Native Weaving

Enduring Traditions of Life and Commerce

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 3 (Winter 2006)

W. Richard West, Jr.

The following article was first presented as an address at "Selling Yarns — Australian Indigenous Textiles and Good Business in the 21st Century,” a conference hosted by the Australian National University and held at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, Australia on August 13, 2006.

As is often the custom among Native peoples of the Americas, I want to share a story with you that serves as deep background for everything I will be talking about today.

The story is about a northern California basket-maker named Mrs. Matt. Native peoples from this area of the United States were among the most sophisticated and artistic of basket-makers in all of the Americas. Mrs. Matt had been hired to teach basket-making at a local university. After three weeks, her students complained that all they had done was sing songs. When, they asked, were they going to learn to make baskets? Mrs. Matt, somewhat taken aback, replied that they were learning to make baskets. She explained that the process starts with songs that are sung so as not to insult the plants when the materials for the baskets are picked. So her students learned the songs and went to pick the grasses and plants to make their baskets.

Upon their return to the classroom, however, the students again were dismayed when Mrs. Matt began to teach them yet more songs. This time she wanted them to learn the songs that must be sung as you soften the materials in your mouth before you start to weave. Exasperated, the students protested having to learn songs instead of learning to make baskets. Mrs. Matt, perhaps a bit exasperated herself at this point, thereupon patiently explained the obvious to them: “You're missing the point,” she told them, “a basket is a song made visible.”

I do not know whether Mrs. Matt's students went on to become exemplary basket-makers. What I do know is that her wonderfully poetic remark, which suggests the interconnectedness of everything, the fusion of the profoundly spiritual with the purely physical, the symbiosis of who we are and what we do, embodies a whole philosophy of Native life and culture that is fundamentally different from much of European or Western social and cultural thought, tradition, and practice.

As the website for the Tohono O'odham Basketweavers Organization explains with poignancy in confirmation of what I have just said:

In the Tohono O'odham language, there is no word for “art.” Instead, the Tohono O'odham have always created artful ways of living, seeking to blend beauty and usefulness. Weavers try to live in ways that bring together the material, spiritual and aesthetic worlds. In basketry, beauty and utility are joined together. Some call it art...most basketweavers simply call it life.

I offer this preface to everything else that I will say today for the following reasons. As a Native person, a Cheyenne, and as the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, I am a firm believer in the appropriateness of the commercial sale of Native art. Native peoples in the Americas have traded objects and art among themselves for thousands of years, and its extension beyond our own communities to the non-Native is something to which I have no objection whatsoever.

What I do believe, and ask, is that we all understand that such commerce is far more than the trade and sale of material objects. It is not only the transfer of art, it is not only the exercise and achievement of rewarding economics — it remains a transaction that sits in the far deeper and longer valleys of Native cultural experience and practice, past and present.

I begin, as the good lawyer that I have been in the past, with the important disclaimer that I do not pretend expertise even in the basket-weaving traditions of Native America — I am, candidly, a museum director and not one of its curators.

The perspectives I offer today are shaped by two fundamental facts and influences. First, my Cheyenne father was a distinguished visual artist, a painter and a sculptor for all of his long and productive eighty-three years of life. Growing up in Native America as his observant son has heavy impact on much of what I will say to you this morning. Second, I have served as the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian for the past decade and a half of its still relatively young life. Those years and their experiences concerning the very matters I will be discussing today have been instructive and profoundly shaping of my own views.

Let me turn, then, to two of the overriding realities that have an impact on commerce in Native objects. First, fundamentally and often unfavorably, economics are often at play with respect to weaving, whether it is baskets or textiles. The relationship between the level of artistry and the time expended to accomplish it, on the one hand, and the price it deserves, on the other, are, at best, only dimly perceived and understood by large sectors of the purchasing public in the United States.

I recall the enlightening if also depressing story told by one of the principals of the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, which for years has inspired and promoted the production of various historic and contemporary Native arts, including both Pueblo jewelry and Navajo basket-making. He offers the following telling example of the predicament:

Recently we sold a wonderful Edith Tsabetsaye Zuni squash blossom necklace, ring and earring set. The set was on the back counter to be packaged for shipping when an officious woman walked into the trading post. As she poked about the store, it became apparent that she had no sense of the quality of the art she was inspecting, and was not pleased with the prices she was seeing. All at once she spotted the necklace and asked, “What is that?” I explained to her that it was an extraordinarily well-crafted necklace by the premier Zuni cluster artist. “How much is it,” she demanded. I informed her that it was already sold but she persisted. When I told her the selling price, to avoid lecturing her about common courtesy, she blurted out, ”Well, that's ridiculously expensive,” and headed for the door. I bit my lip to avoid saying something I would regret.

In addition, until quite recently in the history of the sale and commerce of Native weaving arts, the presence and, indeed, imposition of economic middlemen has had a dramatic and adverse impact on the economic gain of originating Native artists. As the Tohono O'Odham Basketmakers Organization explains:

For decades, Tohono O'Odham weavers have been dependent upon traders who visit their villages, people who often take advantage of the weavers' isolation and economic hardship. The weaver often received just 5 percent to 25 percent of a basket's retail value from the trader.

TOBO offers weavers a positive alternative. By working together, weavers are able to reach new markets. As a non-profit organization, TOBO is able to ensure that 75 percent or more of the retail price goes to the artists. The remaining 25 percent supports TOBO's educational efforts and activities that benefit weavers.

In addition to the troublesome economics of basket-weaving, the degradation of the natural environment from which the materials used by basket-makers are gathered has had, at least in the United States, dramatically negative impact on the ability of Native peoples to practice this art. The California Indian Basketweaver Association emphasizes the extent of this problem in the following terms:

Fundamental to the perpetuation of native basketweaving traditions is protection and proper management of the dozens of different kinds of plants used by weavers.... At the same time, basketmakers require safe and convenient access to the natural areas where such resources are found. However, few California tribes have a sufficient land base from which weavers can gather and manage resources, and access to private lands is difficult. Therefore, basketweavers rely to a great extent on public lands to meet their needs. But, both public and private land managers engage in or allow practices that can degrade or destroy basketry resources and gathering sites. On forested lands in particular, herbicides are used to control ‘undesirable' plants, destroying or contaminating...plants, and threatening the health and safety of gatherers. Furthermore, some agencies have regulations and policies that limit access by Native Americans to public lands and traditional resources.

Tristan Reader, co-director of Tohono O'odhamn Community Action, confirms similar challenges:

Among the obstacles faced by weavers in gathering traditional basketry materials include: 1) Over harvesting by non-Native commercial ventures (e.g., broom factories that over harvest bear grass); 2) development of lands previously utilized by weavers for harvesting materials; 3) use of herbicides by land managers that either kill basketry plants or create serious health concerns for weavers (especially because many weavers put plant materials in their mouths in the process of weaving).

Within the past two decades alone in the United States in Native America, the basket-maker cooperatives have had a salutary and substantial impact on all of the large and overriding external issues mentioned above. Previously, I mentioned the effect of the establishment of the Tohono O'odham Basketweavers Organization on redressing dramatically the economics of artist sales by eliminating almost entirely an intervening layer in the sales process. In addition, the California Indian Basketweaver Association has intervened at policy and political touch points to protect the natural resources on which basket-makers rely so fundamentally:

Through the Resources Protection Program, we strive to halt the use of pesticides on public and private wildlands [sic] where they threaten the health of basketweavers and their communities. We do this by conducting research and educating and advocating to bring about change in government resource management policies and programs at the state and federal levels. At the same time we work to influence local resource management planning and decisions that affect their environment and health. In place of herbicides, we promote alternative, less environmentally harmful resource management practices. We seek also to improve and enhance safe, convenient access to gathering areas and cultural sites, to educate policy makers and land managers about traditional Native natural resources management practices, and to promote the active participation by basketweavers in the stewardship of plant populations.

In addition, the basket-weaver cooperatives, associations, and organizations have striven, through education and training programs to revive, in quantity and quality, basket-making traditions.

[In 1993, for example]...a group of Maine Indian arti-sans, including [Penobscot basketmaker and arts advocate Theresa] Secord, started the Maine Basketmakers Alliance to preserve the weaving arts of the Wabanaki, or People of the Dawn. The intricate art of crafting brown ash and sweetgrass traditional and so-called “fancy” baskets by the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac tribes verged on extinction. “There were just 55 weavers left with an average age of 63,” says Secord, 47. “Today, we have over 200 members, with an average age of 43, who share a common vision — the preservation and nurturance of basket making.”

With similar motivation, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, through the Cherokee National Historical Society, also known as the Cherokee Heritage Center, confers Cherokee Living National Treasure/Master Craftsmen awards.

As the director of a major American cultural and arts institution that relates so directly to these arts, I say both generally with respect to all museums and specifically with respect to us — this fight is hardly one that should be borne in the United States by Native basket-weaver cooperatives alone. It is in the interest of all museums that hold such Native art to project both it and its makers into a sound and productive financial and artistic future.

I would now like to address more specifically what museums can, should, and, indeed, must do to support and promote, in the United States and elsewhere, the worthy efforts of the basket-weaver associations I have just discussed. And here is my “to-do” list, some of it based on the direct experience and practice of the National Museum of the American Indian over the past sixteen years.

First, America's cultural and arts institutions, and many of them exist, which hold Native objects and materials, must educate their publics generally about the Native arts, past and present — and in several respects. As Tristan Reader, whom I have quoted previously, emphasizes:

Public Education — Educating the public about the cultural importance, artistic significance and hard work that goes into basketry is essential. Although basketry is perhaps the most universal craft/artform [sic] for indigenous people world-wide, it is one of the most undervalued. Thus educating the public is essential to creating marketing opportunities.

All who truly focus in the United States on the best of Tohono O'odham, Pomo, or Aleut basket-weaving understand immediately that they are witnessing not only technical competency of the highest magnitude, but also aesthetically compelling art that far exceeds the bounds of conventional “ethnography.” Moreover, these expressions of life, so much an extension and reflection of Native experience through time, are not some kind of quaint cultural residuum, a last gasp of dead or dying indigenous communities. They are, instead, statements, and boldly so, of living and contemporary traditions and continuing cultural development that refuse to be silenced.

My reference to living and contemporary traditions brings me to a second point concerning the roles of museums and basket-making. Arts and cultural institutions also must embrace and support the further innovations that occur in basket-weaving. While conceding, as they should, the importance of preserving and honoring historical and traditional basket-making forms, museums also must be willing to serve as a platform for, and, indeed, must protect the ability of basket-weavers to chart new paths. Basket-making, like all good art, is dynamic and continually responsive to new artistic stimuli.

As Tristan Reader points out:

In the early mid-twentieth century, Tohono O'odham saw a move from primarily willow and cattail baskets to those made from yucca and bear grass. This had to do with the scarcity of materials and the loss of traditional areas for harvesting materials. However, these new materials...are a solid part of the tradition of Tohono O'odham basketry and are harvested in the wild. In some ways this shift represents the “tradition of innovation” that characterizes Native artists.

Although no weavers utilize manufactured materials (such as raffia or other fiber products), a small group of contemporary basketry artists are creating new visions of basketry that incorporate everything from bronze to hand-blown glass. These contemporary visions are pushing the traditional boundaries of basketry, but are a part of the...[tradition] of innovation mentioned above.

Specific examples of the foregoing among contemporary Native American artists in the United States are abundant. As Eric Tack explains in an article entitled “Reweaving Tradition: New Trends in Contemporary Navajo Basketry,” which appeared in Native Peoples Magazine: “For most Native cultures, each generation contemporizes its artistic history and traditions, reaffirming current tastes of both the Native American and the larger world. Whether such interpretation derives from Navajo oral tradition, or emerges from a dream, or has its origin in some other artistic source, such ideas come to full fruition in the three-dimensional artistry of today's Navajo baskets.” For Tohono O'odham basket-weaver Terrol Dew Johnson, whose updated signature work includes cast bronze gourds festooned with braided bear grass, “The sky is the limit!” — as he proudly proclaims.

I have no problem confirming the often positive role that collectors and museums have played through the years in preserving and promoting the art of basketry. But the tendency has been to lock forms in place, which promotes a very static view of material culture and art that, ironically, the same people would never impose on non-indigenous art forms, and which often proceeds, at least psychologically I believe, from the popular perception of most indigenous cultures and their material manifestations as dead or dying. The National Museum of the American Indian considers itself among the forces of liberation for contemporary Native artistic expression and experimenting Native American artists.

Museums also can have a third impact on the continuing development of the Native art of basket-weaving, and it relates to the age-old, and highly constraining in the indigenous context, division between “high art” and “low art,” the latter often referred to simply as “craft” — and which always has included basket-weaving. I remember well my late artist-father's ire at and total rejection of this dividing line, which he considered a Western arts axiom that was a complete cultural shibboleth in Native America.

In his mind the ceramic artistry of the legendary Maria Martinez of the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the State of New Mexico was no different in Native cultural and artistic terms from the paintings and sculptures that he created. Indeed, he considered the contrary view some kind of non-Native chauvinistic plot, since the Native arts that ended up on the low end of the artistic totem pole, such as ceramics and baskets, almost always just happened to be created by women. And I agree with him: Native peoples in the United States do not rely on these kinds of false lines, and neither should the museums or other arts and cultural institutions that represent, hold, or sell their objects and art.

Education of the publics who visit the National Museum of the American Indian, which number in the millions annually, has very real and practical implications for artists who make baskets. Simply stated, those visitors come to appreciate, to see, and to pay for such art based on real rather than imagined or culturally inappropriate terms.

This allusion to economics brings me to the fourth and final point I would like to make about the role museums can play with respect to Native or indigenous arts such as basket-weaving — namely, Native arts and culture institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian should put their money where their mouth is.

The NMAI has done so, and in at least two important ways. First, its purchases of Native art and objects for its museum shops, including basketry, are never conducted through middle parties, dealers, or wholesalers, and, instead, is conducted directly with individual artists or through their collectives and cooperatives.

Second, when the National Museum of the American Indian opened its centerpiece building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in late 2004, its museum shops used an approach that was unprecedented in the history of such enterprises at the Smithsonian Institution. It quite intentionally created a shop that contained a “gallery” or “high-end” sector where the prices matched the quality of Native artistry represented in the objects being sold — and, in addition, the returns being paid to the creating Native artists.

Thus far this departure from the norm has created much success. I am never quite clear who does it, but visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian purchase, with some frequency, $15,000 pieces of Native jewelry and $6,000 baskets. In addition, the NMAI now enjoys, by a factor of almost 100 percent compared to the nearest competitor
among other Smithsonian museums, a favorable average purchase point and price in its museum shops.

So now we come to the end of our journey this morning through the enduring traditions of Native basketry across the terrains of both life and commerce — and I leave you with these two thoughts. First, I wish you great success in the commerce that results from indigenous artistry — it is appropriate, it is deserved, and it has been denied far too long. And I hope that I have suggested successfully ways in which your Native American brothers and sisters from the Americas have attempted to make their way through this often challenging territory.

But second and perhaps most important — hearken back with me now to that story about the California basket-maker, Mrs. Matt, and reflect on the substance and poetry of her statement. In creating and making the art we have, both for the ages past and for the present, we are, in the end and as Native people, not merely creating objects for commerce. We are, as we always have, also marking, for the world to see, to know, and to value, profoundly important pieces of our lives, our worlds, our experiences through time — ultimately, our realities. These acts, among the most significant for any human being, really are for us rather than for someone else in the end, and for that reason alone we must respect and treasure them always — for ourselves and as our legacy to those who will come after us.

W. Richard West, Jr. is director, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.