Heritage Keeper

Elsie Stone Holiday’s Navajo philosophy and the art of basketweaving

Elsie Stone Holiday emerges from a dark pick-up truck, a large basket in tow. The basket’s bright colors conjure a memory of the sun’s luminosity when suddenly breaking through clouds. Holiday, a modern Navajo basket weaver, took some time out to discuss her craft with me and share how this rich tradition of hers now travels the world.

We meet in the small town of Bluff, in southwest Utah, about 50 miles from Monument Valley. Holiday has come here to bring her newest creation to the Twin Rocks Trading Post, one of her important sales channels.

From the trading post, Holiday takes me to the bank of the San Juan River to show me how her basket-making process begins. Stepping into a tall sumac bush, she tells me that spring and autumn are the best time to gather sumac. That’s when the branches are the most pliable.

Holiday and her husband travel hundreds of miles each year collecting sumac, continuously seeking new locations. ”One can collect branches from the same bush only for a limited time. When the sumac gets older, its branches are no longer suitable for weaving.”

Returning home with a pick-up load of branches, Holiday then prepares them for weaving. She peels and splits each branch into three supple rods. Patience and precision are key to her exquisite baskets: she pulls each rod through a hole in a can to ensure uniform size.

The squash blossom has inspired Holiday’s newest basket. Over half a meter wide, the basket took her two and half weeks of 12 to 15 hour days to make. Her hands tell the story of her craft as well. ”All girls have pretty nails but mine are all beat-up!” she laughs.

In the Heart of Navajo Philosophy

”Traditional baskets were born way back with our ancestors. The first basket was woven by Changing Woman,” Holiday explains. Changing Woman, or Asdzáá Nádleehé, represents the perfection of creation and the cyclical nature of time. ”There’s a story to it but I cannot really tell it because that’s my protection. But we use our traditional baskets for healing and in weddings and births.”

In the Navajo language, there are no words for art or religion. A single word encompasses both: hózhó. Defining the essence of Navajo philosophy, hózhó stands for beauty and harmony, and expresses the idea of striving for balance.

Hand-woven baskets are material representations of hózhó. They are used in ceremonies to restore balance when it has been broken, for example by an illness or an accident.

Holiday is left-handed. Her baskets thus have a clockwise-running weave. ”This is important in ceremonies because in our tradition, this is the direction in which things move,” she explains, tracing the circles of her basket with her finger. ”For example in weddings, the left weave brings the couple good luck in their shared journey.”

The Weave of Generations

Holiday used to weave traditional rugs as a teenager. Through her marriage, she joined a family of basket weavers on Douglas Mesa in Monument Valley. This family helped revive Navajo basketry, bringing it back from near extinction.

In the late 1800s, basket weaving among the Navajos began to fade as they faced discrimination, impoverishment and forced displacement. In the 1960s, only few weavers were left to carry on the tradition. But in the 1970s new design ideas coupled with an increased interest and resulting growth of the Native American crafts market, lead to a renaissance of Navajo basket making.

Holiday’s mother-in-law, master weaver Betty White Holiday, became her mentor. ”She blessed me in so many ways,” Holiday says and explains that the blessing ceremonies included the use of corn pollen and spider web. “You know how perfect a web a spider weaves.”

Though dominated by women, basket weaving isn’t a realm for women alone. “My husband weaves, though he doesn’t have the patience.  Also my dad used to weave baskets. He was a medicine man and used the traditional basket in his ceremonies.”

The tradition continues as Holiday’s daughter, Angelina, also weaves baskets and draws inspiration from her mother’s original designs. The future, however, looks uncertain. "Around here, in high school, they teach basket weaving. But I don’t think there are really that many young weavers,” Holiday ponders.

Steve Simpson, owner or the Twin Rocks Trading Post says, ”The traditions are fading. The demanding techniques that result in intricate art take too much time. Earning a living this way is hard work.”

Out to the World with a Song

For Holiday’s family, basket weaving is the main source of income. Her craft, however, is much more than a job. ”I enjoy weaving and I’m proud of doing it. My mother-in-law was happy that I am keeping the tradition alive. I have done this for 30 years and I cannot spend a single day without weaving. It is in my blood.”

A true artisan, Holiday is deeply connected to the act of creation as her baskets flow forth from her hands. ”I can’t believe that all my thoughts are traveling the world through my baskets!” she says.

When Holiday completes a basket, she sings a protection song for it. “So whoever buys the basket, they have that protection in it, for happiness and health.”

Maria Jain is a Helsinki-based explorer inspired by stories of arts & crafts and their intimate connection with cultural preservation, livelihoods and building enriching and meaningful futures. She has co-founded Kantha (www.kantha.fi), a web store dedicated to products that celebrate the artisanship of India, her second home.

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