Sometimes we overlook burden baskets—perhaps the simplicity of their function
blinds us to their beauty. Many Indian people share the idea of using baskets
to carry loads, but the baskets they make vary in shape, size, color, design,
and weave. Although all burden baskets are straightforward and similar in use,
each tribe makes them in a unique and identifiable style. Elements that appear
to be ornamental are often functional—the tin cones attached to Apache burden
baskets that tinkle and ring as the wearer walks, warning away snakes. Other baskets,
too, would not work as well if certain design elements were not woven into them.
Burden baskets may be carried in nets, or by woven, leather, or rope shoulder
straps or tumplines, straps worn across the chest or forehead. A basket’s
conical shape conforms wonderfully to a wearer’s back, evenly distributing
the load’s weight. They may be made in a closed (tightly spaced) weave—plaiting,
twining, wicker, or coiling—or in open twining or wicker, depending on their
Open burden baskets
Indian people all over North America make open-weave burden baskets. Woven by
both men and women, often quite quickly, they are used to carry loads of food
and firewood, as well as personal belongings. A Pima basket-maker gathering piñon
wood may weave an open burden basket on the spot. Along the Northwest Coast, clamming
baskets are made in open weave to allow water to drain from the clams before they
are carried home.
Closed burden baskets
In the past, some Indian people harvested grass seed and other grains by loosening
the seed with a seed beater and catching it in a tightly woven burden basket held
in the other hand. Southeastern Indian basket-makers designed carrying baskets
to bear the weight of garden produce and comfortably fit the curves of the human
body. Native people of the Plains usually relied on containers of leather and
hide, but women of the Upper Missouri River tribes bent wooden frames to create
strong baskets to carry firewood, garden produce, and personal belongings.
In the Southwest, closely woven baskets with narrow necks were made to carry water.
Burden baskets are still used in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere to collect
berries. The picker fills a quart-sized basket worn on the waist or hip, then
empties it into a larger basket worn on her back.
Hats and small burden baskets
Burden baskets come in all sizes. Smaller baskets worn over the shoulder, around
the neck, or at the hip were made to collect berries or seeds or carry food and
other small items. Women from some Native groups wore basketry hats to cushion
the weight of the tumpline on their forehead. Some of these hats could double
as personal food bowls as well.