The Enduring Craft
A comprehensive guide to the history of Native American basketry.
A comprehensive guide to the history of Native American basketry.
Basketmaking is arguably one of humankind’s oldest handicrafts. In many regions of the world, basketry preceded such arts as metallurgy or pottery making by many centuries. Although for most of us the term “basketry” would probably call to mind a fairly standard variety of woven vessel, the term generally applies to an array of “hard textile” containers created from many kinds of plant materials. The definition might even extend to softer bags or pouches woven from twisted fibers or flexible strips, as well as rigid buckets or boxes of sewn bark, for examples.
Like most organic products, basketry ordinarily decays and disappears soon after being discarded or buried. Nevertheless, traces of what appear to be a woven textile—possibly a twined basket fragment—survive as impressions in hardened clay at a 25,000- to 27,000-yearold archaeological site in the Czech Republic.
In several parts of North America, archaeological textiles specialists have identified twined impressions
and tiny basketry fragments from sites of the so-called Archaic period of roaming hunters and gatherers that are about 10,000 years old. A bit of carbonized bark from Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, radiocarbon-dated to 19,600 years ago, may represent a birchbark container in the opinion of the archaeologist who discovered it. At this point, it appears that coiled and plaited basketry technology followed twining by several millennia.
Better-preserved pieces and, rarely, entire ancient baskets have survived at a few sites in the American deserts. Southwestern rockshelters and caves protected some fine examples made by the ancestors of the Puebloan people who still occupy the region. In fact, archaeologists once called the earliest of these ancestral cultures “the Basketmaker People.” That name—not so often used today—was bestowed decades ago when researchers knew little about the people of the culture, other than the fact that they used basketry extensively because they had not yet
learned to make pottery. Their 2,000-year-old sites preserve both coarse utilitarian baskets of plain design and fine decorated examples that they perhaps reserved for special ceremonial use, much as their Puebloan descendants have in later centuries.
Other woven artifacts survive from these early time periods. For example, a brace of reed-bundle duck decoys, once deployed in seasonal lakes, came to light at Lovelock Cave in northern Nevada. Little wrappedstick effigies of quadrupeds, perhaps deer or mountain sheep, are found in and around the Grand Canyon.
Although moist environmental conditions in the eastern U.S. less often allow for good organic preservation, archaeologists did recover a large section of an ancient bark container at the late prehistoric Sheeprock Shelter site in southwestern Pennsylvania. Also included among the oldest surviving Indian baskets from the Northeast are several small twined sacks. Algonquian natives typically used such pouches to carry corn meal for preparing their jonny (“journey”) cake, but Narragansett and Mohegan makers in the mid-17thcentury gifted these particular examples to European
neighbors who then carefully preserved them.
Collectible basketry from archaeological sites and the early settlement period is extremely rare. Today, most ancient sites are protected by state or federal law, and artifacts removed from them are safeguarded in museums or returned to descendant tribes as part of their cultural patrimony. Collectors, though, do enjoy access to a much more bountiful crop of baskets dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Of all the principal Native American craft-arts (basketry, jewelry, pottery, weaving, painting, carving) basketmaking is probably the most precarious today. Basketry’s demise has been predicted prematurely more than once, however. Frontier travelers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (and even earlier in eastern regions), almost as though scripted, ruefully observed that iron kettles, pails, tin plates and cups were rapidly replacing their Native counterparts. Old women, they said, wove the few baskets still being made, while younger women generally seemed to possess neither the skills nor the inclination to take up the craft.
Despite the dire forecasts, Indian basketmaking remains a living craft today, though with a changing visage. A few centers of Native basket production flourish where artisans old and young maintain their own tribal birthright, sometimes alongside others who reach beyond the customary boundaries to create innovative forms of fiber art. But in some other oncevibrant basketmaking communities hardly any baskets are now being made.
Making a traditional Native basket requires much more than simply a desire to carry on a noble and ancient lifeway. Any basket that is true to its heritage has had woven into its form an entire body of cultural knowledge and practical expertise. This wisdom— for that is what it is—is based on generations of experience, transmitted to and through the craftsperson, her family, and her community. A basket might be readily woven to closely resemble a classic form. (As an example, ladies in the American Arts and Crafts movement did so with the aid of printed instructions and commercial materials.) But when completed, such a basket shares only a superficial
relationship with the authentic model that it mimics.
A Native basketmaker has had to master more than weaving techniques. Though twining or plaiting or coiling can be exacting processes, they are soon mastered through practice and finally perfected through experience. Any competent weaver may acquire an eye for shape or form. But the traditional basketmaker bears heavy responsibilities to generations of her family and community to make a basket that is proper in all regards. Her work may be constrained by cultural standards that extend even to the proportions of the form or the direction she takes in her weaving.
Incorporating acceptable design elements into the basket’s fabric can actually be a most demanding task. The design layout that will grace a traditional basket’s surface often carries special significance, so the maker may have very little latitude in choosing it. At least for her most conventional work, her selection of appropriate motifs also can be governed by tribal or family custom or belief rather than by her individual preference.
Likewise, when or even where a basket may be woven could be matters for cautious consideration. Cultural taboos may restrict a woman from crafting a basket at critical times of the month or in the presence of certain individuals. As an example, early-20th-century Navajo basketmakers felt themselves so restricted by the ritual prohibitions related to their activity that continuing to weave the sacred baskets might endanger themselves and their clan. So the Navajo turned to their Paiute neighbors, who did not share the same basketmaking taboos, and thus “out-sourced” the basketmaking along with all the attendant risks for a few decades.
A traditional basketmaker’s knowledge encompasses both the cultural and the natural realms. Basketry materials do not necessarily grow on trees—though some may! A basketmaker must command almost
encyclopedic botanical information. What plants can be used? Where do they grow?
In a given region, many species may offer potentially suitable elements for basketmaking, but only a few are likely to grow conveniently close at hand or be available at just the right time. Each plant may yield only one useful kind of material: perhaps a strip of inner bark or a fine root; or maybe a grass or fern stem; or possibly a fiber twisted from seed fluff or pulled from a long leaf. Basketmaking resources can be all but invisible to the uninitiated. The bark or vines or stalks that one assumes might readily be made into a serviceable basket will not necessarily work.
Finding the right plant for the task is but one part of the problem. Properly harvesting and preparing the materials are other major concerns. Certain materials can be gathered during just a brief period each year. Is this willow taken while it still retains its springtime suppleness, or should one wait until it has toughened? Should these grass stems be cut or pulled? Will this vine remain pliable if coiled and stored away, or must it be kept soaking in water until used? Is this outer bark layer to be peeled off? For how long must one bury these reed stems in mud to turn them black without rotting? How soon will these yucca strips be properly bleached in the sun?
The craftsperson who combines a number of different materials into a strong and beautiful basket must precisely schedule the right times to gather each one. She must know how to prepare them all. Then she must carefully preserve her materials under just the right conditions. Only when everything aligns perfectly can a basket be created that will conform satisfactorily to all the established cultural norms. Traditional basketmaking embodies the natural realm’s rhythmic cycles in harmony with an abiding faith in social continuities. A disturbance from any source can shove the craft toward an uncertain future.
Not one, but several interrelated factors— technological, economic, social, ecological—contributed to the decline and near disappearance of Native American basketmaking in many areas by the mid19th century. Most of these influences stemmed either directly or indirectly from Euramerican contact, which brought about cataclysmic changes in Native society that are too many and too familiar to be enumerated here. Certainly, the course of these interactions severely disrupted longstanding Indian lifeways in most regions.
By the 20th century, virtually everywhere across the American continent, baskets had gone from playing a functional role in nearly every aspect of traditional Native life to becoming a commercial commodity in an alien culture.
Basketmaking skills comprising the experience of countless lifespans could be lost in as little as a single generation once the continuity was broken. The accumulated wisdom—the intimacy with nature’s resources, an aptitude for rigorous techniques, an inherent fluency in cultural meaning—would not be readily retrieved once lost. The survival of Native American basketmaking through the late 19th and 20th century did not happen without assistance. What is currently a bright craft activity in a few places today often persisted not long ago only as dying coals— embers that were fanned during the basket craze of the early 1900s and in subsequent decades by promoters and patrons, authors and scholars, tourists and curio collectors. Government programs and initiatives, museum and university exhibitions, and mentoring efforts of dedicated Native master basketmakers and associations have also encouraged the skill.
Native American basketmaking remains a tenuous process even now. Basketmaking once flourished within specific natural and cultural environments. For better or worse, the old lifeways that nurtured the craft disappeared long ago. Today’s basketmakers work in very different situations. What they manage to accomplish is done against the odds.
Understandably, when compared with vintage examples, contemporary Indian baskets generally reveal some significant distinctions. Most of those who choose to continue basketmaking are doing so in order to remain true to their own heritage and thereby pass along their craft as a legacy to following generations.
Native basketry is evolving. Today’s Native peoples have brought basketmaking into the current century. As they venture beyond the boundaries of yesteryear’s established limits, they are taking their work to new levels. Built upon their past and expressing, interpreting, and honoring their cultural roots, their enduring craft has become art.
This article was excerpted, updated and adapted from American Indian Baskets: Building and Caring for a Collection (2013, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA).
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COILING Most baskets are created using one or more of three basic techniques or their variations: coiling, plaiting or twining.