During the 1890s, U.S. railroads brought the first waves of tourists West, spawning a market for souvenirs of the new frontier such as Native American baskets. For the next several decades, the artistry of Native American basketry was at its peak, while the popularity of the art form was unprecedented, derailed only by the Great Depression. Now, a new book by John Kania and Alan Blaugrund titled “Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America” explores the rise and decline of Native American baskets produced during this period. Published by Marquand Books of Seattle, the 300-plus-page hardcover features more than 100 handsome photographs by Anthony Richardson; scores of detailed descriptions of basketry materials and techniques; comprehensive sections on baskets of the Southwest, California, and the Northwest; and page after page of diagnostic tables in the back, all designed to make this complicated and exacting subject comprehensible, if not necessarily simple.
“The years 1890 to 1930 are considered the golden period of basketry, when the market was strong and the goods were exceptional.”
“The book was structured to help people identify baskets,” says Blaugrund, whose personal basket collection numbers some 250 pieces, many of which are reproduced in his and Kania’s book. “The methodology was developed at the University of California in Berkeley; in some ways, we’ve mimicked that approach.” For Blaugrund and Kania, that means starting with weaving techniques and working your way out. “You can’t identify a basket unless you understand the materials,” says Blaugrund, “and you can’t understand how the materials are used until you understand the weaving techniques. It’s not a strictly anthropologic approach. This is a book for people interested in identifying baskets.”
That said, a bit of anthropology doesn’t hurt. Even though people have woven baskets in North America since pre-Columbian times, Blaugrund and Kania focused their efforts on those that were plaited, coiled, and twined between 1890 and 1930. Further, they restricted their geographic scope to Western North America—from Mexico to Alaska, Texas to California. Both decisions put the baskets discussed in the book squarely in the realm of decorative objects made expressly for sale rather than utilitarian pieces designed for daily use. From the vantage point of 2014, it was really their only choice.
“That’s the period most collectors focus on because it’s when some of the best baskets were made,” says Blaugrund. “Before that, most of the baskets produced by native peoples were used for utilitarian purposes. Today, in the early 21st century, it’s difficult to find really fine, old baskets.” Those that haven’t been collected, he says, are protected by their location on public lands (“A lot of cave baskets have been found in the United States,” he says), while the best of the rest are already in museums. For these reasons, and because baskets don’t have a long life span if they’re not well cared for, baskets woven before 1880, says Blaugrund, are essentially impossible to find.
Like Navajo blankets, Pueblo pottery, and Zuni jewelry, Native American baskets made from the turn of the last century until the Great Depression were tourist products not tools—though precious objects in their own right, there’s no worry on the part of the collector that he or she might be inadvertently, and illegally, purchasing a protected relic of a people’s cultural heritage. In addition, the workmanship on baskets from this period is often excellent since many of the makers, most of whom were women, either began their basket-making careers weaving utilitarian pieces or were raised by those who had.
While the vast majority of basket weavers of this period were women, traditionally, men had had a role when it came to basketry, too. “Going way back in time, men produced basketry cradles for infants,” says co-author John Kania, who ran a Native American arts gallery selling blankets, pottery, and textiles on fashionable Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for 28 years (he sold Blaugrund a number of the baskets in his collection, and now sells privately and conducts research). “Women didn’t normally do that. Men also produced various forms of basketry needed in hunting and fishing, like traps and weirs. But very few men made the fine basketry that was offered for sale. It was largely a woman’s art form.”
The connection of the pieces these women made to their original purpose, as well as their extraordinary craftsmanship, are just two of the reasons why the years 1890 to 1930 are considered the golden period of basketry, when the market was strong and the goods were exceptional. Another is more bittersweet: “There was great deal of interest in native culture on the part of non-natives at that time,” Blaugrund says of the late 1800s and early 1900s, “sadly, because many people felt native cultures were dying out. They wanted to preserve a piece of it, and did so by collecting.”
“Many people think North America was a wilderness when Columbus arrived, but it wasn’t—it was a vast garden being maintained by Native Americans.”
Indeed, says Kania, Western culture itself was changing, becoming inexorably industrialized. It was no accident, Kania argues, that the interest in handmade, traditional-looking Native American baskets coincided with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, which eschewed machine-made, mass-produced furnishings in favor of artisan-crafted objects, from vases and reading lamps to dining tables and chairs. The Native American artisans of the day, says Kania, “were a part of a larger social change that was taking place. Everybody considered the Native American work to be virtuous and pure, not having anything to do with the industrial revolution the planet was going through.”
Collecting Native American baskets was “a beautiful fad,” continues Kania, “that attracted many collectors, as well as those people who wanted a basket or two as a remembrance from their trip out West. Some people would buy hundreds of baskets. It was highly fashionable to take a trip out west on the Santa Fe Railroad and collect baskets along the way. And then, when they got back to, say, Wisconsin, they might build a cabin and decorate it with baskets, rugs, beadwork, and so forth. They might have an Indian room in their house, or a little Indian corner, which greeted visitors when they came through the door. So there were avid collectors, as well as a big tourist market. A wide range of people bought these things. It was a craze.”
Not surprisingly, Native American basket makers were highly influenced by this new market for their traditionally utilitarian work. “Basket-making of that period, Blaugrund says, “reflected the interaction between non-natives and natives, and so the design of baskets changed. The shapes were very similar to the ones that had previously been made for use as storage baskets, cooking baskets, and the like, but the designs on the baskets were made to attract non-native customers.”
In some cases, male dealers overtly coached women weavers to produce objects that would appeal to non-natives. The most infamous practitioner of this approach was Abe Cohn of Carson City, Nevada, who controlled the life of one Washoe weaver named Dat So La Lee (aka, Louisa Keyser) to an extent that would make most contemporary readers wince. Cohn built a small house for Dat So La Lee behind his, and took care of all her basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter—for the rest of her life. In exchange, she supplied him with baskets, which he sold at his Emporium Company in town, often doing her work there for the amusement of Cohn’s customers (the Fred Harvey Company did the same thing at its hotels throughout the Southwest). “Cohn actively sought out weavers he could influence,” Kania says. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you try this shape?’ or ‘This design is very nice, but how about if you used two colors instead of just one?’ Things like that.”
At the opposite end of the exploitation spectrum was Grace Nicholson of Pasadena, California, who practiced a hands-off approach with the weavers she worked with. “She was a sharp, well-educated, go-getter type of person,” Kania says. “Nothing stood in her way. But she was also a wonderful human being and a great patroness, who understood the significance of the baskets. She would adopt a weaver like Elizabeth Hickox and just buy everything she produced. Hickox was a Wiyot from northwestern California and a master of twine basketry. She and her daughter, Louise, had a long relationship with Grace. Even after the market collapsed because of the Great Depression, Grace was still buying Elizabeth’s baskets and providing her with a living. She was good-hearted all the way through.”
Unlike Cohn and other dealers who pushed their artists to tailor their work for non-native clients, Nicholson valued authenticity over commercial appeal. “There isn’t any indication that I can see in any of Grace’s notes and letters that indicate she was directly introducing ideas,” Kania says. “She really wanted to keep the traditions alive. She knew she was obviously going to have an impact on the work just by her patronage, but she tried very hard not to introduce ideas.”
Nicholson was also a scholar of the craft and its makers, which is one reason why museums viewed her as an important resource rather than just another dealer trying to sell them something. “Nicholson sold to a lot of private clients,” Kania says, “but her main targets were museums. She would go out in the field with her cameras and notebooks and meet the weavers, one by one. She recorded everything she possibly could about them. Very few people did that, not dealers, collectors, or anybody else. Even during this golden period of basketry, most collectors didn’t bother to find out the name of the weaver whose basket they had just purchased. Nicholson bothered.”
During her life, Nicholson sold baskets to the Field Museum in Chicago, the Peabody at Harvard, and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. After her death in 1948, her letters and field notes found their way to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, while her ledgers cataloging sales to the Field, Peabody, and other institutions are housed in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. “We could not have written a book, I don’t think, without Grace Nicholson,” says Blaugrund.
While the biographies of weavers such as Dat So La Lee and Elizabeth Hickox are not the focus of Blaugrund and Kania’s book, their stories hint at an important change that was taking place in Native American society at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“There was a big shift in the role of the native weavers, from being the people who made baskets to store food, gather water, and things like that, to being the breadwinners,” Kania says. “This new commodity of basketry brought in a major amount of money to the family system and kept it strong. If you look at the prices paid for baskets back then, you might think, ‘Oh, my God, that’s ridiculous. That’s no money at all.’ But if you look at what a Native American man could expect to make as, say, a ranch hand or miner in the late 19th or early 20th centuries—if he could find work at all—it was a lot of money, enabling women to help their communities bridge the gap from food-gathering economies to currency-based economies.”
In case you are curious, in 1914, according to a page from Nicholson’s ledger, “no money” meant a retail price of between $45 and $185 for a nicer bottleneck basket. A good weaver, Kania says, might spend a year or more working on such basket, not non-stop but along with other baskets that required less time. In that light, $185, or about $4,000 in 2014 dollars, might not seem like much, especially considering that dealers took their share of that off the top, but Native Americans at the beginning of the 20th century did not have many employment options, treated as second-class citizens, or worse, on their ancestral lands.
That, then, is the anthropological context, but what of Blaugrund and Kania’s stated mission to help basket collectors identify their pieces? To accomplish that tricky task, you need to look first at the materials, even before you consider the techniques used to bind those materials together. And don’t expect to identify a basket merely by its decorations—surface features are particularly useless indicators of a basket’s origins and identity.
“The problem with primarily using decorative designs for identification,” the authors write, “is that fundamentally all are made on a two-dimensional grid. This grid can only provide a limited number of design shapes (squares, diamonds, triangles, diagonal lines, simple figures, and such). Consequently, there are only a limited number of design combinations and therefore the same designs can and do reoccur wherever basketry is done.”
Nor can a basket’s shape determine its provenance. Again, the authors: “The use of shape … has similar problems, not the least of which is that the function of a basket largely determines its shape. Thus jar forms are used for storing water, open deep bowls for cooking, circular trays for parching and winnowing, cone and truncated cone shapes for burden baskets, and so forth. Some of these shapes can be specific to a certain tribe, but most of the time they are common to a wide region and therefore of little use in tribal group identification.”
That’s why it all comes back to raw materials, although, naturally, there’s a hitch here, too. Turns out the only materials one can identify with any certainty are the colored ones, which usually make up only a small percentage of a given basket. The base materials? Well, they’re anybody’s guess.
“It is extraordinarily difficult to tell one white or neutral material from another,” Kania says, “especially if you’re talking about a huge geographic area where there might have been something like 75 to 100 species of native grasses. Many people think North America was a wilderness when Columbus arrived, but it wasn’t—it was a vast garden being maintained by Native Americans. But how in the heck can you tell which species was used in a basket if you no longer have an example of the intact plant? It’s sort of like going out and yelling at a rock to try and get information from it: You can’t.”
Fortunately, there’s enough specificity in the naturally colored (as opposed to naturally dyed) materials to help the aspiring basket sleuth. For example, yucca root, California redbud, inner cedar bark, cherry bark, winter peeled willow, and red briar root were all used by weavers to create red accents such as diamonds and chevrons. Yucca root appears brick red or rust color (sometimes it can shade to caramel), but its chief identifying characteristic is its brittleness, which manifests itself on baskets as chipping, revealing the root’s white fibers underneath its outside layer of red. Since yuccas are only found in the deserts and driest parts of southern California, the Great Basin, and the Southwest, that eliminates northern California and the Northwest as a source of baskets decorated with this material.
Similarly, you know your basket was decorated with redbud if the hue is a reddish brown and the surface is shiner than, say, yucca root. But the most revealing attributes of redbud are the small white dots on its surface. These lenticels, as they are known, are actually pores in the wood’s red bark that can be seen with the naked eye, though the authors advise using a magnifying glass so you don’t miss them. Since Native American weavers only used one species of redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and since that species is native to central California, baskets whose red parts are dotted with lenticels are not going to be from the Northwest, Southwest, or Great Basin areas.
This process of elimination can be similarly applied to dyed-red materials like giant chain fern and sumac, natural and dyed black materials such as devil’s claw and rabbitbrush, and whole meadows of grasses, from slough sedge to beargrass, which I learned from “Antique Native American Basketry” is cream-white to golden in color, offers both strength and flexibility, and is a member of the lily family.
Once you’ve identified the materials, then and only then can you delve into the basketry techniques themselves, which are governed by traditions that have been passed down for generations within a given tribe. The material used in the woven part of a coiled basket is known as the splint, sometimes called the sewing splint, which was applied wet for flexibility, shrinking and tightening as it dried. In tightly woven coiled baskets, awls originally made of bone or cactus thorns (iron and steel awls came later) were used to create a hole for the splint as it was woven through the body of the basket. “A lot of weavers,” says Kania, “always kept a set of bone awls in their cache of tools. Apparently bone awls slid through the material more easily than steel or iron, and didn’t fracture, tear, or shred the material as much. Most weavers used both.”
Plaiting techniques describe a basket’s actual weave—the way the horizontal weft snakes through the vertical warp. Checker plaiting is the simplest type, while twill plaiting allows the weaver to create diagonal designs. Coiling includes the coil’s foundation, which can be made out of a single rod or bundles of them. Especially critical for identification purposes is the direction of the coil, which some tribes turn to the right and others turn to the left. Rare is the tribe that coils baskets in both directions, the Southern Nevada Paiute being one of few groups that does.
“Coiling to the left and coiling to the right are totally bound in tradition,” Kania says. “Very few tribes ever did both. It was how you were taught by your mother, grandmother, aunt, or whoever you learned basketry from in your tribe.”
Baskets that have not been coiled are generally twined, which is a more ancient technique. Like coiling, twining is directional, with some tribes favoring a leftward direction and others twining to the right. Twined baskets are built of vertical rods made of materials such as willow to form the weave’s warp. Sedge root, redbud, and other materials are used for the weft, which are twined using techniques with names like plain (four distinct types of plain twining are illustrated), three-strand (used to produce a raised surface on the outside of a basket), diagonal (the Pomo are one of the few groups that twines diagonally and to the right), lattice (in which inflexible weft materials are lashed to the basket’s warp material), and wrapped (similar to lattice; let’s just leave it at that). In opening twining the warp is left exposed at various intervals, in closed twining it is not. And, of course, the techniques employed (plain versus diagonal, open versus closed) depended on the historic use of the basket, as well as its region of origin.
Putting these puzzle pieces together from scratch takes a lot of time and experience, which is why the main part of the book gives readers a head start. Organized by the three main regions covered in the book—the Southwest, California, the Northwest clear to Alaska—each section drills down by the main groups of basket makers and their respective, smaller tribes. So, for example, we learn that the Western Apache of eastern Arizona can be subdivided into four tribes (the Tonto, Cibeque, White Mountain, and San Carlos) and that their baskets are often mislabeled as Havasupai or Yavapai from north-central and western Arizona respectively. The authors list the coiling materials used by Western Apache weavers (foundations included willow or cottonwood, with devil’s claw for black accents and yucca for the red) compared with those used in twined baskets (huckleberry was favored for water jars while mulberry saw a lot of use in burden baskets). The techniques for each set of materials are described, too.
If by now you’ve gotten the impression that “Antique Native American Basketry” is a tightly woven document notable for its precision and beauty, you’d be right, but Kania recalls the project starting out quite casually.
“At some point after Alan had become a client of my gallery,” says Kania, “he invited my business partner, Joe Ferrin, and I over for lunch. That was when he asked if I would help him write this book. I think partially just out of the excitement for the subject, and partially out of naiveté, I said, ‘Sure. I’ll do that.’ And so, the long slog through staggering amounts of information began.”
That was 15 years ago, which is a lot more time than it took a good weaver to produce a fancy bottleneck basket, but it’s probably about right for a book on the subject.