The Language of Native American Baskets
Introduction The Weavers' View Techniques, Tools & Workplaces The Weavers' Aesthetic Burden Baskets A Set of Values Basketmaking Associations
  A set of values

Too often, when people think about Native American baskets, they assume that the weavers who make them are hemmed in by rules that govern the “traditional” arts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tradition is not a list of rules, but rather a set of values that guide the weaver’s work. Tradition may tell her to use plain twining to make a winnowing basket, but it also allows her to create a masterpiece, different from every other winnowing tray.

Most of the treasures in this gallery speak for themselves. One that, perhaps, does not, is the Chumash tray decorated with a Spanish coin motif. It was commissioned nearly two hundred years ago by Spanish administrators in Monterey, California, as a gift for a visiting dignitary. One thing that strikes me about its history is that the Chumash, who lived near Santa Barbara, were well enough known for their basketmaking that they would receive a commission from the colonial capital, 250 miles away.

Another of the treasures of the Museum’s basketry collections is a small basket made by the Eastern Pomo weaver William Benson. The Museum’s records show that Benson told Grace Nicholson, the Pasadena basket dealer and collector who represented Benson and his wife, that it was the first basket he ever made, and that he wanted Nicholson to have it as a gift. Coming upon this basket and story as they consulted on this exhibition, my weaver-colleagues could only smile, confirming my own suspicions. There is no way this basket could be anyone’s first effort, they pointed out. It took a lot of skill to prepare the sedge root and weave it with silk thread.

Understanding structure and technique is, of course, different from understanding creativity. Technical skill, and even the complicated process of combining materials, weave, shape, design, function, and so forth, is only a part of a weaver’s competence. Yet a process-oriented view of basketry leads us to find beauty, as weavers themselves do, in the creation of the art.
 
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