Mary Holiday Black

Mary Holiday Black

Mary Black - Basketweaver: Considered primarily responsible for the preservation and renaissance of the art of Navajo basketry, Mary Holiday Black is a legend in her own time. Mary received the Utah Governor's 1995 Folk Art Award, and in September of 1996 a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, which 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 not only done much to preserve the tradition of Navajo basketry, 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, selling for as much as eight thousand dollars.

Mary's story has been written and rewritten, but it is a story worth the telling, for she has kept a centuries old art form from extinction. In 1960 it is estimated that there were only a dozen active basket makers on the Navajo reservation, most women having turned to the more profitable art of rug weaving. One of the basket weavers was Mary Black.

Taught to weave by her grandmother's relative when she was 11, Mary has spent over half a century creating baskets for sacred ceremonial purposes as well as the art world, sharing 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.

"One of the reasons we want to keep basketmaking going among our people," Mary says, "is because they are important when a person gets healed, to bring rain, for weddings, the Fire Dance, the Seven-Day Ceremony."

Each ceremonial basket has a story. 'There are many basket stories," Mary says. "If we stop making the baskets, we lose the stories."

Each ceremonial basket also has an accompanying song. Mary knows the songs and other tribal lore because of her parents, Teddy and Betty Holiday, who 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.

Mary was also one of the first 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 inspired by Navajo sandpaintings.

Working daily, a basket may take up to four months to complete. Mary's hands often ache from the tedious strain of weaving as 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."

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This site was last updated on October 18, 2020.

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