Collecting and Change in
Native American Basketry

The practice of collecting baskets has spurred numerous changes this century.

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Based on early evidence, we know that prior to contact with European cultures, the basket-making tribes of the American West had created a repertoire of basket shapes and design elements specific, if not unique, to each tribal grouping. Tribal customs and artistic traditions dictated that basketry styles remained rather constant over time with little emphasis on experimentation or innovation. The volatile impact which Euro-Americans had on the native cultures was eventually reflected in the material culture of the various tribal groups, basketry being no exception.

Tillamook Tribe, Western Oregon

Tillamook Tribe, Western Oregon

These newcomers had little interest in Native American basketry until the late 19th century when the belief that the native cultures of the West were soon to disappear. Motivated by this belief, some individuals began collecting Native American cultural material with an enthusiasm and appreciation previously unknown.

Before these early collectors entered the arena, some Native American basketry had already begun to exhibit change as evidenced by the appearance of trade items incorporated into the baskets such as glass beads, commercial yarns and exotic feathers from the ostrich and peacock. However, these new materials were still utilized in the traditional manner as decorative elements merely substituting for native-made clam shell beads and wild bird feathers.

Arrival of the collector

While trading baskets to other native groups had a long tradition, the arrival of the collector introduced to the weavers the novel opportunity to make baskets "for sale" to non-natives who brought a new set of motivations for acquiring Native American basketry. An article written for the Placer Herald by a San Franciscan in 1891 remarks on the birth of the new craze of collecting such baskets, calling it "the latest fad among artistic people." Certainly, this fad (which continues to this day) posed a unique, if not puzzling, circumstance for the weavers who were amused by these people who paid good money for the old, often used baskets while overlooking the newer pieces.

As collectors became more discerning about the quality of a basket's weave as well as exhibiting a preference for particular types of designs and basketry shapes, the weavers responded to this new market. Such graceful and distinctive shapes such as bottleneck baskets and more literal design elements such as human figures or animal forms (as opposed to the often more sophisticated, abstract designs) were in great demand in the early collector market. However, these basketry shapes and design motifs were only produced by a few tribal groups and then only occasionally. Thus, borrowing of shapes and motifs from other tribal groups became, if not commonplace, at least an acceptable practice among some of the weavers. This phenomenon ushered in a new period of experimentation and creativity while maintaining the on-going high standards of technical and artistic expertise.

Baskets of traditional form continued to be produced, but the baskets' dimensions sometimes became a new area to explore. Although there had been a tradition of weaving miniature baskets among a few groups such as the Pomo in California, the making of these minute baskets proudly testified to the virtuosity of the weaver's skill and came to be produced by a number of tribal groups by the 1920s. At the other end of the scale, enormously large baskets were woven far beyond the dictates of their original functions--such as giant Hopi basketry bowls or very large Apache ollas (a type of deep bowl) which were woven primarily for the collector market. Some of these out-of-scale baskets were made for exhibit and sale at early 20th century fairs which sponsored competitions between weavers, further influencing new directions in Native American basketry.

New shapes

Pomo Tribe, California Pomo Tribe, California

Innovations in shape began to appear in the form of goblets, hampers, lidded sewing baskets and even fishing creels as well as non-functional novelty pieces, often of quality weave, such as basketry tea pots and cups with saucers. Some weavers, like women from the Achumawi tribe in northern California and from the Makah group of coastal Washington covered bottles, abalone shells and even kerosene lamp bases in highly decorative basketry. Depending on the quality of the weave and design, any of these very innovative pieces could have appealed to either the serious collector or to the tourist during the first few decades of this century. While some of these curious shapes did indeed challenge the skill of the weaver, it is important to note that classical basketry of unparalleled weave was also produced for the non-native during this time frame.

Some examples were carried to new heights of excellence such as baskets produced by some of the Washo weavers in early 20th century California or, in Arizona the beautifully crafted Apache ollas which, in response to the taste of the Euro-American collector, were now woven with elaborate patterns utilizing human and animal forms. Women of the Panamint tribe of interior California, considered by some to have been the most skilled basketry weavers in North America, carried elaborate patterning a step further in the 1930s by creating vivid pictorial baskets of pink, yellow, black and red featuring birds, trees, squirrels, butterflies and more. These baskets today usually sell in the four figures and are highly prized by collectors.

New colors

While the Panamint color palette was likely the most extensive of any tribal group using all naturally occurring colored material, the introduction of aniline dyes into the 19th century West met acceptance by a few tribes. The weavers of the Hopi of Arizona and the Jicarilla Apache of New Mexico to this day produce vibrantly colored baskets both for their own use and for resale. Thus, some tribes which seldom, if ever, portrayed realistic life forms on their basketry now did so in response to the demand for more elaborately designed pieces; and the introduction of more colorful baskets was certainly in partial response to Euro-American market forces.

Clearly, the act of collecting Native American basketry in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th was not merely one of providing the weavers a new market for their work, but actually helped fuel new artistic directions. The weavers, responding with resiliency and creativity to new forces, initiated a vibrant and, for many tribal groups, short-lived resurgence of Native American basketry. The continuing pressures of Euro-Americans on Native American populations and cultures into the 20th century proved increasingly devastating for many tribes and, as the traditional cultural underpinnings continued to erode, market forces alone were not sufficient to maintain the vitality and, in many instances, the actual survival of the basket makers' art. Today, there is renewed hope in a few regions, as some basket making tribes are showing evidence of renewed cultural and artistic vigor.

Photos and article by John J. Kania, co-owner of Kania-Ferrin Gallery pic of Traditional Native American Art on Canyon Road in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 9

Related Pages

The History of an Ancient Human Symbol article
Hopi Katsina Carvings article
A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article

Turquoise — The Fallen Skystone article
New Perspectives on Collecting Indian Artifacts article
A Sacred Place: Meditations on Corn article

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