The En­dur­ing Craft

A com­pre­hen­sive guide to the his­tory of Na­tive Amer­i­can bas­ketry.

Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Wil­liam A. Turnbaugh, PH.D., and Sarah Pe­abody Turnbaugh, M.S.

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).

6. Nuu-chah-nulth peo­ples of Van­cou­ver Is­land and coastal Wash­ing­ton state, known for their abil­ity as whalers and fish­er­men, be­gan creat­ing small, col­or­ful wrap twined lid­ded trin­ket bas­kets for the tourist mar­ket by circa 1900, 3.25" max­i­mum...

5. This early win­now­ing tray’s sur­face looks mot­tled due to ha­bit­ual na­tive use. A Maidu bas­ket­maker cre­ated this tra­di­tional three-rod coiled tray was cre­ated with cus­tom­ary ma­te­ri­als and a typ­i­cal ex­pand­ing three-point cen­tral de­sign el­e­ment, ca....

4. North­east­ern plaited wood­splint bas­kets are sur­pris­ingly early. This Nip­muc stor­age bas­ket with painted vase and hearts is at­trib­uted to an Arnold fam­ily maker, Mas­sachusetts, ca. 1820, 12½" high.

1. 2. 3. The coiled Chu­mash lid­ded “trea­sure bas­ket” is al­most as scarce as the Cal­i­for­nia con­dor, pre1835, 9" di­am­e­ter. This early 1900s Cal­i­for­nia bas­ket­maker sits amidst care­fully pre­pared ma­te­ri­als as she starts a util­i­tar­ian bas­ket. Open­twined...

COIL­ING Most bas­kets are cre­ated us­ing one or more of three ba­sic tech­niques or their vari­a­tions: coil­ing, plaiting or twin­ing.



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