Sunday, January 08, 2012

Traditional Willow Baskets


Weather: Days alternate between thawing afternoons and freezing nights; the snow that melts turns to ice which turns slick under water; last snow 12/22/11; 9:52 hours of daylight today.

Snow still covers west and north facing beds, and eastern beds in the shadow of the fence. Those facing south or east are exposed to the drying sun and wind, as are open areas in the bunch grass. Ice is in the drip lines at night.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; rose stems; leaves on cheese mallow, sea pink, coral beardtongue, gypsum phacelia, snakeweed; cheat grass.

Big jump in prices for seeds in one catalog. Some prices much higher for bare root trees in another. No one left selling perennial plants at affordable prices by mail order.

What’s red: Cholla; branches on 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, 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.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

Weekly update: Weaving techniques exist separately from their form or plant material, and thus have adapted when changing requirements demanded new utensils. In parts of the west where fish were important, one set of shapes developed. Netting and cordage appeared elsewhere when people became dependent on rabbits.

The forms we associate with baskets evolved with a reliance on plants for food. The dietary transition occurred when glaciers had receded and the remaining lakes were drying. Large mammals had died or were migrating. The lacustrine environment supported trees like sandbar willow and sedges like tule.

The earliest burden baskets were made by weaving tule stems twisted into strands between fibers extracted from Indian hemp stalks. At Danger Cave in Utah in the 7000's bc, twined baskets were found with pickleweed chaff. The technology and form also appeared at Falcon Hill, Spirit Cave, and Hidden Cave in the same millenium in Nevada.

Within a thousand years, coiled baskets appeared that used willow as a weft, but eliminated the vertical posts that would have introduced spaces and rippled walls. The rows were held together by lashing them with strands of yucca.


A coiled basket has been found in Cowboy Cave in Utah from sometime in the early 6000's bc. Another made from sandbar willow was found in Hogup Cave, also in Utah, that dates to the late 5000's bc. Anthropologists think the technique developed a century or so earlier in Coahuila and moved north.

The use of yucca suggests a steadily drying environment. David Rhode and David Madsen found that while limber pine nuts existed in the strata from the 5000's bc in Danger Cave, the more arid piñon replaced them in the next higher layer, as they replaced them in the environment. They note that neither tree grew in the immediate vicinity of the cave, so the nuts found there had to have been gathered and transported.

With time people found ways to strengthen their baskets and compensate for variations in willow. They used two branches laid side by side or two with a split piece above. If a twig was too big, they dressed it down. If wood was too small, they padded with grass. They daubed the insides with mud to hold cooking water heated by hot stones. They caulked them inside and out with piñon gum to carry water.

When pottery was perfected after AD 500, it assumed many functions served by baskets. Then conditions dried even more, and places like Chaco Canyon were abandoned around 1200 for river plains.

Basket makers continued to work in the 500 room Chevlon on the Little Colorado in northeastern Arizona in the 1300's, but they substituted drought tolerant rubber rabbitbrush for willow. Walter Fewkes found the fragment of one wicker basket with small construction details identical to those used at Oraibi on the Hopi Third Mesa in the late nineteenth century.

Wicker work had been around for some time - Chevlon graves were lined with wicker matting. This apparently was simply an application of a familiar technique to a familiar, but different form.

The Spanish introduced new storage devices, like iron cooking pots, which altered usage patterns for both baskets and pottery, but they also introduced new foods with new handling requirements.

James Stevenson found an 8" high, globular wickerwork basket at Zuñi in the 1880's used to gather peaches. It was made from rubber rabbitbrush with a yucca rim. There were visible gaps between the rows and the walls were deeply corrugated by the stiffness of the composite. It was dismissed as crude, but fruit only needs a strong container, not a sealed or smooth walled one.

Many of the remaining basket functions disappeared when mass produced containers filtered west in the nineteenth century. Helga Teiwes says coiled basketry began to disappear among the Hopi around 1750, and willow was no longer used for the foundation after 1820. They once used skunkbush for their wickerwork, but now use dune broom for the warp and rabbitbrush for the weft.

By the 1880's, Stevenson’s wife Matilda noticed the Zuñi bought their baskets, preferably from the Apache, then from the Hopi. By 1916, Smithsonian researchers among the local Tewa speakers mentioned no local tradition, only used the past tense for the Hopi and Zuñi.

Basket making didn’t die out completely. Mary Lois Kissell heard the Papago continued to carry water baskets in the 1890's when they took their horses on long journeys. Steven Trujillo, who was born about 1899 and settled in San Juan, had an uncle who made baskets. Carol Naranjo, now in her 70's, remembers her grandmother had willow baskets hanging on the walls of her home in Old Laguna and always stored her freshly baked bread in a red willow basket.


Driven from the kitchen and store room, basket making, both coiled and wicker, survived for ceremonial uses. Basket dances existed in many pueblos. The Hopi used small plaques as symbolic emblems of kinship and community. Zuñi women avidly collected the finer pieces.

The trains that brought cheaper, more efficient containers also brought souvenir-seeking tourists. By 1915, the Papago were making coiled baskets for the curio trade. They no longer used willow for the coils; it was too valuable to waste on ephemera. Instead, they used bear grass. The Pima adopted cat tails. The Hopi were already using galleta grass.

They all still used sun bleached, dried yucca leaves. However, at White Dog Cave in Arizona, where early corn and primitive pottery were found from sometime between 480 and 175 bc, the finest baskets had eight coils to an inch with twelve yucca stitches per inch. Most were five coils to an inch and nine to eleven stitches. The coiled plaque I bought this week, made by Rachel Pablu, uses three coils to an inch with five stitches.

Tourists who drove between Santa Fé and Taos expected collectible pottery, not baskets, and so pottery making was revived for them. When Steven Trujillo wanted to learn basket making in the early 1950's in San Juan he could find no teachers. His uncle was dead; his aunts knew nothing.

Trujillo passed on his wicker ware skills to Joe Val Gutierrez of Santa Clara, who taught Naranjo, who has since taught others. While she’s sold her share, she’s also given her baskets to people in the pueblo. General weaving techniques may not have changed for thousands of years, but hers now serve a new function, providing continuity with those past generations.


Notes: The current Latin name for pickleweed is Allenrolfea occidentalis. Tule is Schoenoplectus acutus and Indian hemp is Apocynum cannabinum. Limber pine is Pinus flexilis while piñon is Pinus monophylla. Rubber rabbitbrush is a subspecies of Ericameria nauseosa, skunkbush is Rhus trilobata, and dunebroom Parryella filifolia. Bear grass is Nolina microcarpa , the Pima cat tails are Thypha latifolia, and the Hopi galleta is Pleuraphis jamesii. The yucca leaf is usually from Yucca elata. Sandbar willow is Salix exigua, but the Zuñi used Salix irrotata, the Pima Salix nigra, and the Hopi Salix laseolepis.

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

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

Guernsey, Samuel James and Alfred Vincent Kidder. Basket-maker Caves of Northeastern Arizona, Report on the Explorations, 1916-17, 1921, on White Dog cave.

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

Mahoney, Jane. “Winding willow,” The Albuquerque Journal, 18 April 2004, on Naranjo.

Mason, Otis Tufton. Indian Basketry, volume 2, 1905, describes baskets collected by Fewkes and James Stevenson.

Rhode, David and David B. Madsen. “Pine Nut Use in the Early Holocene and Beyond: The Danger Cave Archaeobotanical Record,” Journal of Archaeological Science 25:1199-1210:1998.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Stevenson, Martha Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.

Teiwes, Helga. Hopi Basket Weaving, 1996, on Mexican history of coiled baskets.

Photographs:
1. Sandbar willow with some remaining catkins growing along the Rio Grande in Española, 29 December 2011.

2. Coiled basket made by Rachel Pablu, Tohono O’odham; the detail showing the stitching technique and grass is from a joint on the back, not the front.

3. Red willow wicker basket made by Carol Naranjo.

4. Sandbar willow with some persisting leaves, 29 December 2011.

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