From the Archives: Weaving History Through Art

By Rebecca Sutton
Woven basket

Woven basket attributed to Kitty Johnson, a member of the Kawaiisu tribe. Likely made near Victorville California circa 1900. The use of the juncus material (the orange sewing strands) is typical of baskets made made near Victorville by the Chemehueve and Kawaiisu people. From the Chapula/Richardson Collection. Photo by Anthony Richardson for Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America

When Alan Blaugrund began collecting Native-American baskets, he would travel to auctions and trade shows in search of his next find. “I just started buying them, and tried to figure out why one looked different from the next,” said Blaugrund, an Albuquerque resident and a dermatologist by trade. Despite his scientific eye, identification was still a sticky subject. Although there were various academic articles describing different styles of basket weaving, there was no one source that compiled this information, making it difficult for collectors to identify which baskets were created by which tribes. So ten years ago, Blaugrund teamed up with John Kania, owner of the Kania-Ferrin Gallery in Santa Fe, which specializes in baskets and other Native American crafts. Together the pair spent a decade researching and writing the book Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America, which was published [in 2014]. Focusing on the “golden age” of baskets, which spanned between 1890 and 1930, the book is part history, part collector’s guide, and part anthropological account. We spoke with both authors recently about their book, including the influence of non-Native dealers on traditional designs, the role of women as economic catalysts, and what drove the basket collecting fad of the early 20th century. An edited transcript of our conversation is below. NEA: You write that the shape and design of a basket aren't as indicative of origin as weaving technique and material. Can you tell me a little bit about why? KANIA: There are baskets made all over the planet, and have been being made for many thousands of years, in various cultures. Basketry tends to be executed in a certain limited number of techniques. These various techniques basically provide only a two-dimension grid for design concepts. Therefore, the kinds of designs you can come up with tend to be very limited and often are found repeatedly, not only from tribe to tribe, but from various cultures around the planet. So you end up with a real problem as far as tribal identity is concerned. BLAUGRUND: A step pattern or a fret pattern is used everywhere, and if you look at baskets from California or Arizona or even the Pacific Northwest, you're going to frequently see some semblance of that pattern everywhere. But you won't see a material that grows in the desert being used in a basket in Alaska. So you have to use many aspects—the materials, the technique and the design—to come up with an identification. NEA: You write a lot about the link between basket making and economic development in the time period you researched. Can you elaborate a bit on that, and how basket making became a pretty major economic force? KANIA: At that time, most Native people had been confined to reservations and became essentially dependent upon government handouts. Or, if they were one of the groups that ended up without being put on a reservation, they sort of wandered their same basic homelands looking for odd jobs. The men frequently, for instance, would be ranch hands, miners, hard labor type guys, and the women who would travel with them—their wives and daughters—would do house cleaning and laundry and things like that. But on the side, the women would also have this incredible talent of making these beautiful works of art, basketry. It became a very fashionable thing to collect basketry during the very late 19th century, and it went right on until the Great Depression kind of knocked everybody out. Women making baskets became, in many cases, fairly famous, like Dat So La Lee or Elizabeth Hickox. What they were doing was bringing Native culture into a cash economy, which didn't exist prior to that, and enabling families to live better economically.
coiled basket
A three-rod coiled Pomo basket, circa 1900. This is unusual as most Pomo beaded baskets are single-rod coiled. Maker unknown. Photo by Anthony Richardson for Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America
NEA: What drove the collecting fad at that time do you think? BLAUGRUND: The time period, which was called the Golden Age of collecting baskets, was at about the same time that the Arts and Crafts movement became popular. So the use of anything that was made with your hands—not machine-made—became very popular. The other thing was the tourist industry discovered the Western part of the United States. The railroads promoted tourism. So the combination of the appreciation of handmade goods and the interaction of non-Natives with Natives really promoted a lot of this. There were companies back east that would put in an order for 500 baskets, and they would sell them in department stores in New York City. I personally think they sold because they were beautiful, but it also became a fashionable thing to have something that was handmade in your house, particular if it was a Native American thing. NEA: Your book talks about a few specific dealers like Grace Nicholson and Abe Cohn, who had very different effects on basket making. Could you talk about the long-term impact that dealers and collectors have had on basket making over time? BLAUGRUND: These were people who really helped create the market, so they had a beneficial effect in that way. Another effect, which one could argue was beneficial or not, is that they influenced the construction and the design of the baskets. They encouraged Native people to change from their basic tribal designs to something which a non-Native would find more attractive. They added color, they started making things which Native people would never think of, like cups and saucers and trays and wastepaper baskets. But in the long run, it was good for women who needed to make money and needed a source of income. So they were willing to be influenced by these dealers to make something which the dealers were willing to market for them. By and large, [basket weavers] didn't live in cosmopolitan areas. They lived in very rural areas and they had no way to get their merchandise to the market. KANIA: American Indian basketry is something that has always been evolving, but traditional basket societies had certain rules, laws, and taboos about doing this or that, that would prevent them from just making anything that they felt like making. So you end up with this new concept of a marketplace. You're making things for sale, you're no longer constrained by those traditional boundaries or rules. If it's being made for sale, anything goes so to speak. There was this inclination to change design, to change color, to drop certain elements of design out of basketry. Say, for instance, something we commonly call floaters, which are little design units that are just floating in the background. What happened was that dealers encouraged those floaters to be dropped out of the basket repertoire in favor of the large dynamic design that these little floaters were surrounding. So you had a greater visual impact on these baskets. This was all being done by the weavers themselves of course, but it was through the encouragement of particularly influential dealers and/or good friends of white people who were big-time collectors. So there's a definite influence going on, even if it wasn't intended to be so. There was one culture seriously influencing another by the habits of what it was buying. BLAUGRUND: The other effect of interaction of the non-Native culture and Native culture was the change in the ecology, because materials were no longer available. Roads were widened, rivers were dammed, parking lots were created. So materials which people cultivated in the wild for centuries were no longer available. So contemporary weavers frequently have to adapt using things today which would not be something which our ancestors used. And that's unfortunate, but it's the reality of what happened. KANIA: It's another kind of evolution in the whole process of basketry, which is far better than having it go extinct.
coiled basket

A 19-century New Mexico Pueblo basket. Photo by Anthony Richardson for Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America

NEA: What is the general current state of basket-making now—how has it changed, and also how has collecting changed? BLAUGRUND: If you look at the contemporary Native American market in Santa Fe, for instance, during Indian Market, there's some wonderful, wonderful weavings that are done in basketry. And that's true not just in the western part of the United States, but it's true in the eastern as well, and in the southern parts. So there's been a real renaissance in basket-making, frequently because a few older people who kept this stream of technique alive have found young people interested in their culture. I won't say it's thriving at this point, but it is certainly becoming a very active craft again, which was not true say 45 or 50 years ago. Many of the artisans are young ones that are splitting off in to their own direction. They're not just doing traditional things, they're doing their own very creative artistic concepts, and combining new materials and new shapes and new techniques together into a piece. And that goes for beadwork, as well as everything else. All of the art forms that have survived are taking new innovative roads and paths. So there's a lot of extraordinarily creative inventiveness going on out there. NEA: In your ten years of research and writing for this book, what were you most surprised to learn? KANIA: Well, I think for me personally [it was learning] about how important women were in the creation of this art, and in the transition of Native people into a monetary society. It's something you normally don't think about when you go into a museum, and you're looking at stuff. As beautiful as it may be, your mind doesn't immediately race to what was it she was having to do to gather, to process, to make these baskets. Who was she selling them to? I mean she's out in the middle of nowhere, she's on a farm in Timbuktu or something, and her husband's out herding cattle, or in a mine someplace. All of a sudden it dawns on you, the complexity of these societies, and the way they had to move from job to job and from town to town. BLAUGRUND: I agree with that. I wouldn't say it was a surprise, but it was a really deep appreciation and admiration for the women who made these beautiful things. For years, I would look at them as a thing; I didn't relate them to the maker, as I think I should have. But once you start reading about them, and going into them in-depth, you really get the appreciation of the people who made these. Interested in Native-American basketry? Meet Anishinabe (Gun Lake Band) Black Ash Basketmaker and 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellow Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) here. Then tune in to celebrate Church and the other 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellowships at the celebration concert, which will be webcast live Friday, September 28 at 8 p.m. ET. (Going to be in DC that day? Find out how to get free tickets to attend the concert here.) This article originally appeared on the Art Works blog on September 17, 2014.