Basketry as Tradition, Commodity, and Art.
With the arrival of Europeans, Native nations faced major cultural and economic upheaval. No Native community was left untouched by unprecedented change, population loss, and a total alteration of social structures and values. Traditional roles and methods of survival changed, and Native people had to adapt. Specifically, they needed to find ways to earn money.
Depending on where they lived, men had new opportunities that were founded in roles such as farming, logging, hunting, and trapping. In many traditional Native societies, women had a lot of influence, which was lost with assimilation into the cultural norms of the United States. One way that women could help support their families, while at the same time maintaining some of their autonomy and influence, was to make and sell baskets.
Trinket baskets were popular souvenirs for tourists. Native people would sell baskets at resort destinations like Niagra Falls, the Grand Canyon, and along road sides near the reservations. These inexpensive baskets were made quickly and provided much needed income for Native families struggling to make ends meet in a new world where men were finding it harder to earn a living from traditional roles, or had to travel further from home to find work.
Basketmakers then took these new ideas and started applying them to new shapes that were no longer simply utilitarian, but instead copied home furnishings that could be both decorative and useful. Baskets were made to hold sewing materials, fruit, and mail, and as hampers and purses- almost any household item could be made as a basket.
As the market developed, women wove increasingly complex baskets that were designed to reflect the tastes of their non-Native clients, and the prices increased accordingly. The more time and effort that went into making a basket, the more money women could charge for it. As men saw the opportunity that weaving presented for women, some of them learned to weave as well and weaving became a family affair.
Miniatures also became popular with basketmakers and their clients. Easy to pack and display in the home, small baskets sold very well. Miniatures required a high degree of skill to weave. In some Native communities basketmakers began to compete with one another to see who could weave the smallest baskets.
Baskets, originally made as utilitarian and ceremonial objects, were later produced as tourist souvenirs, and are now created as fine art. The availability of commercial dyes combined with the creativity and skill of the basketmakers has led to a market for fine basketwork. Collectors may focus on specific artists, regions, or basket styles, and these often command high prices.
Basketmaking continues to be an important cultural and economic activity for Native people. Both men and women weave, and some baskets sell for tens of thousands of dollars. But more important than the income they bring, baskets have successfully kept important traditions, language, and social structures intact, insuring the continuation of these traditions into the future.
Organized by the Wyoming State Museum.
Artifacts from the permanent collection of the Wyoming State Museum.
Guest curated by Raney Bench.
Raney Bench is author of “Interpreting Native American History and Culture in Museums and Historic Sites,” Rowan and Littlefield, 2013. She has a Bachelor's of Arts in Native American Studies from Humboldt State University, and a Master’s in Museum Studies from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and is Executive Director of the Seal Cove Auto Museum.