Understanding the Evolution of Navajo Basketry into its Modern Form

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Basketry has, for hundreds of years, been an integral part of Navajo life and culture. The traditional weaving patterns and designs are even found in modern art and craft as well as contemporary products such as mugs and wallets. Given the significance that this particular art form holds for the Navajo people, it may surprise you to know it was the monumental efforts of one woman and her community that catapulted basketry into its present sought-after form.

When the rich Navajo tradition of basketry began to die out in the 20th century, the only few baskets in the market were made solely to appeal to tourists. This is when, in a remote part of the Navajo Nation, families of the isolated Douglas Mesa community heralded an artistic revolution. Mary Holiday Black was one of the Navajo artists who felt that they needed to not just appeal to the interests of the tourists who bought their baskets but also tend to their own community’s artistic senses. This would allow them to keep their tradition alive while continuing with the trade. The artists gradually began to modify their weaving, creating new designs, and altering the use of colors and even the shape and scale of the baskets. These modern touches to this traditional art found encouragement from both buyers and traders of Navajo art.

Black also started experimenting with natural plant-based dyes. She even created smaller and oversized jug shaped baskets, which were the likes of something the Navajo people had never seen before. Slowly, she incorporated traditional rug designs in her ts’aa’, even using sacred symbols and patterns, creating a harmonious blend of two time-honored art forms. This marked the beginning of a new and more modern tradition of Navajo basketry, which came to be known as the Story Baskets.

Black’s influence on modern Navajo basketry has been unmatched. Her courage and determination to steer away from tradition continue to inspire not just present-day weavers but also other Navajo artists. The modern basketry designs crafted by her are still present in today’s crafts and art pieces.

If you wish to learn more about Navajo art and craft, make sure you check out our other blog posts. Browse through our online store to discover a selection of products made by native Navajo artists.