active at basketweaving by passing her skills along to her eleven children. Nine of them and their families became active basket makers.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Navajo basketweaving went into a severe decline. It has been estimated that by the 1960s, only about a dozen active weavers remained, and Navajos had long become accustomed to buying ceremonial baskets from their Ute and Paiute neighbors. But in the 1970s, innovations in basket design, fabrication and use led by women such as Mary Holiday Black sparked a renaissance of weaving Navajo baskets, both for ritual and personal use and for sale to museums and aficionados.

In the 1970s, encouraged by a burgeoning Native American art market and local traders, Black focused her creative work on basketweaving and introduced several innovations that proved critical to the tradition's survival. First, she stretched the traditional limitations of design, keeping the black-white-and-red color scheme but expanding the baskets beyond the size appropriate for ceremonial use. Some of her coiled-tray "wedding baskets," used in a number of ceremonial rituals, reached 5 feet in diameter. She also expanded the jar, the other principal extant Navajo basket type, far beyond its previous size.

Later, Black took up the vegetable dyes whose use she had learned from her mother, creating subtle hues and shades not possible with artificial dyes. She introduced new motifs gleaned from prehistoric Anasazi and Mimbres pottery and rock art and from other tribes of the Southwest. She also borrowed imagery from other Navajo crafts, especially sand painting and rug weaving, incorporating both geometric designs and images with religious significance, like the yei-be-chei (supernatural beings), into her baskets. In many instances this pictorial style alludes to mythological scenes, spiritual figures, legends and scenes from everyday life, leading many to label these creations "story baskets."

Although some of Black's Navajo neighbors were initially uncomfortable with her use of religious imagery, they soon accepted her new kinds of basketry that was more decorative and not intended for ceremonial use. By pushing the parameters of technique, aesthetics and custom, Black led a contemporary revival of Navajo basketry.

"There are many basket stories," Black said. "If we stop making the baskets, we lose the stories."

Bibliography
Baierschmidt, Chris. "Weaving the Bond." Catalyst (April 1994).
Castro, Peter, and Cathy Free. "Stitches in Time." People (January 22, 1996): 63-64.
Edison, Carol A., ed. Willow Stories: Utah Navajo Baskets. (Salt Lake City: Utah Arts Council, 1996.)
Jacka, Lois Essary, and Jerry Jacka. "Weaves of Grass." Arizona Highways (November 1997) 73, 11: 18.
McEntire, Frank. "Navajos Keeping the Tradition of Basket Weaving Alive." Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune (September 25, 1994).
McGreevy, Susan Brown. "What Makes Sally Weave: Survival and Innovation in Navajo Basketry Trays." American Indian Art (summer 1989): 38.
Miller, Layne. "Clan Keeps Traditional Navajo Basket Weaving Alive." Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune (February 19, 1994).
Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Smithsonian Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.)
Whiteford, Andrew Hunter. Southwestern Indian Baskets: Their History and Their Makers. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 1988.

Watch

Mary Holiday Black interviewed by Roger Welsch, 1995 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts