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A SHORT HISTORY OF NATIVE AMERICAN INDIAN BASKETRY

Indian Basketry

When you hold a antique Native American basket in your hands, you are touching a link in a chain of history that has bound each generation to the last for seven thousand years. The Native American basket of today has changed little in respect to form and technique. The materials are still those found in the region of the weaver; yucca, bear and galleta grass, cottonwood, cat tail, sumac, devil’s claw, just to name a few. Although the use of chemical aniline dyes has been practiced since the turn of the century, many baskets are still made using the natural colours of the materials, or are dyed with Native vegetal dyes much as they have been for millennia. The tools have not changed significantly either. A knife and an awl of stone, or bone, and later, metal. And, of course, the weaver; the teeth for splitting the material into strips, the hands for forming the materials into a woven object, and the mind to conceive of and execute the techniques in stitch and design.

Indian Basketry

In a world without cupboards, or plates, or Tupperware, the basket was an item of necessity. The incredible variety of utilitarian shapes and uses - bags and buckets for carrying, trays for winnowing and serving, bottles for water, bins for storage, sandals and other clothing to protect the body from the elements - attests to the vital place the basket has held in Southwestern culture. That these items were expertly crafted and designed in both technique and colour to be beautiful tells us of about character and vitality of the people themselves.

After the American conquest, the lives of the indigenes changed dramatically. Many cultural groups were exterminated and many ways and customs became extinct. Art forms like the basket and the technical skills necessary to create them have survived in many ways due to the early traders. These “entre-pioneers” encouraged native craftsmen to make items for a new market; the tourists and Easterners that were pushing their way through the last American frontiers on iron rails. Many tribes, such as the Pima, Tohono O’odham (Papago), and Apache continued to make baskets for their own consumption, but also supplied a vast array of fine work for this market. But as time went on, more and more people skilled in this craft passed away finding no one to continue the legacy.

Indian Basketry

Today it is the craft of basketry perhaps more than any other that is in danger of being lost among the Native Americans of the Southwest. There are some notable exceptions. The artisans of the Tohono O’odham still create many beautiful baskets for trade as well as for themselves. A few artists among the Navajo and Apache are reviving the art and are creating some very fine work for sale in addition to the baskets still made and used for ceremony. Yet even now in the Southwest the struggle between cultural integrity and assimilation continues. The art of basketry is a demanding craft, requiring many days of work in gathering, preparing, and weaving and the young have little incentive to learn. It may be that today, after seven thousand years, we are seeing the last links forged of that long and ancient chain. It is a pattern we see affecting many aspects of Native American culture. Hands have forgotten the way to form sacred implements; mouths have forgotten the words of the Gods. Holy songs, one by one, are silenced forever.