Native American Basket Making

The Native American Native Americans have made basketwork since at least c. 9000 BC. By c. 8000
BC they had invented the three basic basket-making techniques: twining, the oldest, comprises single
or double wefts twisted around a group of warps; plaiting is done by weaving splints or stems over and
under each other; and coiling is done with bundles of fibers or sticks bent into a spiral, then wrapped
and sewn together with finer splints.

Northwest Coast Native American Basketry
Native American women of the Northwest Coast developed different approaches to basketwork
design within three major traditions: plaited basketry, twined basketry and coiled basketry. The
continuity of traditions between 18th-century and 19th-century baskets indicates that basketwork
was highly conservative.

                  Northwest Native American Basket

Nonetheless, the late 19th century and the early 20th century were times of considerable innovation
and experimentation with new materials, techniques and forms. In several regions contemporary
basket-makers continue to work innovatively in long-established traditions.

Geometric design, executed within an essentially rectangular format, is characteristic of all regions
of the coast and developed particularly on plaited bark baskets and mats.

The basketwork of the Haida and Kwakiutl features design based on optical illusion without added
color, although Haida women also made mats with geometric designs in black and red . The repertory
of geometric motifs is substantial, with some variation from one region to another.

 Salish Indian Basket                                                                 Haida Indian Basket  

Contemporary Coast Salish Native Americans recognize the geometric motifs of cedar-root coiled
basketwork as part of their heritage. Originally an Interior Salish tradition, coiled baskets have
been found in Coast Salish homes for generations.

Interior Salish basketwork design is complex, with a large repertory of geometric motifs, the
composition of motifs and designs governed by rules concerning the alternation of color and spacing,
and regionally distinct approaches to the definition of the design field. A Coast Salish style,
developed in the 19th century, has, as a distinctive decorative feature, representative motifs in
black or red, each built from several narrow decorative strips placed against a single coil.


G. T. Emmons: ‘The Basketry of the Tlingit’, Mem. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., iii (1903), pp. 229–77

F. Boas: ‘The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island’, Mem. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., v/2 (1909), pp. 389–90

F. W. Porter, III, ed.: The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy (New York, 1990)

California and Western Native American Basketry
Baskets were created for the care and protection of the family. They are particularly associated
with food and may be involved in all stages of procurement, processing, storage, cooking, serving and
eating. For example, in California the acorn formed the staple food, and baskets were developed to
gather the nut, grind, sift, leach and store the flour, cook it into mush, and serve and eat it.

Great Basin Native Americans relied instead on the piņon nut, which does not require leaching, and
developed a similar repertory of food baskets with the addition of trays for parching the nut. The
protective and nurturing role of baskets extends to their use as caps and baby carriers.
                                                Early California Baskets

Designs in California and Far West basketwork are created primarily by variation in color, using
naturally contrasting plant fibres, dyed materials or both. Because the basket is woven in an
inexorable spiral from centre to rim, it is not possible to complete a color area at one time, as in
tapestry weaving. The weaver must break off one material and shift to material of contrasting color
according to the dictates of the pattern.

The design may be created either by the weft material or by an overlay that is carried
simultaneously with it. In coiling, the delineation of design with overlay materials is usually called
imbrication and is characteristic of the coiled basket-weaving groups spanning the US–Canadian
border. The use of overlay for design in twining, often called false embroidery, is prominent in
northern California and the Northwest Coast.

Historically, the most elaborate schemes of ornamentation developed in the valleys and coastal
regions of California, where a beneficent environment fostered larger and less nomadic populations
with more leisure time and opportunity for social interaction. The contrasting simplicity of
ornamentation among Great Basin tribes before the development of the curio trade correlates with
the region’s harsher environment, which limited population and required much more mobility in the
seasonal round.

Individual elements of design, which were generally named for the sake of verbal communication, are
well-recorded in the anthropological literature (e.g. Kroeber). Some enthusiasts ignored the weavers’
denial of literal meaning and postulated that the motifs formed the vocabulary of a symbolic system.
They assumed that basketwork designs were abstractions of natural forms and thus expressed
symbolism in the same way as the representational design of men’s ritual arts of North America

Bright colors and reflective surfaces suggest well-being, while ordered symmetry and the
interlocking of light and dark suggest harmony with the structure of the universe. Both elements
function on the principle of sympathetic magic to protect and preserve whatever the baskets contain.

Southwestern Native American Basketry
The Native Americans of the circum-Pueblo region also make many kinds of basket. Most of them are
coiled on slender sticks or rods—usually three—and sewn with strands of willow or sumac. The
Havasupais, Walapais, Yavapais and Chemehuevis decorated their bowls and vase-forms with
geometric designs of black ‘devil’s claws’, a technique used also by the Western Apaches.

The beautiful baskets the Apaches made until the mid-20th century were covered with geometric
patterns and figures of Native Americans and animals. They also made twined baskets: squat jars
with flat rims by the Walapais; fine conical carriers and water jars by all groups; and bucket-shaped
burden baskets by the Apaches.  
                                                   Western Apache Baskets

Although coiling almost disappeared among the Apaches, twining survived because the twined burden
baskets were used ceremonially. By the 1990s their chief products were conical twined baskets from
c. 1 m in height to miniature baskets used on earrings. The Cibecue Apaches in particular still twine
water jars and cover them with melted pine gum.

The Eastern Apaches of New Mexico formerly made distinctive baskets. The northern Jicarilla
Apaches produce stout baskets coiled with three or five rods and sewn with sumac splints. They are
brightly colored with aniline and vegetable dyes and are important in the economic life of many
families. Large shallow bowls are the commonest shapes, and they also make unique water bottles,
coated white and sealed only on the inside surface.

The Mescalero Apaches of southern New Mexico once made a unique type, coiled with two stacked
rods and a bundle of fiber, and sewn with tan yucca splints. Their broad bowls and covered ‘boxes’ are
no longer produced.

The Apaches’ linguistic relatives, the Navajos, learnt from the early Pueblo Native Americans to
make baskets with two-rod and bundle coils, but they stopped making them before the start of the
20th century to concentrate on weaving rugs.

Nevertheless, because baskets were important in many Navajo rituals, they turned their basketwork
needs over to the Great Basin San Juan Paiutes, who, from that time on, produced most of the
famous ‘Navajo wedding baskets’, the shallow bowls, with encircling red bands with black terraced
triangles along each edge, that are used in ceremonies to hold corn meal and/or pollen.

             Paiute Native American Basket

In the 1970s these Paiutes and the Navajos produced a notable renaissance of basket-making. Both
groups began to produce coiled baskets of varied sizes, decorated with an eclectic assortment of
colored designs: crosses, butterflies, yei figures (the highly stylized human figures representing
supernatural spirits that are used in sand paintings) and other attractive patterns that have made
their creations an economic success.

B. Robinson: The Basket Weavers of Arizona (Albuquerque, 1954)

J. M. Adavasio: Basketry Technology: A Guide to Identification and Analysis (Chicago, 1977)

C. L. Tanner: Indian Baskets of the Southwest (Tucson, 1983)

Woven Wonders: Southwest American Indian Basketry, Logan, UT State U., Nora Eccles Harrison
Mus. A. (Logan, 1995)

Eastern Woodlands Native American Basketry
Woodlands region lidded basket of river-cane, l. 500 mm, Cherokee,…Basketwork is of considerable
antiquity in the Woodlands. The earliest evidence for plaiting probably dates to before 8000 BC;
coiling (limited to the southern Plains, where it was introduced from the Southwest and twining were
practiced by the 1st millennium BC at the latest. Plaiting is the most widespread type of basketwork
in the Woodlands.

In the Southeast, river-cane splints of equal width were generally twilled to produce a wide range of
shapes, from shallow winnowing trays to voluminous pack baskets. Besides simple single weaves, there
were double-woven baskets consisting of two layers of warps and wefts showing different patterns
on the inside and outside. Geometric designs were produced by using black, red (rarely orange and
yellow) and natural-colored splints.

While most of these patterns were rectilinear, the complex curvilinear patterns used by the
Chitimacha and their neighbors transcended the limitations of the technique.

The plaited wickerwork practiced by the Cherokee and Virginia Algonquians using honeysuckle or
buckbrush vines as wefts over rigid warps is of late 19th-century origin. Although inspired by their
Euro-American neighbors, the craft was independently developed by Native American makers, for
example in the double-woven root-runner baskets of the Oklahoma Cherokee.

The basket above left was made by present day Cherokee basket maker, Peggy Brennan.
The two on the right were made in the 19th century. Sweetgrass and sweetgrass braids are used
with woodsplint warps by the Cherokee and some of their neighbors for plaited wickerwork. Twilled
burden baskets of strips of willow and box-elder bark (sometimes also leather) were plaited by the
sedentary Native Americans of the Upper Missouri, exhibiting a limited number of simple geometric,
two-color patterns of diamonds, zigzags and other motifs.

F. G. Speck: Decorative Art and Basketry of the Cherokee, Milwaukee Public Museum Bulletin, ii/2
(Milwaukee, 1920)

M. Lismer: Seneca Splint Basketry (Washington, DC, 1941)

C. Field: The Art and Romance of Indian Basketry (Tulsa, 1964)

M. Dean and A. Billiot: ‘Palmetto and Spanish Moss Weaving’, Amer. Ind. Crafts & Cult., viii/2 (1974),
pp. 14–17

A. McMullen and R. G. Handsman: A Key into the Language of Woodsplint Baskets (Washington, CT,

D. Downs: ‘Contemporary Florida Indian Patchwork and Baskets’, Amer. Ind. A., xic/4 (1990), pp. 56–
Native Americans: Culture, Art, Jewelry and Pottery