Re­al­iza­tion of the Nat­u­ral


Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Natalie Fay Linn

Amer­i­can In­dian bas­ketry and the Arts and Crafts move­ment.

The Arts and Crafts move­ment in Amer­ica brought many In­dian crafts to the at­ten­tion of the dom­i­nant white so­ci­ety. Aris­ing as a re­sponse to the per­ceived in­hu­man­ity of ma­chine­made goods and over­stuffed Vic­to­rian clut­ter, this move­ment of the late 1800s through the early 1900s em­pha­sized the sim­ple, the nat­u­ral and the man­made. It is not sur­pris­ing then that the el­e­gant, nat­u­ral-fiber, “woman-made” In­dian bas­ket was adopted by this move­ment.

By the turn of the cen­tury, most of the western tribes of Amer­i­can In­di­ans had either been mis­sion­ized or placed on reser­va­tions. With the In­di­ans se­cured on gov­ern­ment lands, their lives came to be looked on with a new sen­ti­men­tal­ity. In nov­els and on stage, Euro-amer­i­cans ro­man­ti­cized the

glo­ri­ous days of the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship of na­ture and In­dian. Im­ages of the no­ble war­rior ap­peared in paint­ings, in pho­tos and on pot­tery.

Grad­u­ally, Amer­i­cans ad­vanced from this “no­ble sav­age” sen­ti­men­tal­ity to a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­can ma­te­rial cul­ture. Many so­phis­ti­cated whites had be­come dis­en­chanted with the non-in­di­vid­u­al­ized, ma­chine-made para­pher­na­lia that glut­ted their daily lives and in­stead de­sired hand­crafted goods, many of which were In­dian made. Mu­se­ums rec­og­nized the rar­ity of the hand­crafted ar­ti­facts and be­gan col­lect­ing Amer­i­can In­dian ethno­graph­ica.

Be­tween 1890 and 1910, Amer­ica pro­vided a fer­tile ground for hand­i­crafts, with the pe­riod’s fur­ni­ture style fo­cus­ing on form and un­dec­o­rated sur­face. Gus­tav Stick­ley, de­signer and fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­turer, pub­lished the Crafts­man mag­a­zine in 1901 and in­ter­preted the Arts and Crafts move­ment to the mid­dle class pub­lic. The move­ment en­com­passed ev­ery­thing in and about the home.

Stick­ley’s ar­che­typ­i­cal Arts and Craft room com­bined mo­tifs from the me­dieval, folk and colo­nial Amer­i­can tra­di­tion to evoke sim­plic­ity and to stand as a coun­ter­point to the over-civ­i­lized ur­ban dwellings. To lend a touch of com­fort and cheer, he rec­om­mended Amer­i­can In­dian rugs and Navajo blan­kets to ac­com­pany the fur­ni­ture. It was soon dis­cov­ered that the un­af­fected de­signs and nat­u­ral color of the tex­tiles har­mo­nized well with the nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als used in Arts and Crafts rooms.

There was a re­gional fac­tor in the Arts and Crafts move­ment, as the nat­u­ral and un­so­phis­ti­cated West be­came equated with the prein­dus­trial past. The me­dia of the day—news­pa­pers, cir­cu­lars and cat­a­logs—praised the work of Na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple and pro­mul­gated the idea that by procur­ing the work of the “more sim­ple” folk, one could be­come closer to na­ture. Ad­ver­tise­ments lured mid­dle class Amer­ica west­ward to see the In­dian women liv­ing on reser­va­tions or mis­sions, mak­ing their crafts within their “nat­u­ral” habi­tat. Rail­road and steamship com­pa­nies pre­pared brochures that ad­ver­tised ex­otic In­dian-made me­men­tos await­ing pur­chase. Trav­el­ers were mo­ti­vated to see the en­vi­rons of the beau­ti­ful Wild West and to pro­cure travel me­men­tos from the tra­di­tional bas­ketry ar­eas.

The pen­chant for fur­nish­ing cor­ners of rooms with In­dian bas­kets and cacti be­came de rigeur in the Arts and Crafts pe­riod. Those stores car­ry­ing house­hold goods be­gan to dis­play eclec­tic and artis­tic cor­ners for the con­sumers to em­u­late in their homes. These cu­rios­ity cor­ners were rem­i­nis­cent of the dis­plays Euro­pean mu­se­ums hous­ing the In­dian ethno­graph­ica of the past. Re-cre­ated in the home, they pro­vided a dec­o­ra­tive func­tion as well as ev­i­dence that one could af­ford to travel.

The Arts and Crafts ideals seemed close to re­al­iza­tion in the lives of Cal­i­for­nia’s artis­tic com­mu­nity. In a Jan­uary 10, 1891, ar­ti­cle in the Placer Her­ald ti­tled “A Cal­i­for­nia Craze: The Lat­est Fad Among Artis­tic Peo­ple—col­lec­tions of In­dian Bas­kets,” C. F. Holden wrote that “It is the cor­rect thing and some of the most artis­tic homes in the state have rooms dec­o­rated with them. Who started the craze is not known, but some­one dis­cov­ered that the bas­kets pos­sessed great artis­tic beauty, were rich in har­mo­nious col­or­ing and formed at­trac­tive or­na­ments for li­brary and par­lor, and the de­mand be­gan.” The fad was said to be preva­lent “es­pe­cially in the south­ern por­tion” of the state.

The Arts and Crafts move­ment in the West was ex­pressed as a lifestyle, and the em­brac­ing of the arts was seen as an in­dis­pens­able part of life. Much of the art, how­ever, was al­ready be­ing trans­formed by the de­mands of the mar­ket­place. In what can be de­fined as the ac­cul­tur­a­tive phase of In­dian bas­ketry, new forms taken from the white cul­ture were em­u­lated dur­ing the pe­riod l890 to 1910. Western bas­ketry ar­eas that were ac­ces­si­ble were vis­ited reg­u­larly by col­lec­tors, traders and pro­fes­sional deal­ers who de­ter­mined the sal­a­bil­ity of bas­ketry forms. With the pro­duc­tion of bas­kets gen­er­at­ing needed in­come, most bas­ket­mak­ers

in these ar­eas had lit­tle choice but to lis­ten to ad­vice on what to pro­duce. Bas­kets were usu­ally sold in bulk to these “pa­trons” who in turn mar­keted them to stores and, ul­ti­mately, through mail-or­der cat­a­logs.

At the same time, some deal­ers and col­lec­tors con­tin­ued to fa­vor tra­di­tional bas­ketry, seek­ing to keep the art pure in form and de­sign. They in­sisted on good crafts­man­ship and unadul­ter­ated forms, and pur­chased only the finest ex­am­ples from the weavers. A few col­lec­tors of tra­di­tional work vied for finely-stitched pieces, and thus, count­ing stitches be­came one of the most im­por­tant cri­te­ria in pur­chas­ing bas­ketry.

Ge­orge Whar­ton James, an avid col­lec­tor of the tra­di­tional bas­ket, was very vo­cal about the im­i­ta­tive, adul­ter­ated forms. He or­ga­nized a bas­ket fra­ter­nity and pub­lished a bas­ketry mag­a­zine in 1903 with the goal of keep­ing the art of bas­ketry pure. He wrote ar­ti­cles for Stick­ley’s Crafts­man mag­a­zine, in part to de­ter the pur­chase of the white man’s “for sale” bas­kets (those made only for pur­chase).

Tra­di­tion­al­ists like James in­flu­enced the mar­ket by pur­chas­ing only the finest bas­kets while den­i­grat­ing the new “for sale” forms. In time, these con­nois­seurs had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on mu­seum and in­dus­try pur­chases of col­lec­tions. Be­cause of the high stan­dards set forth by the con­nois­seurs of the art, cer­tain ar­eas saw a re­birth of cre­ative ac­tiv­ity that can be called the “artis­tic” phase of bas­ketry. This cre­ative surge had the ef­fect of gen­er­at­ing a new mar­ket, and in some ar­eas, this “artis­tic” mar­ket was to last well into the 1960s.

The var­ied forms of bas­ketry were seen from Alaska down through the South­west. The dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of the bas­kets from one area to the next were the in­dige­nous ma­te­ri­als used and the tra­di­tional weav­ing tech­niques em­ployed. Yet, cer­tain ar­eas in Cal­i­for­nia.

Ne­vada and the South­west will be noted for the early flo­res­cence of work that came to em­body the artis­tic phase of Na­tive Amer­i­can bas­ketry.

The Pomo In­di­ans of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia were the most pro­lific bas­ket­mak­ing group. Prior to con­tact with re­futes, the Po­mos made col­or­fully feath­ered gift and cer­e­mo­nial bas­kets, and these rare bas­kets be­came very de­sir­able to the new col­lec­tors. Dur­ing the Arts

and Crafts pe­riod, other types of bird feath­ers were in­cor­po­rated into the de­sign vo­cab­u­lary. Trade beads were an added fea­ture used alone or in com­bi­na­tion with the feath­ers.

Around 1900, Grace Ni­chol­son, a pro­fes­sional dealer, rev­o­lu­tion­ized the busi­ness of bas­ketry, turn­ing what for oth­ers was a profitable hobby or side­line into a pro­fes­sion. She went on trips through­out the West col­lect­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can crafts. In 1903, she be­gan pur­chas­ing Pomo bas­kets from Mary and Wil­liam Ben­son, and even­tu­ally sought ex­clu­sive ac­cess to their work. One of the first pa­trons of this art, Ni­chol­son en­cour­aged the Ben­sons to use tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als, tech­niques and de­signs, and to make their cre­ations as fine as pos­si­ble. She en­cour­aged au­then­tic­ity and dis­cour­aged the sou­venir atroc­i­ties be­ing pro­duced in other ar­eas.

Many so­phis­ti­cated col­lec­tors be­gan to as­sem­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tive col­lec­tions of Pomo bas­ketry, and they were greatly re­spon­si­ble for in­flu­enc­ing the qual­ity of mu­seum col­lec­tions. Be­cause of the ex­po­sure given to the Ben­sons and to other fine Pomo weavers, the stan­dards for form and work­man­ship in Pomo bas­ketry main­tained a high level.

In the Yosemite Val­ley-mono Lake area of Cal­i­for­nia, an­other pop­u­lar source for bas­kets, changes be­gan to take place in re­sponse to de­mands. Many trav­el­ers sought sou­venirs of their trips to Yosemite. The more com­plex and col­or­ful the form, the more at­trac­tive the bas­ket be­came to the white buyer. Grad­u­ally, there was a heavy de­mand for qual­ity pieces, and weavers were mo­ti­vated be­yond mon­e­tary re­wards to seek recog­ni­tion for ac­com­plished and cre­ative work. De­signs cov­ered the bas­ket, and the work be­came finer. Avail­abil­ity of new tools con­trib­uted to a neater, more highly stitched bas­ket. Metal awls re­placed deer leg bones, and tin can lids with punched holes re­placed rocks and teeth in the re­fin­ing of ma­te­ri­als.

The In­dian Field Days, held in the Yosemite area, were re­vived in 1919, at a time when Cal­i­for­nia houses were not con­sid­ered com­plete with­out travel me­men­tos. One pur­pose of the Field Days was to in­crease tourism in the area dur­ing the off-sea­son. Se­condly, the event en­cour­aged and pre­served the In­dian hand­i­crafts of bas­ket­mak­ing and bead­work. The Field Days pe­riod was the apogee of the artis­tic phase in this area. Cash prizes were awarded for the best bas­kets, and pho­tog­ra­phers doc­u­mented the events, as­so­ci­at­ing the once anony­mous art with the artists’ faces.

By 1929, the Field Days were dis­con­tin­ued, as the Great De­pres­sion not only de­terred ex­pen­sive travel but dis­cour­aged lux­ury pur­chases. Col­lec­tors, how­ever, con­tin­ued to search for pieces that re­flected the unadul­ter­ated na­tive tra­di­tions.

Bas­ketry in Lake Ta­hoe’s min­ing ar­eas had the same ac­cul­tur­a­tive be­gin­nings as bas­ketry in other ar­eas. In the Washoe re­gion of Ne­vada, be­cause of the in­flu­ence and spon­sor­ship of the en­tre­pre­neur Abe Cohn, a bas­ketry form known as the degikup was trans­formed from a sim­ple tra­di­tional shape into a highly dec­o­rated piece of fiber sculp­ture.

Dat­so­lalee (circa l850-l925) was the ear­li­est known weaver to de­vote her full time to artis­tic bas­kets. Her degikup were char­ac­ter­ized by their large shape and the use of small-scale mo­tifs in an over­all pat­tern. Cohn and his wife, the most fa­mous bas­ketry pa­trons be­tween 1895 and 1925, looked af­ter the daily needs of Dat­so­lalee and her hus­band and pro­vided the nec­es­sary sup­port for her work. The Cohns also main­tained the

stan­dards of work­man­ship of Washoe bas­kets.

Owner and oper­a­tor of the Em­po­rium de­part­ment store in Car­son City, Ne­vada, Cohn de­voted a cor­ner of his store to the pro­mo­tion of In­dian bas­ketry. Cohn’s store cor­ner was both typ­i­cal of those pro­mo­tional de­vices used to sell the ex­ot­ica of the Amer­i­can In­dian dur­ing the Arts and Crafts pe­riod, and in its way, unique. The “ex­ot­ica” con­sisted of bas­ketry ar­ti­cles that were su­per­vised, stan­dard­ized and ul­ti­mately com­mer­cial­ized. Cohn, a great mer­chan­diser and pro­moter, doc­u­mented every piece and thus gave iden­tity and cred­i­bil­ity to the once anony­mous ves­sels. Me­dia cov­er­age en­hanced the pub­lic’s knowl­edge of Dat­so­lalee, who was Cohn’s ma­jor weaver, and in l897, a work by Dat­so­lalee sold for $1,500, a price never be­fore at­tained for a bas­ket. Con­tem­po­raries of hers were able to gain no­to­ri­ety by fol­low­ing in her foot­steps.

Due to the ef­forts of the Cohns, bas­ketry art now pos­sessed a greater cred­i­bil­ity, and Dat­so­lalee’s recog­ni­tion bred a com­pet­i­tive­ness among other weavers for like sta­tus. Re­ceiv­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the de­signs of their con­tem­po­raries, the artists im­pro­vised their own stylis­tic vo­cab­u­lar­ies. In the com­mer­cial­iza­tion process, Cohn con­sciously strove to bring In­dian art into the realm of fine art. Each weaver be­gan to “sign” the ves­sels, us­ing her own de­signs and forms as sig­na­ture marks. This had the ef­fect of el­e­vat­ing these bas­kets from anonymity.

Be­cause of the role af­forded Amer­i­can In­dian art within the frame­work of the Arts and Crafts move­ment in Amer­ica, the art of bas­ketry was pro­moted and thus saved from pos­si­ble ex­tinc­tion. Ac­cul­tur­a­tive forms of the white man ap­pealed to the In­dian woman‘s imag­i­na­tion, and this was re­in­forced by her de­sire to pro­duce that which she thought the dom­i­nant so­ci­ety would read­ily buy. Many of the new forms gained ac­cep­tance. Other weavers con­tin­ued to elab­o­rate on the tra­di­tional bas­ketry ves­sel. Dur­ing the artis­tic phase of bas­ketry, so­phis­ti­cated white col­lec­tors and deal­ers, with their ex­act­ing stan­dards, pro­moted what was to be­come the flo­res­cence of an art form.

Based on an ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Novem­ber/ De­cem­ber 1990 is­sue of An­tiques and Fine Art.

4. 5. Thomas River ta­ble, Bri­tish Columbia, ca. 1907, cedar, cedar bark and cherry bark, 30 x 24 x 29". Com­mis­sioned piece by an ar­chi­tect dur­ing Arts and Crafts pe­riod with no nails used in the de­sign. Leanna Tom, Yosemite bas­ket, Cal­i­for­nia, ca....

1. 2. 3. Mrs. Dick Fran­cisco (1857–1953), Youkts fig­u­ral bot­tle­neck, Cal­i­for­nia, ca. 1910, sedge, bracken fern and red­bud, 13 x 8" Pomo feath­ered bas­ket, Cal­i­for­nia, ca. 1890, wil­low, bul­rush sedge, clamshell discs, quail top­knots, 4 x 9½" Mary...

6. Kla­math flo­ral vase, Ore­gon, ca. 1890, tules and mud dyed tules, 10 x 7". Made to im­i­tate “white” sam­pler pe­tit point work dur­ing Arts and Crafts pe­riod. 7. Lily James, Washo degikup, Ne­vada, ca. 1910, black bracken fern and red­buc. James’ work was...

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