Heather Sundahl and Brenda Beyal: Pandemic threatens Indigenous cultural knowledge

Pandemic turns Navajo tradition of multigenerational households into a threat.

Lorraine Mariano

Perhaps you’ve heard the African proverb, “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” Never has this seemed more real than when we got the news recently that our friend Lorraine Mariano, Navajo weaver, cultural standard bearer and Dine’ elder, died at 86 from COVID-19.

While no one life is more precious than another, it is heartbreaking that Indigenous people are dying at such high rates, taking with them linguistic, cultural and spiritual knowledge that few other “libraries” contain.

The actual COVID mortality rates for Native Americans are the highest in the nation. Translated into numbers, 1 in 750 has died. Utah is home to eight Native tribes, and all are at heightened risk for the pandemic. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sees the irony that one of his people’s greatest assets, living in multigenerational homes, has become a threat.

“This monster that we call COVID-19 took advantage of our strengths, “Nez said. “We like to be with our elders, our grandparents, our parents, our aunts and uncles.”

But we believe that the brilliance and success of Native Americans need to be recognized as much or more than the suffering and trauma so often associated with their histories. So while we are keen to call attention to the particular needs of this at-risk group, we do not want that to overshadow the beauty and resilience of Indigenous people.

Let us then, shine a light on one life and acknowledge the radiance we found there.

As part of our work with BYU ARTS Partnership, we partner with Utah’s tribes to create lesson plans that teach children about our state’s Indigenous people. Lorraine Mariano had graciously offered to let us interview her about her life and her weaving.

She told us that her mother, Baa’ Becenti, taught her to weave and her brother Benny Becenti made her loom. She used to have sheep and prepared the wool by hand, using a special clay (leezh liga’igi) to get the wool white. She picked and boiled local plants to make dyes for the wool: mountain mahogany roots (tse asdaazii bitl’ool) for an earthy reddish brown and yellow rabbit brush (k’iiltsooiitsho) for a sun bright yellow.

Lorraine saw a duty to pass on her knowledge through weaving, story and song, and she shared all this with generosity and excitement because she loved what she did and wanted to teach others. For decades, she taught weaving at her chapter house (community center) to people of all ages, and hoped that she would be remembered for sharing her weaving knowledge.

Beyond her weaving skills, she was sought out to assist in young women’s Kinaalda (coming-of-age ceremony) and helped the younger generations to bless their newborns with corn pollen and singing “the old songs.”

When we spoke with her last month, she said, “I tell my children to learn from me. They will one day sit like you are, and want to know and will lament, ‘We should have learned all of this [her expertise and cultural memory] from her.’”

Nobody is exactly sure when the Navajo began to weave, but we do know that weaving plays a vital role in the Dine’ creation myth. In this origin story, the spirit “Spider Woman” taught the People how to build and use a loom created from sky, sun, earth and lightning, and weaving has been part of Navajo life ever since.

Earlier this week, the vaccine began to be distributed to the Navajo Nation, and we hope all eight of Utah’s tribal nations soon get the vaccine so that COVID will no longer turn a strength into a weakness, and hope it prevents more sacred receptacles of knowledge from being destroyed.

Ultimately, we are grateful that we got to meet Lorraine, record her stories, see her talent, and feel her joy.

Heather Sundahl

Heather Sundahl, Provo, is a writer and editor for the BYU ARTS Partnership, researcher and writer for the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and historian for Exponent II.

Brenda Beyal

Brenda Beyal, Mapleton, is a Navajo/Diné wife, mother and teacher and leads the Native American Curriculum Initiative for the BYU ARTS Partnership.