Native American Baskets

The Language of Native American Baskets: From the Weaver's View by Bruce Bernstein:

"He was sitting by his campfire, listening to the star echoes. His burden basket rested upright against a pine. The voices inside the basket got pretty loud and disturbed Coyote. He stuck his head inside the basket and said, 'You people be more quiet or I'm going to dump you out all over the world.' They didn't make another sound for many, many eternities."

  -From Elderberry Flute Song: Contemporary Coyote Tales, By Peter Blue Cloud (Mohawk)

As the Mohawk writer Peter Blue Cloud makes clear in the scene described above, many Native American cultures believe that baskets were not given during the Creation, but were already part of that first world. In earlier days, baskets accompanied Indian people throughout their lives. Babies were carried in baskets, meals were prepared and cooked in them, worldly goods were stored in them, and people were buried in them.

Baskets continue to occupy an important place in the lives of American Indian peoples, made for sale or for use in ceremonies, and valued as heirlooms and markers of cultural identity. In communities throughout North America, Indian people are teaching and learning basketweaving as part of a broader cultural renaissance.

As works of art, the most accomplished baskest express a subtle dialogue between the individual weaver's creativity and his, or, more often, her cultural traditions. This dialogue - the aesthetic language of Native American baskets - encompasses not only the social connections between the weaver and her family, other tribal members, and the broader world, but also her relationship to the natural environment and to other weavers.

In my discussions with basket-makers, I have found that weavers talk about subtle details of the techniques and materials used in constructing baskets more often than about finished baskets. When a basket-maker admires the materials in another weaver's work, for example, she is commenting on the long and elaborate process of gathering, preparing, and using roots, branches, and grasses the weaver has learned and mastered. Regardless of the maker's weaving skills, a basket made from improperly prepared materials will have uneven stitches and designs, and may warp, split, or twist with time. Well-tended bushes, properly pruned each year, produce the straight shoots necessary to make slender, strong, and pliable warp rods and sewing threads. Plants harvested at the proper time of the year will yeild fibers of the required color, strength, straightness, and absence of scars.

When she compliments another weaver's work, she does not hold the basket at arm's length and marvel. Rather, she looks to see how it i begun and finished, what weave or combination of weaves - plaiting, wicker, twining, or coiling - its maker used and how she used them, her choice of stitching, which designs she chose and how she placed them on the basket's surface. Understanding a basket's use can help make sense of the basket-maker's decisions about its design. The side of a burden basket that is worn against the back often has a very different design than the side that faces out.

Too often, when people think about American Indian baskets, they assume that the weavers that make them are hemmed in by tribal rules that govern the "traditional" arts. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tradition is not a list of rules, but rather a set of values by which the weaver works. These values may tell her to use plain twinning to make a winnowing basket, but they also allow her to create a masterpiece, different from every other winnowing tray.

This article is excerpted from the book and the exhibition The Language of Native American Baskets: From the Weaver's View by Bruce Bernstein, NMAI's assistant director for cultural resources. The exhibition highlights the museum's basketry collections and is on view at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City through 2004.

-Smithsonian Institution