Published: February 8, 2011
For thousands of years, Native Americans have been creating artwork that defines their world and reflects their culture. Everyday items like household implements, ceramics, clothing, sacred objects, items of personal adornment and baskets illustrate not only Indian artistic talent, but a visual language of unique cultures. Over the years, largely anonymous Native American artists, while turning out ordinary objects for utilitarian use, have created an artistic and historical legacy that continues to be handed down from generation to generation.
One way for Native Americans to express themselves artistically and personally has been through clothing. Ritual garb and accessories, such as masks associated with Southwestern Pueblo dances, served needs beyond those of protection and adornment.
Garments revealed social or political rank by their design and ornamentation. In some tribal groups, the manner in which clothing was decorated indicated the wearer’s position within the family, military prowess, good deeds or membership in some select group. Garments also held complex sacred meanings. Men’s war shirts from the Plains, for example, not only designated a tribal leader, but had spiritual connotations linking the wearer to the another world.
Clothing has varied in type, of course, depending on geographic area, tribe, season and economy. Plains people utilized primarily animal hides, while Southwestern tribes produced woven textiles made of cotton and wool, and California tribes used plant material and shells.
Jewelry has been made and worn by Native Americans for eons. Early jewelry from the Northeast Woodlands and Midwest was created out of various natural materials, including bone, shell and clay. Jewelry from both European and indigenous sources was worn to denote status, bring luck or protection to the wearer or for purely decorative purposes.
Plains Indians originally used teeth, claws and trade beads to create items of personal adornment. Later, German silver, an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, was utilized. In the Southwest, Navajos and later Pueblo Indians learned silversmithing from Mexican artisans, producing a wide assortment of forms by using varied techniques.
Among the most prominent household items have been pottery and basketry. Pottery works, carefully shaped and elegantly decorated, have long been widely admired.
Baskets are among the finest examples of the Native American artistic legacy. Whether using techniques of coiling, plating or twining, almost every tribe produced some form of basketry.
The best known basketmakers are arguably California tribes, primarily nomadic hunting and gathering people, who used baskets for everything from cradles to cooking to storage containers. They were woven by women who incorporated geometric, anthropomorphic and zoological designs in their works. Baskets might tell a story, illustrate a myth or simply reflect the aesthetic predilections of an artist’s imagination.
It is in these contexts that the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, part of the Autry National Center, has organized “The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Tradition,” on view through May 6, 2012. Drawing on the world’s largest collection of Indian baskets †14,000 †the 250 objects displayed represent 11 regions and more than 100 cultural groups. They range in size from small Pomo feather baskets made for sale to tourists to enormous Apache olla baskets used for storing large quantities of seeds.
Because the exhibition has been selected from such a wide-ranging collection, visitors can see how basket techniques, materials and designs vary from region to region and tribe to tribe, reflecting differing physical environments and traditions. Thirteen contemporary basketweavers served as consultants in the research and planning of the show; the museum has added a basket from each to its permanent collection.
As Steven M. Karr, the exhibition’s lead curator and interim executive director of the Southwest Museum, observes, “This rich display of historic and contemporary baskets, combined with multimedia elements, tells the story of a living art tradition through the voices of the weavers themselves.”
Works on view in the exhibition date from a mid-Nineteenth Century Huron birchbark decorated with porcupine quills and moose hair to baskets made in 2009 by the show’s consultants. They reflect functions from domestic uses, such as cooking or gathering, to symbolic or ritual purposes like gift-giving and ceremonial observance, to commercial objects made for sale to non-Native buyers. Geographic regions represented include the Northeast; Southeast; Great Plains; Great Basin; Northwest Coast; Plateau; Southwest; Northern, Central and Southern California and Arctic and Subarctic.
The exhibition suggests appreciation for the impact of the passing of time on basketweaving. As Kelly Church (Ojibwe/Ottawa), one of the consultants, observes, “It is&mportant that people understand that these are sustained traditions, but that because of changing environmental conditions, there are fewer materials available today from which to make baskets.”
Visitors enter the sprawling show through a dramatic visible storage area that offers displays of a broad range of baskets. Thereafter, displays are organized by geographic region. Each section includes baskets from that area, video footage of contemporary basketmakers, interpretive elements like weaving materials and audio components providing descriptions by Native consultants. Vintage photographs place displays in cultural and historical contexts.
With such an ample, diverse display of varied basketry, it is difficult to single out highlights. While most baskets emanate from the West, there are beautiful examples from tribes in the Northeast Woodlands. This area, defined by dense forests of birch, black ash, elm and oak, provides a variety of splints for basketry. Regional weavers produce curled, plaited and twisted baskets characterized by beautiful designs and shapes. Birchbark stripped and formed into many types of baskets and containers is often edged with sweetgrass from meadowlands. Ojibwa and Ottawa sew dyed porcupine quills onto containers, making colorful, creative artworks.
One star of this section is Theresa Secord, a Penobscot, who is executive director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, an organization dedicated to preserving and extending the state’s tradition of basketweaving. She served as a consultant to the exhibition, in which she is represented by an oddly-shaped corn basket, one of the more unusual baskets on display.
Southeastern tribes, including Cherokee, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Coushatta and Seminole, live among rolling hills, abundant hickory forests or humid bayous. Their output ranges from plaited splint baskets for sifting corn to double-walled containers made of split river cane to animals formed from pine needles and cones.
Historical lidded baskets by Clara Darden (Chitimacha) in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries are colorful and artistically pleasing. Her descendants carry on the tradition and are also involved in preserving river cane for future generations.
Charming Coushatta armadillo and duck effigy baskets (made of pine needles and cones, raffia and dye) and a Seminole doll basket representing traditional clothing worn by tribal women (sweetgrass, palmetto fiber, cotton cloth, beads and thread) date to the mid- and late Twentieth Century.
The quite different, variable environment of the Southwest †running the gamut from arid lands to forested mountains †is home to tribes that continue to make both coiled and twined baskets for uses ranging from food bowls and storage containers to ceremonial items used in dances. Apache, Navajo and Puebloan groups generally make willow and sumac baskets, whereas Hopis feature rabbitbush and yucca containers. Large Apache olla baskets for carrying seeds stand out in this section.
Although the topography of Southern California varies from grasslands to forests to deserts, the region’s basketry is remarkably similar. Tan, gold, orange and deep brick juncus, whitish sumac and deer grass are principal plant ingredients. Most Southern California baskets are crafted by coiled technique, with juncus and sumac sewn over interior bundle foundations. Among the most interesting baskets are several with rattlesnake designs and one tracking the Milky Way.
Central California, with its valley grasslands, oak woodlands, fog-shrouded headlands near San Francisco Bay and the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada, offers a variety of plants for both coiled and twined basketry. Whereas the Yokut coil sedge root on deer grass bundle foundations, the Pomo, masters of twining, are also adept at creating prized feather baskets. A gaily decorated Pomo feathered basket festooned with beads highlights this section.
The dramatic environment of Northern California †damp forests of giant redwood forests lush with ferns and rocky shorelines †lends itself to finely twined baskets made of fern fronds, bear grass, hazel sticks and spruce roots.
Its traditions are exemplified by widely admired Wiyot weaver Elizabeth Hickox (1875‱947), whose lidded basket with knob handles, circa 1913, made of bear grass, maidenhair fern, conifer root and hazel, suggests why her baskets have been sought after by top collectors then and now.
Native Americans from the Great Basin region, encompassing arid desert landscapes from California’s eastern Sierra Nevada range to the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, rely primarily on willow in coiled and twined baskets, including pine pitch-coated water bottles and opened-twined winnowing trays. A standout here is a finely woven Degikup basket of 1909 with diamond-shaped patterning by Washo craftswoman Dat-so-la-lee, circa 1835‱925, the “Queen of Washo Basket Weavers.”
In spite of vast grasslands, Native Americans of the Great Plains †Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Lakota Sioux, Mandan, Pawnee and Sauk & Fox †primarily used buffalo hide to make bowls, storage and cooking containers, and willow for gaming trays and gathering baskets. Consultant Carol Emarthle-Douglas (Northern Arapaho/Seminole), from Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, experiments with nontraditional materials; her “Heritage and Hi-Tech” basket, 2009, featuring an intriguing animal design, is made of waxed linen, glass beads and dye.
The Plateau Region, stretching from northern California, eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho northward to British Columbia, has hot, dry summers and cold winters. Its Wasco and Wishram tribes use cattail and tule to create flexible twined baskets, while the Nez Perce nowadays weave soft bags made of materials like cornhusk and manufactured yarn.
The cool weather, rain and rich forested lands of the Pacific Northwest make cedar bark the primary plant used by indigenous tribes. It is the basis of wrapped twining by the Makah, and Haida twined rain hats and capes.
Native weavers in the vast, frozen Arctic and Subarctic region, including Alaska and Aleutian Islands, primarily use beachgrass and birchbark in baskets and containers. The Inupiaq top finely coiled baskets with fanciful carvings of Arctic creatures made from baleen from the mouths of giant whales.
This splendid display culminates a seven-year project by the Southwest Museum to restore, preserve and catalog its vast Native American basket collection. In admiring the objects on view, it is pertinent to remember that “art” is a European term whose definition has continuously changed over time. In traditional American Indian cultures, there is no word equivalent to “art;” it has simply been a part of the everyday objects of Native life. Although American Indians have an artistic tradition that is thousands of years old, the “discovery” of their art as fine art rather than ethnological curiosities is an important and overdue realignment in thinking about the definition of Native American culture.
The Autry National Center, formed in 2003 by the merger of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, and the Women of the West Museum, is an intercultural history center dedicated to preserving the heritage of the diverse peoples of the American West. Founded by recording and movie star Gene Autry, the Autry’s collection numbers more than 500,000 pieces of art and artifacts.
The Autry National Center is at 4700 Heritage Way. For information, www.theautry.org or 323-667-2000.
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