“We cannot admire these baskets without remembering the hands that made them.”
Step into any southwest trading post and amidst the displays of dancing kachinas, Navajo rugs and turquoise jewelry your eye will soon fall upon woven baskets in subtle shades of tan, cream and brown or bright, bold colors. High and low, hanging on walls and suspended from ceilings, these beautiful art forms capture the imagination. From turn of the century Apache ollas and finely coiled Navajo wedding baskets, to contemporary Tohono O'odham trays and Hopi plaques, each basket carries the enduring echo of ceremonial songs, religious rites and tribal histories.
Basketry is the oldest known Native American craft. Archaeologists have dated baskets found in southwestern caves to 7000 years old. From generation to generation, basketry tools, materials and techniques have continuously been passed down.
An awl, knife, and strong teeth for stripping leaves and bark are the tools. Indigenous southwest plants comprise the materials: yucca, devil's claw, bear grass, willow, sumac, rabbitbrush, cattail, galleta grass and dune brush. The weaving techniques are four: Coiling, a horizontal warp starting from the center and spiraling out, with stitched vertical wefts; Plaiting, wide, flat strips woven under and over, with warp and weft indistinguishable; Wicker, an over and under technique, with vertical warp and horizontal weft; Twining, a variation of Wicker.
The art of basketry originally served two functions: utilitarian and religious. Baskets were used for food storage (ollas), cooking, holding water (pitch coated jugs), winnowing, gathering, clothing, transporting (burden baskets) and cradle boards. Of equal importance was their role in the spiritual life of the people. Today, Navajo wedding baskets are still used in the Blessing Way, the Puberty Ceremony, the Squaw Dance and the Navajo Wedding Ceremony. Brightly colored Hopi plaques are also used in wedding ceremonies, the Basket Dance and as forms of reciprocity.
It was after the expansion of the railroad in the late 1800's and the burgeoning tourist industry, that traders heavily influenced the weaver's craft and promoted basketry as an art form. The period from 1880-1930 is considered to be the “golden period,” the height of refinement and artistry in southwest Native American baskets. Tourists far and wide clamored for the finest and most intricate of weaves.
Basket colors were traditionally derived from native plant dyes, but now weavers often use commercial dyes which are easier to obtain. The color black, for example, used to be made from sunflower seeds, but the plants are no longer grown. With increased climate variability and continued habitat loss, traditional plants are becoming harder to find.
The design elements in southwest Native American baskets have long reflected daily influences in the lives of the people: sun, stars, animal tracks, butterflies, rattlesnakes, lightning, deer and squash blossoms to name a few. The manner in which the overall elements are chosen, however, is an inner, unspoken process. “We let the basket talk to us and tell us the design,” one weaver said.
The next time you hold a southwest Native American basket, pause for a moment. Consider the weaver's life, tribal culture, desert sun, plants grown and respectfully gathered. Hear the ancient weaving songs and envision the act of creation. Know that everything of the natural world and human spirit is embodied there.