Stitches in Time
For many of her 61 years, Black, considered by many experts to be the nation's preeminent Navajo basket weaver, has been incorporating the symbols of her people into her bold and intricate designs, preserving what once was considered to be an almost extinct art form. Last September, her unique artistry was rewarded with a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, presented in Washington by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the NEA's chairwoman, actress Jane Alexander. "Mary's pieces are collector's items—they're highly valued," says Alexander of the baskets, which can take up to four months to create and have fetched as much as $8,000 from museums, shops and private collectors. "Mary has revived the tradition of Navajo basket weaving, which is in decline. That she is passing on her art and keeping it alive is very important."
As a girl growing up in a one-room, octagonal cedar house on the Navajo reservation in Monument Valley, Utah, Black became enchanted with tribal lore, which had been taught to her by her father, Teddy Holiday, and her mother, Betty, both of whom were medicine people. One of seven children (Black says the number reluctantly because "it is bad luck to count your family members"), she was denied a formal education by her parents; as the oldest female child, she was made to honor the Navajo tradition at the time of staying home to keep house, make the daily bread, chop wood and look after the family sheep. "Sometimes," says Black, who speaks only Navajo and uses an interpreter for her interviews, "I wish that I had gone to school so I would know about things on the other side of the world."
Instead, she became an expert on her own culture. When she was 11, a relative of her grandmother's taught Black how to weave the tales of supernatural beings, spirits and majestic creatures into the fibers of a basket using the different-shaped figures, stitches and colors. "Learning to weave took a lot of patience," says Black. "These days my hands get tired, and I have to light a fire and pray for energy. They are not as quick as when I was a child."
In the 1950s, Mary married Jessie Black, a uranium miner who died two years ago. The couple lived in Monument Valley and raised 11 children, currently aged 21 to 42—Agnes, Anderson, Cora, Eddie, Edison, Edward, Jameson, Jonathan, Lorraine, Roy and Sally—most of whom now reside on the Navajo reservation that straddles Utah and Arizona. To supplement the family income, Black wove baskets and eventually taught nine of her children the difficult craft, which had begun to wane in the late 19th century when Navajo women turned to the more lucrative business of rug weaving. An additional factor was the introduction to Navajo life by whites of more efficient carrying vessels such as metal and ceramic dishes. By 1960, it was estimated that only a dozen active basket weavers remained in the Navajo Nation. "My mother has taught all her relatives and many young people in the tribe," says daughter Lorraine, 25, who earns a living making baskets in Monument Valley. "She has never said no to anyone." Of Black's 22 grandchildren, only 11-year-old Orlando has been taught the family trade so far. "When the others get older," says Black, "they too will learn."
Whether they will hold to Navajo tradition as steadfastly as their grandmother remains to be seen. During her recent visit to Washington, Black, who had never flown on a plane before, found it nearly impossible to eat the local cuisine, longing instead for Navajo mutton and fry bread. And though she enjoyed a White House tour, she found the First Home to be "just a big house with a lot of furniture." Her first subway ride, however, thrilled her. "She said we were like prairie dogs. 'We go underground, then we pop back up,' " recalls Lorraine, who accompanied her mother on the all-expenses-paid trip. "She couldn't believe it."
Black, who now lives in a two-bedroom home in the Halchita complex in Mexican Hat, Utah, with her son Anderson, 24, hopes to use her award money to return to Douglas Mesa in Monument Valley and build a new home. "It is important to go back," she says, "because my grandma and grandpa used to live there. I was raised there. I want to live a quiet life on my family's land." Until work on such a house can begin, she is happy weaving in her hogan—a traditional Navajo dwelling made of cedar and red clay—which she sometimes uses as her workshop. There, surrounded by the valley's towering red rocks, which softly turn to shades of pink and lavender during sunset, she has all the inspiration she needs.
"Look straight ahead," says Sally, pointing at distant stone formations, "and you can see the sleeping bear. And next to that is the little rabbit and the stagecoach. Can you see them?" Her mother, weaving nearby, smiles and nods. "They are all my favorites," she says.
CATHY FREE in Monument Valley