Realization of the Natural
AMERICAN INDIAN BASKETRY AND THE ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT
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.
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 Benson, Pomo “degikup”, ca. 1905, California, sedge and bulrush, 12 x 7". Rare shape as Benson tried to prove she was as adept as Washo weavers. This basket proved she was.
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. 1929, sedge, bracken fern, redbud, 6¾ x 11½"
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 sold at the Emporium also.
Photos courtesy the author.