Southwest Tribes Art through Basket Making

When you think of art from the Southwest tribes, most often people think of Indian baskets, pottery and turquoise and silver jewelry.  Baskets have religious symbols and are often part of the tribe’s origin story.  Each tribe has its own unique style  and historically, you see which tribes combined when put on the same reservation or because of tribal preservation  because in their artwork they developed a distinctive joint style.

Basket making was one of the earliest skills developed since baskets were needed for carrying goods, for storage, for trapping and fishing, and for religious ceremonies.  Unlike pottery, baskets do not survive for extended periods of time.  Most that are available today were constructed in the last 120 years, particularly after native people in the Southwest began to make baskets with the idea of selling them and moved baskets into the category of artistic collectables.  Those made between 1880 and 1930 tend to be the most valuable, particularly if they are in good condition, well-made, and have an interesting design, but these latter factors can make any basket desirable.

Navajo identify four ancient baskets in their origin stories each a color of one of the clouds found in the First World and these colors are still used today in basket making.  These ancient baskets were used to keep creation in order and in harmony – all objectives of the Dine people. Navajo basket making has declined in recent decades but survives because of the importance of wedding baskets. Such baskets are used as part of the religious wedding ceremony and are expected to reflect a common pattern: The center is a star with four white points representing the four sacred mountains that surround the Navajo land.   Some traditions suggest there are six sacred mountains and therefore six points. These mountains surround an open area representing where the Navajo first emerged into this world and is surrounded by a white area representing birth.   Today’s basket weavers use the black design to “…symbolize the darkness (night) and clouds that bring the rain. The white part inside the black design represents the sacred mountains. Usually, there are four or six points in this part to designate the sacred mountains. If there are four points then they represent the four sacred mountains. If there are six points then two more sacred mountains are added. The outside white area represents the dawn and is tied together with the outside rim which represents a person’s thoughts, prayers, and values. The red part within the black design represents the life giving rays of the sun” (Ben Gorman 1997). The basket weavers follow the direction of the sun in her weaving and any additional fibers are added in the same direction of the doorway of their hogan.

The most valuable baskets are those made by the Apache and Yavapai.  Both tribes traveled a lot probably making well-built baskets more important, but, in the latter part of the 1800s, the two groups were forced onto the same reservation in the desert near San Carlos.  In this unpleasant harsh life, the women had a chance to share techniques although both groups maintained their own style.  After they were allowed to return to reservations in their more traditional areas, both groups recognized that they could generate a modest income by selling their baskets and production increased. Apache baskets tend to use contrasting colors and geometric or pictorial designs. The traditional ones are very sturdy [because of the three coils] and the external weft is usually willow with material from devils claw seed bags for the dark color.  The willow tends to start as an off white but ages to a golden tan or light brown.  A sun-burnt willow that is darker and reddish was sometimes used for decoration. Dark red yucca root was also used for design work in rare occasions. Apache designs are less symmetrical and, at times, seemed cluttered.  They frequently include figures (human, dog, deer, and snake).  Weavers suggest that it is helpful to let the basket talk to them and tell them the design rather than planning it ahead of time.  As a result, there is less consistency in weave as well as design but such variation can add interest. The use of devil’s claw has declined in modern Apache designs.

The Yavapai used similar methods to those of the Apache with traditional baskets made with 3 rod coiling and from willow with devil’s claw and yucca root.  Some were twined and used dyes, but most were very sturdy.  Among the older, some were so tightly woven that they could hold water.  The Yavapai were more likely to plan their baskets in order to produce symmetry and made extensive use of triangles and star designs.  The star tended to be in the middle with the triangles using dark black color and radiating outward.  Their baskets tended to have less content, but some of those made for tourist sales added things like place names.  This pattern contrasts with earlier ones that were made to tell a story and were said to generate a feeling of contentment in the maker.

Hopi baskets are among the most plentiful reducing their value.  They most commonly used sumac and rabbitbush bundles of galetta grass and yucca.  Their baskets take all three forms – twined, coiled and plaited, but coiled are most common on 2nd Mesa and plaited ones with wicker are particularly common on the 3rd Mesa. Hopi baskets stand out for the amount of color used and reflect extensive production of dyes.   Blues, yellow and orange are common. Kachina designs are common.   Basket making has significantly declined in the pueblos along the Rio Grande with New Mexico pueblos concentrating on pottery and jewelry.  The Hopi, though, have continued to make baskets with a particular reputation for plaques.  These plaques are made by a bride’s family and given to the groom’s family as repayment for the bridal robes that are traditionally woven by men of the groom’s family.   Brides will also often make one for her husband but will leave it undone to suggest that his life remains unfinished.

The Tohono O’Odham [which in their language means Desert People] are assumed to have descended from the Hohokam after the latter dispersed into the desert.   As a result, they are assumed to have inherited the Hohokam’s well developed basket making skills.  Their traditional baskets are coiled from bundles of bear grass sewn with yucca that has been bleached white in the sun.   They also add devil’s claw seed pods for black and unbleached yucca for green or yellow-green.  On some occasions, red yucca root is also added.  In closed stitch baskets, the weft is wound tightly covering the warp.  In open stitch ones, there is space between the weaves so that the warp shows through.

The Akimel O’Odham [or River People] have very similar basket making practices but use willow and cattail which are more abundant in their area.  The cattail was bundled for the coil and the willow was used for weaving.  Devil’s claw was used for the dark part of designs.  Cattail is more supple than bear grass making their baskets more pliable.

 Both groups usually start with a four square or plaited knot and then wrap the bundles around this center.  The basket walls are pounded with stones to make them smooth and flat.  Basket making has gradually declined with the Akimel O’Odham but is still common among the Tohono O’Odham, who have an association that supports production. Certain designs have been commonly used including the Man in the Maze, the Sunflower, and the Turtle.

Basket Making Among Southwestern Native Tribes.  The Smoki Museum.  Web.  1 June 2013.

Kennedy-Simpson, Georgianna. Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols Sacred Space.  Native Voices, 2004.  Web.  1 June 2013.

 Sheridan, Thomas and Nancy Parezo

      1996  Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico. Print.

      Tucson: The University of Arizona Press


Sublette, Mark.  “Apache Indian Ollas”. Web.  1 June 2013.


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