Jicarilla Apache Basket Making



The Jicarilla Apache occupy a small reservation centered in and around the town of Dulce just below the Colorado border in north central New Mexico. The name Jicarilla is said to be from the Spanish word for “little basket.” Jicarilla is the Spanish diminutive (little) for the word jicara, which, according to linguistic scholars, is a Hispanicization of the Mexican Nahua word xicalli. The xicalli, or jicara, was the gourd-like fruit of the Central Mexican jicaro tree. The term was also used for the round, wide-mouth drinking cups that were made from this fruit, and eventually the word became synonymous with any kind of drinking vessel, especially those used by Mexican Indians for chocolate.

At the time of the Spanish Entrada into New Mexico, the Jicarilla Apaches were manufacturing gourd-shaped, piñon pitch covered, waterproof baskets that were used to carry water. It is speculated by many scholars that these gourd-shaped basketry water bottles resembled the jicaras that were pervasive in Mexico and are the origin of the tribe’s Spanish name. Like their Navajo neighbors, the Jicarilla historically referred to themselves by the Athabascan word Diné, or “the people,” but to the outside world they are now Jicarilla.

No matter the precise origin or etymology of the word, the Jicarilla have been famous for their baskets since long before the coming of the Spanish, and it is a major part of their tribe’s cultural identity. As is typical with Athabascan people, the Jicarillas prefer to work with sumac for their base material, though they will sometimes use willow or mulberry.

In the late 1950s, Jicarilla basket making underwent a major revival. Various fortuitous events fueled this increase and no one in particular can be individually credited for it. Two new traders, Barton Cox and Fred Carson, had just taken over the Apache Mercantile in Dulce and they encouraged the Jicarilla in their basketry efforts by buying baskets and entering them in the Gallup Ceremonials, where they won awards. This in turn helped to create new markets. While there were many skilled basket weavers involved in this revival, the work of Tanzanita Pesata garnered much acclaim. Tanzanita’s skills and creativity lead to a revolution in basket design during this period.

Tanzanita employed much of the traditional elements of Jicarilla baskets and continued to use the subdued colors of natural dyes from plants and minerals in her surrounding environment, but she also began experimenting with bolder styles and brighter colors from aniline dyes and even commercial fabric dyes that were being used by Navajo rug weavers.

Nikki Willie
Jicarilla Apache Basket


With these new and brighter colors, Tanzanita elaborated upon the geometric images that had long been a staple of Jicarilla baskets, incorporating them into more complex patterns. She also began utilizing fairly realistic animal imagery on her pictorial baskets. In addition to the traditional flat bowls and water jugs that the Jicarilla had woven for centuries, Tanzanita made deep, flat-bottomed bowls, large hampers with lids, and in an interesting departure, fishing creels for the nascent tourism industry in northern New Mexico.

The most well-known contemporary weaver among the Jicarilla is Lydia Pesata. Born and raised at the southern end of the sprawling reservation, Lydia did not make baskets growing up. It wasn’t until she married Melbourne Pesata, a grandson of Tanzanita Pesata, that Lydia learned to make baskets by watching Tanzanita as she sat on the floor and wove. Lydia would then go off in a back room and try to replicate what she had observed and would show her finished pieces to Tanzanita, who would give her pointers. Her teaching paid off as, next to Tanzanita, Lydia Pesata is perhaps the most influential Jicarilla Apache basket weaver of modern times. She has won many awards including the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1988.

As the market for Jicarilla baskets steadily increased, tribal officials began to take notice, and in the 1960s, with financial assistance from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs job training program, the Jicarilla Apache tribe established an Arts and Crafts Program to provide work for tribal members and to prevent their traditional arts from dying out. The idea was to pay Jicarilla Apaches an hourly wage to produce traditional goods for sale to tourists and others visiting the reservation. Brenda Julian was hired as the director of the Arts and Crafts Program in 1965, and she has remained at the helm of the organization since that time.

Miranda Notsinneh
Large Jicarilla Apache Pictorial Basket
with Tribal Seal
 60" D


The Arts and Crafts Museum is currently ensconced in a trailer centrally located in Dulce on U.S. Highway 64, just south of the tribal headquarters, near the local shopping center and the tribe’s casino/hotel. It is open daily Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but closes between noon and 1 p.m. for lunch. It is currently a museum in name only, as there is not enough space in their cramped quarters to house the employees, items displayed for sale and the exhibits. The large collection of Jicarilla arts and crafts, including many historic baskets, is in storage and will likely remain there until the museum can move to a larger facility.

Visitors can watch the basket weavers and bead workers plying their craft and purchase their choice of the many baskets that line the cases of the museum. The weavers are happy to discuss their work and share their Jicarilla Apache culture with those who stop in. There is great camaraderie and friendly competition among the basket weavers working there, and animated conversations peppered by laughter often greet those who wander in.

There are many Jicarilla basket weavers not affiliated with the Arts and Crafts Museum who also ply their trade in the area. Their work is mostly known by word of mouth or found at various native arts and crafts fairs, including the New Mexico Expo. Several Jicarilla basket weavers enter their baskets annually in the Native American Indian Art Museum competition at the New Mexico State Fair, and first, second and third place ribbons adorn many of the baskets on display at the museum and in the Tribal Headquarters Building.

In an official act that perhaps demonstrates tribal support and acknowledgment for the basket-making traditions they are so rightly famous for, the Jicarilla tribal government commissioned local basket weaver Miranda Notsinneh to construct three large, flat baskets: two depicting the Great Seal of the Jicarilla Apache, and one commemorating the 1987 centennial of the tribe’s acquisition of its reservation. One basket of the seal is five feet in diameter and sits behind the receptionist’s desk on the second floor of Tribal Headquarters. The other two baskets flank the Great Seal basket on each side of the desk.

Claude Stephenson, Ph.D is State Folklorist for the State of New Mexico

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 24

Related Pages

Collecting and Change
in Native American Baskets article

The Blueprint of a Vessel article


Indigenous Perspectives on Indian Art article

New Perspectives on
Collecting Indian Artifacts

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

Steve Elmore Indian Art | 505-995-9677
GrimmerRoche rem 422 West San Francisco | 982-8669
Morning Star Gallery | 505.982.8187
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Sherwoods Spirit of America | 505-988-1776


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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