Sunday, January 15, 2012

Modern Willow Baskets

Weather: Afternoon thawing continues, but morning temperatures have dropped again; last snow 12/22/11; 9:59 hours of daylight today.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on roses and young chamisa; leaves on sea pink, coral beardtongue, gypsum phacelia seedlings, snakeweed, strap leaf aster; cheat grass; crust active.

What’s red: Cholla; branches on Russian olive, tamarix, sandbar willow, apples, apricots, spirea and raspberry; leaves on coral bells, pinks, small-leaved soapwort.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf seedlings, golden hairy and purple asters.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae, branches on weeping willow.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium, Christmas cactus peaked.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

Weekly update: Genuine tradition isn’t frozen into a single set of rules. There are general patterns which anthropologists use to define cultural periods, but within those groupings there’s room for individual variation and innovation.

At Chevlon along the Little Colorado in the 1300's, basket makers covered some of their wares with thick coats of paint. In the early twentieth century, Mary Lois Kissell says the Papago and Pima were still decorating their baskets with red and blue mineral paints.

However, the craftsmen at Chevlon also dyed some materials to weave in patterns. When aniline dyes became available in the late nineteenth century, Hopi women were quick to experiment with them. Many returned to vegetable dyes, partly because collectors preferred them and partly because isolation made it difficult to purchase materials.

When Helga Teiwes was interviewing basket makers in the 1990's, she talked to Vera Pooyouma, then estimated to be 104 years old. She first learned chemical dyes, changed to vegetable ones, and had returned to chemicals because they were easier at her age. The slightly younger Eva Hoyungowa, born in 1912, learned to use vegetable dyes from her father’s sister. Dora Tawahongva, born in 1930, was using both commercial and vegetable dyes at the time, while many others used only chemicals. All lived in Oraibi, the most traditional village on the Third Mesa.

Among the plants Teiwes saw women use for red dye were Navajo Tea and Hopi Tea. The preference seemed to depend on which was more abundant, with the first used more often by coiled basket makers on the Second Mesa and the second by wicker workers in Oraibi. Otis Mason identified additional dyes made from prairie sunflower seeds for dark blue, introduced safflower for yellow, and kaolin clay for white. Myrtle Zuck Hough told him Hopi also used their cooking beans to produce a black dye.

Dye introduces a second skill into basket making and a separate material harvesting cycle. When making items for the tourist trade, where speed is more valued by the artisan than effect, color can be introduced by using different natural materials: against the natural white of dried yucca leaves, modern Papago, the Tohono O’odham, use fading but still green yucca, brownish red banana yucca roots, and black devil’s claw pods.

Similarly, local craftsmen use variations in willow to introduce color into their work. Steven Trujillo, who settled in San Juan, learned to interweave “light and darker colored reeds, the later being older and slightly discolored when he harvests them. When first done, the baskets are white and light tan, but with age, the darker reeds turn almost ebony, giving a frank contrast to the pure white reeds.”

Carol Naranjo, who learned from Joe Val Gutierrez of Santa Clara, keeps the bark on the willow she uses, but introduces designs with small strips of pealed, white branches. She makes sure all her pieces are as close to the same color as possible. Carlos Herrera of Cochiti uses willows of different ages, sometimes using the older, nearly purple ones in horizontal bands, sometimes randomly in the vertical posts.

Greater variations in design are produced in the ways they finish off their baskets. Instead of making a simple rim, contemporary willow workers, who use bands of four for their warp, fold them in great arches to tuck them back several uprights away. The overlapping bands create the illusion of an open weave.

Naranjo indicates there also are small differences in the way people gather their materials. She cuts her willow sometime between October and May when sap levels are low. The best color is found now, in January.

She lets the branches sit for a few days so more sap can drain, then uses the willow quickly, while it’s still flexible. She can finish a small basket in a day. A larger one can take two to three days and is stored under a towel in the bathtub between work sessions.

She says others weave their baskets immediately. However, she says when the wood dries, as it will, it shrinks and the weave can get a bit loose.

In the late nineteenth century, Mary Lois Kissell says the Papago cut the willow for their coiled baskets in the spring, when new growth was emerging, then removed the bark immediately. In the past they had used boiling water to loosen it first. When they made a basket, they then soaked their willow, a few splints at a time.

One thing that drives innovation within tradition is a desire to master something seen but unfamiliar. Allie Seletstewa taught herself how to bend the warp to start the sides of a deep wicker basket by “experimenting with wet sand, water, and steam.”

When Trujillo was first learning how to make baskets, he said he was “down by the river gettin’ willows. And then, a crazy thing go on. Suddenly it’s like I asleep and dreamin’. I was awake, I know that, but somehow I was asleep at the same time. And I heard this voice - real clear - says to me, “Keep goin’, son. Keep on goin’’.”

“So I go home and get right into makin’ them baskets. Pretty soon I got it real good. Them baskets turnin’ out alright now, and been makin’ lots of baskets every since.”

Notes: The current Latin name for Hopi tea is Thelesperma megapotamicum, Navajo tea is Thelesperma subnudum, prairie sunflower is Helianthus petiolaris, and safflower is Carthamus tinctorius. Banana yucca root is Yucca baccata. Devil’s claw is Proboscidea parviflora. Other plants identified in post below.

Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Two Summers' Work in Pueblo Ruins, 1904, on Chevlon.

Fleming, Tim. “The Basketmaker,” The New Mexican, 19 July 1984, on Trujillo.

Kissell, Mary Lois. Basketry of the Papago and Pima, 1916.

Mason, Otis Tufton. Indian Basketry, volume 2, 1905, on Chevlon and the Hopi.

Naranjo, Carol. Comments made 4 January 2012 at her Santa Clara home.

Teiwes, Helga. Hopi Basket Weaving, 1996.

Red willow wicker basket by Carol Naranjo; willow was collected near Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos.

Yucca and bear grass coiled basket by Rachel Pablu, Tohono O’odham.

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