Mary Holiday Black, Legendary Master Basket Weaver
Above, watch the video of Mary Holiday Black, legendary Navajo Basket Weaver, speaking with our queen of Twin Rocks, Priscilla. She’s talking with Priscilla about the ceremonial meaning of the vessel and the weaving of it . Big stuff and the conversation of two delightful women.
Okay, the video is longer than the media gurus say it should be, but you are watching an artist here, a Navajo icon, a glory and a wonder.
“One of the reasons we want to keep basket-making going among our people,” Mary says, “is because baskets are important when a person gets healed, to bring rain, for weddings, the Fire Dance, the Seven-Day Ceremony.”
Mary Black is largely responsible for the preservation and renaissance of the art of Navajo basketry. She truly is a legend in her own time.
Mary received the Utah Governor’s 1995 Folk Art Award and, in September of 1996, she received a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was presented to her in Washington D.C. by First Lady Hillary Clinton.
The matriarch of a large and talented family of basket weavers, Mary Holiday Black has preserved the tradition of Navajo basketry. And, she has revolutionized it with her daring creativity. Recognized by experts as the nation’s preeminent Navajo basket weaver, Mary’s pieces are highly valued collector’s items.
Her story is worth telling. In 1960 there were only about a dozen active basket makers on the Navajo reservation. Most women had turned to the more profitable art of rug weaving. One of those basket weavers was Mary Black. Taught to weave by an elderly relative when she was 11, Mary has spent over half of a century creating baskets for sacred ceremonial purposes as well as the art world.
She shares her knowledge with anyone willing to learn. Nine of Mary’s eleven children have followed in her footsteps, becoming world-class weavers in their own right. Each ceremonial basket has a story. ‘There are many basket stories,” Mary says. “If we stop making the baskets, we lose the stories.”
And, each ceremonial basket has a song that accompanies it. Mary knows the songs and other tribal lore because her parents, Teddy and Betty Holiday, were medicine people. Strict tribal taboos dictating how and when ceremonial baskets can be woven contribute to their scarcity. Mary has successfully challenged some of the taboos, arguing in favor of preserving cultural history through basketry. (Here we cheer for Mary!)
Mary was one of the first people to consider weaving baskets with imaginative designs targeted toward the Indian art collector’s market. Many of her baskets depict traditional beliefs, stories or legends. Some are inspired by Navajo sandpaintings.
Working daily, a basket may take up to four months to complete. (Unimaginable and inspiring in our hurry-hurry world.) Mary’s hands often ache from the strain of weaving because she keeps constant pressure on a basket’s sides so they will curve upward when it’s finished. ‘These days my hands get tired, and I have to light a fire and pray for energy,” she has said. ‘They are not as quick as when I was a child!”
Mary Holiday Black is indeed a treasure, and we are honored to count her as a friend. We at Twin Rocks are honored to offer her baskets and help keep the fusion of Navajo tradition and cutting edge art alive.