The pandemic recorded in sumac
It had been a while since Lorraine Black visited Twin Rocks. A few years ago she moved to western Utah, far from Bluff, and our relationship ebbed.
In the past Lorraine would stop by the trading post on a regular basis, bringing her baskets through the Kokopelli doors, laughing, and joking and negotiating top prices for her work.
Lorraine and her family, mother Mary Holiday Black; sisters Sally, Agnus and Cora; brothers Eddie, Jamison, Jonathan and Anderson; and several relatives had been weekly visitors during the 1990s and early 2000s.
That was an exciting time. It was also the period when Navajo basketry took root and blossomed into a full-scale creative movement.
Back then new themes emerged almost daily, and the small group of Monument Valley weavers challenged themselves and each other to explore and invent new designs and innovative weaving techniques.
The results were revolutionary, and Lorraine was at the vanguard.
The Tech Bubble bursting in 2000, the Great Recession of 2008, the worldwide Pandemic of 2020 and a sustained drought in the West that decimated sumac supplies have taken a toll on local Navajo basket makers.
Many have been emotionally, psychologically and artistically devastated. Some simply threw in the towel and stopped weaving.
Others, like Eleanor Rock and Mary Holiday Black, passed on. Consequently, compared with what we used to be, Twin Rocks Trading Post, which at one time overflowed with Navajo baskets, is now basketry challenged.
While I do not fully comprehend the events of the past 25 years, Twin Rocks has managed to navigate the calamities and remain healthy. Like the Bluff pioneers, we are nothing if not tenacious.
Navajo basketry has been an important component of our success, so things have become a little more complicated. Lately, basket weavers such as Elsie Holiday, Joann Johnson and Peggy Black have provided us with exceptional work, but there just is not the volume we are accustomed to seeing.
Consequently, it was good news when Lorraine recently reconnected. It was always fun when she arrived, and the truth is we have missed Lorraine a lot.
She is like Coyote, the trickster, you never know what she will do, but you can be sure it will always be interesting, and often educational.
Over the years, Lorraine has created many groundbreaking baskets. Despite her sunny disposition, she does not shy away from difficult themes such as war, genocide, incarceration and starvation, so it should be no surprise that she recently decided to address the Covid-19 epidemic that has turned our world upside down.
At one point during the early phase of the scourge, the Navajo Nation had the highest infection rate per capita in the world. Many Navajo basket weavers died as a result of the disease, and many others are still suffering the effects of Long Covid.
Despite vaccines, boosters and Paxlovid, the threat has not gone away in this part of the globe, and it is still very real to us. So, when Lorraine told me she was working on a basket documenting the illness, I was intrigued.
Then, one day, after several weeks, it arrived, and the weaving is everything I hoped it might be. The basket prominently features Mother Earth and Father Sky, referencing the burial of the dead and the ascension of their souls into Heaven.
In the center of the basket is a circular Covid-virus, surrounded by the four sacred plants, indicating a prayer for its cure. Four directional moons protect the images of those who have died from the infection.
The powerful imagery is contained by rainbow guardians. The energy of this theme is bounded by rainbow guardians to contain the images. It is a powerhouse.
This, however, is not the first time Lorraine has done such monumental work, and hopefully not the last.
In 2002 for example, she brought in the Code Talker basket which told the story of a young Navajo man inducted into the United State Marine Corps.
During World War II, Navajo recruits developed what became known as the “Unbreakable Code” by taking Navajo words and applying to them to implements of war.
To illustrate, the names of different birds (tsídii) were used to identify various planes, tanks were turtles (chééh digháhii) and ships were whales (beeshl). The code originally consisted of about 200 vocabulary terms and expanded to approximately 500 over the course of the conflict.
Lorraine’s interpretation shows the young man being recruited, leaving his homeland and receiving a blessing to keep him safe during upcoming battles.
In one design band, Lorraine spells out “Navajo Code Talkers” using code symbols; needle (tsah) for “N,” apple (bilasáana) for “A,” and so on.
The young soldier and the symbols are embraced and protected by Yeis, sacred beings that assist in healing ceremonies.
In 2004, Lorraine tackled the heartbreaking topic of the Navajo Long Walk. Her basket shows the U.S. cavalry rounding up Navajo people, soldiers on horseback and captives on foot, their hands and feet bound.
The Long Walk of the Navajo; which they refer to as Hwéeldi, the dark time, involved the 1864 deportation of Navajo people by the federal government.
Numerous Navajos were forced to walk from their homeland in what is now the Four Corners region to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Along the way many suffered and died.
Lorraine’s depiction, which is cast in an innovative geometric form, shows the hunger, humiliation and pain endured by her people during the march and is a powerful depiction of a tragic chapter in U.S.- Navajo relations.
Like the Code Talker and Long Walk baskets, the Coronavirus weaving is a masterwork. Through this basket Lorraine has proven there can be beauty in tragedy.
We can only hope she continues to illuminate the bright side of the serious issues we face now and in the future.