Native American Indian Art of all kinds often represents so much more than an item of monetary value. In fact, the value of much of the work of the Native Americans of the southwest runs far deeper than that. In her book Indian Baskets of the Southwest, Clara Lee Tanner explains the art of these peoples as “the expression of man’s sense of beauty, a sensitive mirror of his inner self, of his thinking and his doing. In his art, man reveals his history. Among the Indians of the Southwest, whose culture is tribal, art is a formalized expression that combines emotion and intellectuality, technical skills and creative thought; it is guided by the patterns of the tribal culture in which the artist lives. The culture of the tribe is fundamental to the art and style of the artist, and style provides cultural identity as well as time classification.”
Native American Indian Baskets, then, fall perfectly into this description of art as an expression of self, culture, and history. In order to explore this more deeply, we must begin with a simple question. What is a basket? In Tanner’s book, the definition of a basket is “a receptacle made of twigs, rushes, thin strips of wood, or other flexible material woven together.” Additionally, baskets are woven in one of three ways: plaited, wicker, or coiled.
Materials are of the utmost importance in Native American basketry; in fact, they are the most significant relative to the end product, and the availability of materials dictates the type and/or style of basket. The Southwest provides an excellent landscape to collect varied and distinctive materials for basket weaving, all dependent on the altitude, rainfall, and temperature of a given area. Plants used in Southwestern Native American basketry include yucca, the color of which can be changed through bleaching in the sun, as well as devil’s claw or martynia, willow, cottonwood, sumac, rabbitbrush, mountain mahogany, squawberry and mulberry. Plants, however, are not the only materials incorporated into Native American baskets. Other materials include feathers, beads, and buckskin. The intent of the Native American people was to allow the natural beauty of these materials to color their work, and while some tribes used aniline dyes after 1880, many tribes decided the softer native tones were more beautiful than synthetic color.
Once materials have been collected and prepared, these materials are put to use in one of three weaving techniques: plaiting, wicker, and coiling. The majority of methods include roughly two elements, warps and wefts. Warps, Tanner states, are the “stationary elements, while wefts are the moving elements.” In plaiting, the simplest weave, elements cross at right angles to form the basket structure. As both elements are “active,” Tanner suggests that “neither element is a true warp or weft in that neither retains a single directional position, nor can one be distinguished from the other, for they are the same size and shape.” In wicker weave, direction of warp is vertical while the wefts are horizontal. Coiled weave, on the other hand, is surprisingly more a process of sewing than true weaving because at some point a hole is punched into each previous coil, allowing the moving weft to pass through it. In coiling, the stationary warp is held horizontal to the weaver, while the moving weft is vertical to said weaver. Coiling also differs from the other two methods in that the materials and nature of the warp may vary greatly, whereas in plaiting and wicker, warps and wefts are alike in material and size.
Of course, the form a basket takes must first respond to use values, and once this utility is satisfied, the weaver is free to express the customs and values of the tribe or pueblo to which he or she belongs. According to Tanner, “basket forms in the Southwest can be divided into two basic categories, native and introduced styles. The first group consists of forms which had been perfected and localized during prehistoric days.” These prehistoric peoples, or “Paleo-Indians” (Early Man), particularly the Paleowesterners, contributed importantly to the story of basketry. Habits including hunting of small game, gathering of nuts, berries, and other foodstuffs, and living seasonally for long periods of time in caves necessitated the development of a vessel to aid in this hunting and gathering, as well as in the storage of these collected items. Basket remnants have also been found among the remains of sedentary prehistoric cultures, such as the Anasazi, where cave dwelling required the development of vessels to preserve perishables. In turn, introduced styles came by way of the Anglo-Americans and therefore have been predominantly developed more for while mans’ consumption rather than the Native American way of life.
This consumption, of course, has influenced basketry in many ways. While the art form died out in many cultures, others have continued the tradition both for this consumption and for everyday use. The introduction of working for wages impacted the volume created by each tribe or pueblo, as did the coming of the railroads in 1880, which brought yardage goods, farming tools, and pots and pans, which replaced baskets in many tribes. Yet, the railroads also brought tourists, encouraging a return to basket making in several tribes toward the end of the 19th century. This influence was perhaps the most profound, with institutions such as the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff influencing better Hopi basketry, and even more importantly, the traders, who “were often influential in bettering the crafts, paying higher prices for finer craftsmanship and for better forms and designs.” There is no better example of this influence than that of traders on the Pima, whose basketry began dying out around 1935. According to Tanner, a Pima woman was overheard saying “why should I labor for weeks upon a basket that may sell for two dollars, when I can make two dollars a day by picking cotton?” Encouragement of fine craftsman ship, honed and perpetuated by traders, introduced the idea of a beneficial trade for both the maker and buyer. This influence, and the enticement of just compensation for fine work, led not only to the resurgence of the craft, but to the increased quality of the weave itself, as well as the development of more intricate designs and styles within the weaving. Creativity and imagination are employed, and the deeper meanings of culture, values, and traditions can be expressed in a multitude of ways within the artwork.
Combining a long history, practical uses, and in more recent years, various cultural expressions, Native American baskets are a real treasure. The time and effort taken to create each work of art, as well as the significant meanings within the elements, styles, and designs, elicit the true value of each piece. The labor, both physical and of love, are truly what make these gorgeous pieces of history and tradition as important, and special, as they are.