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American Indian Basketry

American Indian Basketry is among the finest in the world. From boldly designed cooking baskets of the Yokuts to the exquisitely made baskets of the Aleut, to the striking designs of the Haida, artistic expression flourished in the daily lives of these first Americans. Baskets were used for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes. They were well suited to a seasonal subsistence lifestyle once practiced by many Indian tribes because they were light and durable. Various basketry forms were used in the gathering, processing, and cooking of food resources. Important events such as rituals, weddings, and other rites of passage were celebrated with gifts of beautiful baskets decorated with feathers, beads, wool and shell pendants. In all of their forms, these baskets demonstrated the great artistic skill and attention to detail that went beyond their actual usefulness.

Whether coiled, twined, or plaited, baskets were woven from a variety of native plant materials, with little more than an awl and knife. Weavers and their families tended and harvested numerous plants on a yearly basis throughout basket-making communities. Some of these plants included willow, sedge, conifer root, grasses, ferns, yucca, and redbud. The preparation of weaving materials often took as long as the actual weaving process itself.

From the time of European contact, historic events forever altered the lifestyles of America’s native people. The tremendous influx of new people with different ways of using the land made traditional gathering practices of basketry materials increasingly difficult. As a result of their changing world, many weavers abandoned the practice of weaving for personal use and some began making baskets for sale.

By the early 1900’s, Euro-Americans developed an interest and appreciation for North American Indian basketry. Popular architectural and interior design styles of these years reflected this appreciation as basketry began to be purchased and collected as decorative art. These baskets were sold at regional tourist centers such as Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Death Valley as well as along railroad lines in the Southwest. Outside buyers unwittingly had a hand in the evolution of Indian basketry as weavers added new designs and shapes to their baskets to reflect the tastes of collectors. Weavers began to incorporate representational motifs of butterflies, animals, flowers, and human figures into their basketry, and oftentimes combined these new designs with traditional ones. Weavers further demonstrated their skills by weaving a variety of new shapes and sizes, including miniature baskets, basket-covered bottles, compote bowls, and large elaborately designed baskets. The addition of glass trade beads, feathers, abalone pendants, and clamshell disk beads added to the beauty and desirability of a basket. It was at this time that collectors recognized baskets as works of art.

In recent years, basket weaving has experienced a revival among Indian tribes. Modern students of basket weaving attend specialized instructional courses and study historical baskets to learn traditional techniques and designs. By keeping this custom alive, contemporary weavers help to preserve an important link with their heritage.