When you’re responsible for the largest, most comprehensive, and best-documented collection of North American indigenous basket making cultures, it’s hard to pick a favorite from among the 35,000 Native basketry pieces.
But the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson has done so, opening a new permanent exhibit on April 8 that will celebrate the region’s ancient fiber-weaving traditions by featuring millennia-old samples. “Woven Through Time: American Treasures of Native Basketry and Fiber Art” is now a permanent fixture at the museum, and travelers are invited to include the site as a stop on their journey to the region.
Different tribes in diverse geographies used different materials, weaving techniques, basket shapes, and characteristic patterns. For instance, Northeast Indian baskets are generally made out of pounded ash splints or braided sweet grass while Southeast Indian creations are often made from pine needles or river cane wicker. Other tribes have used coiled sumac or willow wood, cedar bark, or birch bark.
“The new exhibit shares many of the stories represented in our massive collection,” according to curator Diane Dittemore. “Native voices have now been joined with those of the curators in recounting the rich saga of the Southwest’s basketry legacy from ancient times to the present. What we’re focusing on is the long history of this important technology that is still alive today.
“Basketry, cordage, and matting are perhaps the oldest human crafts on earth and basket weaving, as a cultural art tradition and a source of pride for the maker, is a technology that cannot be mechanized. That basketry survives in our increasingly technical world is a testament to the skill and appreciation of cultural heritage possessed by practitioners of this ancient art.”
One of those recognized practitioners is cultural educator and consultant of cultural sensitivity, Tohono O’odham weaver Royce Manuel, who pushes creative boundaries in re-creating traditional utilitarian objects ranging from water carriers using agave cordage and kiaha (Aw-Thum Burden Baskets) to three-hole flutes and functional bows and arrows.
“History and tradition repeat themselves,” he said. “While I get recognition from my basketry, there’s more to me than baskets made from bear grass, yucca, and devil’s claw. I want people to understand just what was necessary in the past to survive in a harsh desert, the old ways of doing things.”
One of the more prominent features among the myriad objects on display involves the familiar motif of the Tohono O’odham Man-in-the-Maze symbol, traditionally woven with willow, cattail, and devil’s claw.
It’s unknown just how far back in history the motif goes or when the earliest representation was made although a similar maze design was found scratched into an adobe wall of the 13th century Sivan Vah’Ki (Big House) at the nearby Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
The earliest-known example of the image woven into a basket can be seen in the exhibit’s Akimel O’odham (Pima) plaque made about 1900. It shows a figure wearing what appears to be a kilt, traditionally worn by O’odham men for specific occasions. The figure is generally identified as I’itoi, the O’odham Elder Brother, and while there are a number of variations to describe the maze symbolism, the O’odham often describe it as the path through life—with its twists and turns and choices that need to be made.
“We had consultations with a number of weavers as we formulated plans for this exhibit and one of the things we heard was how basketry was one of the ways that tribes were reviving their language,” said Dittemore. “We incorporated as much native terminology as possible, native terms for the materials and the basketry itself, which was a challenge because there were so many languages represented.”
The “Woven Through Time: American Treasures of Native Basketry and Fiber Art” official grand opening drew an enthusiastic crowd for a full day of festivities involving basket dances by the No:ligk Traditional Singers and Dancers along with Tohono O’odham Waila music. More than two dozen award-winning basket makers represented their tribes (Apache, Hopi, Navajo, O’odham, Seri and Southern Paiute) in hands-on basket weaving activities creating a woven butterfly, split-twig figurines, small yarn baskets, and a giant basket made from hula hoops.
The Arizona State Museum is located at 1013 East University Boulevard in Tucson. The Native basketry exhibit features just a sample of the museum’s more than 35,000 Native basketry and woven items from the museum’s permanent collection.