Friday, March 22, 2002
The Thing About Mary
Navajo Basket Weaver Mary Holiday Black
Over the years I have realized that it really is the little things in life that make the difference between something being barely tolerable or really great. Things like the mist rising from the river as the sun peeks over the rosy red cliffs of Bluff; the soft rain that has visited us, calming our fears of a severe drought; the smile on my wife’s face when she finished the first draft of her book on Navajo ceremonial baskets; the return of a good friend; and conversations with Mary Black.
Sunday night I returned from a visit with my daughter, Dacia, in Salt Lake City. Dacia hasn’t lived with me since she was eight months old, so it is always a treat to see her. Since she had been ill over the Christmas holiday and hadn’t been able to come to Bluff, Kira, Grange and I decided we needed to go see her, and give Jana the time she required to finish her writing project. When we returned Sunday night, Jana proudly announced that the three year gestation period for her book had in fact ended successfully. We were all pleased, and relieved.
Then Jamie showed up at the trading post. Just the week before, Art and Linda Moore and I had stood in the trading post wondering aloud when Jamie might return. I have formed a very strong attachment to all three for various reasons, Linda because she always has a big smile and a big hug for me; Art because of his Southern gentleness, because of the way he grabs his collars with both hands when he stands talking with you and because of his name, Arthur Bailey Moore; and Jamie because of his sincerity and directness.
One afternoon about four years ago I was standing in the trading post late one afternoon when I noticed an old pick up stop in the parking lot. In this part of the world, old trucks are a way of life. This time was different, however. Instead of a Navajo climbing out of the cab, a white man about my age, who looked like he had gotten stuck in the 1960s, jumped out. As he swaggered into the store, he noticed me standing behind the counter and asked, “Do you buy things from white guys?!” I quickly replied, “I don’t care if you are red, white or blue, or any other color for that matter. Let’s see what you have.” That was my introduction to James A. “Jamie” Olson.
Over the years Jamie and I have become good friends. He never lets me feel sorry for myself. If I am a little down, Jamie will always, say, “Well, you made the decision. If you don’t like it, change it.” He is my complete opposite, and I guess that’s why I am so fond of him. He is a free sprit, and lives in a 1960s Winnebago trailer which he has refurbished, and which he drags around behind his beat up pick up trucks. When he decides to go somewhere new, he simply hooks up the trailer and moves on. When one of his trucks wears out, he just gets another. I was very pleased to see him again, as was everybody else at the trading post.
After Jamie left for Colorado to visit his very patient sweetheart, the clouds moved in and dropped two days of gentle rain on us. The rain was the kind that local Navajo people refer to as female rain. There was none of the thundering and crashing generally associated with male rain; just soft, ground soaking, nourishing moisture. The rain improved everybody’s mood, and gave us hope of more to come. After the clouds moved east, taking the rain with them, the morning fog floated lightly above the river. Yesterday morning was beautiful as the sun rose from behind the pink cliffs, illuminating the fog bank and making the geese in the field honk. The geese in the field moved north to avoid the mist, and I was able to get a close look at the white goose, which seems to be a run-of-the-mill domesticated goose. Why he (or she) has taken up with this band of Canada geese is a real mystery.
Then, last evening about 4:45 p.m. the telephone started ringing. I picked up and heard Alicia Nelson on the other end of the line, “Steve, Mary and I are coming up from Mexican Hat. Will you wait for us? She has a basket for you.” Since it is a twenty minute drive from Mexican Hat to Bluff, and since we usually close at 5:00 p.m. during winter, I said, “Okay, but you better hurry.” When they arrived, Alicia said, “Don’t tell Mary, but I was driving 70 miles per hour.”
Mary had a very nice cloud people basket, which she said she needed to sell because she wanted to use the money for a peyote ceremony for the Monument Valley people being called up in case of war in Iraq. As you might guess, this required that a little bonus be added to the price of the basket. I didn’t object too much. As Mary and Alicia leisurely thumbed through the photograph and design albums, I began to ask Mary questions about her experiences as a basket weaver. Since Mary doesn’t speak English, all this was done with Alicia interpreting.
I have always been curious about the role Virginia Smith played in the contemporary revival and revolution of Navajo basketry, so I began asking about her. Virginia, who was known as “Chin,” because the Navajo people of Monument Valley could not pronounce her name, operated the Oljato Trading Post for several years. Mary said that Chin traveled a lot and would bring back pictures of baskets from other cultures and other artistic movements. She then showed the pictures to the Monument Valley weavers. The pictures were often of baskets from the Pai, Apache and Tohono O’Odham tribes. Mary also said that two of the first “picture” baskets she wove are currently on display at the Hogback Trading Post in Kirtland, New Mexico. I asked what she was paid for the pieces and was told that each basket brought $1,200.00. In the mid-1970s that was an extraordinary price. Mary said that Chin was the first to encourage the Navajo basket weavers to create new, unusual designs, including the very well known Yei basket motif. Mary also said that she stopped weaving baskets for a long time after Chin was killed in a car accident.
Since I knew that there was a lot of resistance to the new basket designs from the more traditional Navajo people, I asked why Mary continued to experiment with the new designs. She confirmed that there had indeed been great pressure to stop, but that she, “liked to create the art.” To me that confirmed both her courage and her love of the art. It is interesting to consider what would have happened if she had given in to the pressure. I then asked her what she most remembered about her relationship with Chin and Mary responded, “When I was hungry, Chin gave me food as an advance for the rug or basket I was weaving.”
That reminded me of a conversation I had with Lorraine, Mary’s daughter, shortly after they all returned from Washington D.C. in September of 1995. Mary had been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which resulted in the trip to Washington for a reception at the White House. Lorraine had told me that they hadn’t enjoyed the trip much and were very happy to return to Albuquerque where they could eat at Denny’s. Mary confirmed that there had been mounds of food, but that she was not fond of any of it. She said she really didn’t enjoy the visit to “his house,” referring to the White House during the Clinton administration, and that she was happy to get back to the Four Corners, where she could get some real food. Guess it really is the little things that count; like a Denny’s hamburger or the morning mist.
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