Where have all the baskets gone?
As vaccinations have increased and the worldwide pandemic begins to recede, demand for ceremonial baskets has skyrocketed.
Many Navajo people have informed us they recently scoured Window Rock, Gallup, Farmington, Shiprock, Teec Nos Pos, Cortez, and every other place they could think of looking for new baskets and came up empty.
“This is the only place with good baskets,” they have informed us.
It seems that COVID-19 has increased the need for healing ceremonies necessary to set things right. So, along with a shortage of available workers, paper products, computer chips, and common sense, people cannot find baskets.
In her book, Navajo Ceremonial Baskets, Georgiana Kennedy Simpson concluded, “The origin of the ceremonial basket reaches back into the deepest parts of Navajo history. The basket’s place is firmly embedded in the first stories of the [Navajo] people and their gods.”
That statement illustrates one of the more important lessons we have learned at Twin Rocks Trading Post over the years–that ceremonial baskets are the basis of Navajo culture and tradition.
These weavings, which are historically made for ceremonial use, are essential to the Navajo belief system. Consequently, we acquire them whenever possible.
Until recently, Twin Rocks, like other similarly situated trading posts, has accumulated impressive stacks of them. In fact, there were times when we wondered how we could possibly sell them all.
While these baskets are also used in weddings, they are most often employed by medicine men in healing and blessing ceremonies.
So, when I asked Priscilla to name a few of the rituals, she rattled off several, including the Beauty Way, Night Way, Yei bi Chei, Mountain Top Way, and Kindaalda’.
Over centuries of evolution, the basic motif, which varied substantially in its early development, has standardized into a universally recognizable pattern of mountains, clouds, and blood rings.
Several interpretations of this design exist, some simple, some significantly more complex.
The interpretation I like best, however, was told to me by a woman I met during the winter of 1993. According to that explanation, “The basket is viewed as a map through which Navajo people chart their lives.
“The center, or start, of the basket represents the opening where Navajo people emerged from their prior existence into this, the Glittering World.
“As they entered, all was white, pure. The inner coils of the basket are that color to represent lightness, birth, and arrival into this realm.
“As you travel outward on the coils, you begin to encounter increasing amounts of black. That darkness represents struggle and pain, the darker side of our journey.
“As you make your way through the darkness, you eventually reach the red bands, which represent marriage, the mixing of your blood with that of your spouse and family. The red rings are pristine and undiluted. During this time in one’s life, there is no darkness.
“Progressing out of the familial bands you encounter more darkness, which is interspersed with increasing white light. The light color represents growing knowledge and wisdom, which expands until you enter the all-white coils of the outer rim, representing the spirit world, where there is no darkness.
“Finally, the line from the center of the basket to the outer rim is there to remind us that, no matter how much darkness you encounter along your journey, there is always a pathway to the light.”
During our three decades in Bluff, Navajo people have often come to the trading post to acquire a basket or two for religious use and as part of the compensation to the medicine man engaged to heal the patient.
Once the ceremony is concluded, it was common for well-known healers like John Holiday to return with the baskets he earned. At that point, we repurchase the weavings and return them into inventory.
As people like John have died, however, that cycle has broken down, and we do not see baskets come back.
Additionally, many Navajo people have begun to retain their baskets for personal use. In this scenario, valuable objects like silver and turquoise jewelry; money; and sheep, goat, horse, and cow fetishes are stored in the containers, so the inherent power of the weaving causes the owner’s wealth to grow.
These and several other factors have resulted in the dearth of ceremonial baskets.
Last week, Agnus Grey brought her mother Mary Holiday Black to Twin Rocks for a visit. That gave us the opportunity to ask Agnus about this ceremonial shortfall.
She, like many other weavers of her generation, has grown too busy to weave. As she explained, taking care of her mother is all-consuming, and there is no time to harvest, split, dye, and weave the sumac. That is unfortunately true for an ever-expanding list of artists.
Additionally, much of the next generation has gone on to better educations and careers that do not allow time for traditional arts and crafts. While that is good for the children, it does not bode well for the future of basket making.
As for Mary, she has grown too weak to make baskets any longer. Despite her handicap, Mary assured Priscilla she would soon return with a nice weaving to sell. Her mind is willing, but her hands are no longer up to the task.
When we put the question to master weaver Elsie Holiday, she explained that climate change and the associated drought have destroyed the sumac supply.
That, combined with increasing development on traditional harvesting fields and the associated hostility of landowners, have led to the basket makers’ inability to collect necessary materials.
“We just can’t find any willows,” Elsie said, shaking her head. “Maybe it will get better if the Coronavirus dies and rain comes in the fall.”