Friday, February 4, 2011

The Navajo Revolution

First there was the American Revolution of 1776, then the French Revolution of 1789, next came the Russian Revolution of 1917, and finally the Navajo Revolution of 1994. This insurrection, at times referred to as the Sumac Revolution, did not involve throwing off the yoke of an oppressive king, casting aside an absolute monarchy or overthrowing a Tsarist autocracy. There was no political unrest and nobody is known to have been injured, maimed or killed during this uprising. Instead, it was quite, more like the Velvet Revolution of 1989, where peace, justice and tranquility reigned.

Mary Holiday Black at Twin Rocks.

The Sumac Revolution was about discovering and encouraging artistic freedom and was founded upon inspiring and innovative art. The movement grew out of the traditional craft of woven basketry, and its seeds were sown a decade or so earlier, when Navajo basket weavers Mary Holiday Black and her daughter Sally began to incorporate age old symbols into their art. Their new imagery included Yeis, the Holy People; the four sacred plants, corn, beans, squash and mountain tobacco; and sand paintings, representing powerful healing ritual.

Navajo rug and blanket weaving had actually gone through a similar stage approximately 100 years earlier. At that time, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, protests against this secret language being woven into a permanent format were held across the Reservation, death threats were heard by Indian traders who bought and sold the creations, and medicine men feared the decline of an ancient culture. Navajo weavers were informed that, should they persist in creating this new style, they would become gravely ill, their limbs become twisted and deformed, they would lose their vision, and they would not survive to enjoy their children and grandchildren.

So it was with Navajo basketry. Historically, there had been only three types, the pitch covered water jar known as to’shjeeh, baskets woven strictly for ceremonial purposes, and a wickerwork burden basket used for carrying peaches. When their art began diverging from the traditional wedding and ceremonial basket motifs they had previously woven, Mary and Sally Black were instructed by tribal elders to cease using these ancient and hallowed symbols in their weavings.

Seeking counsel from well respected medicine people in their own family, and not being able to suppress their burning desire to create these new works of art, Mary and Sally quietly persisted until they received word that there was in fact a ceremony to protect them from harm. The Beautyway ritual seemed to be just the remedy they needed, and their movement was allowed to progress.

A middle aged woman in traditional dress and a sweet faced teenager were unlikely candidates to spark a revolt. As is often the case, however, revolution springs from the most unlikely sources. Like Al Bonazizi, the poor 26 year old Tunisian who incited the recent unrest that ultimately toppled his government, Mary and Sally could not have predicted the impact they would ultimately have on Navajo art.

As far as Barry and I have been able to determine, the reformation smoldered for a long period and then burst into full flame when Mary created what has come to be known as the Fire Dance Basket. Incorporated into this weaving was a representation of the Mountain Chant, an ancient and almost extinct ritual. Initially, we at Twin Rocks Trading Post misread the significance of this weaving and believed it to be representative of the Apache Crown Dance.

This basket brought into full flower the now widely accepted practice of freely depicting important Navajo traditions and legends in basketry. The results of this movement can be seen every day in trading posts and art galleries across the Southwest, where exquisite weavings commemorate Navajo stories, life and lifestyle. These woven masterpieces celebrate Navajo culture and remind us of traditions that will one day be seen no longer. When Navajo culture has evolved from its present form, these weavings will recall a simpler, more richly traditional time. One often wonders what might have happened had Mary and Sally Black not had the courage and tenacity to pursue their passion; if their enthusiasm had been quenched in its infancy.

Many may be inclined to dismiss the Sumac Revolution as insignificant, unworthy of serious consideration. It would, however, be a mistake to underestimate the significance of the artistic liberation and economic independence it has brought to local Navajo basket weavers.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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