Weaving Survival

Wyoming State Museum

Basketry as Tradition, Commodity, and Art.

Baskets have been a vital part of Native cultures for millennia. Weaving for everyday household use, ceremony, sale, and art, basketmakers have successfully transformed utilitarian objects into a means for cultural and economic survival.

Prior to European contact, most if not all, tribes wove baskets. Whether made from processed trees, grasses, or furs, baskets were important for storage, transporting goods, beauty, and ceremony.

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.

At first, baskets were simple and inexpensive, essentially taking traditional forms and altering them to appeal to American tourists. Basketmakers might take a storage basket and make it smaller, add decorative embellishments to it, or mimic common items found in American homes.

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.

Working with the same materials, basketmakers started playing with simple forms based on traditional baskets and then began experimenting with new styles and designs that would appeal to buyers.

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.

Based on traditional materials and techniques, basketmaking helped to keep cultural traditions and language alive. Families spent time together gathering materials and passing down knowledge. Generations learned from one another in ways that reflected community values.

Baskets made to sell to tourists in the 1800s began to transform away from useful household items to more whimsical and decorative objects.

Decorative baskets could be sold for more money than utilitarian baskets, which encouraged basketmakers to take risks and try new styles, colors, and shapes.

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.

Credits: Story

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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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