The Language of Native American Baskets
Introduction The Weavers' View Techniques, Tools & Workplaces The Weavers' Aesthetic Burden Baskets A Set of Values Basketmaking Associations
  “No one sat down ten years ago and said this is how it’s going to be. It all was out of struggle.”
—Theresa Hoffman, Penobscot, Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance
  Basketmaking associations

In addition to the challenge of marketing their work—a task they share with all artists—contemporary weavers deal with the scarcity of raw materials or their limited access to them, health risks from the use of pesticides and herbicides at plant-gathering sites, and the problem of non-Native people making and selling baskets as “Indian-made.”

Inspired by earlier 20th-century basketry groups, a handful of Native basketry organizations stepped forward in the early 1990s to address these concerns. These groups share the goal of promoting and perpetuating American Indian basketweaving. They work through public education and outreach programs, establishing working relations with public agencies, and, most notably, organizing yearly gatherings of basket-weavers. These gatherings include workshops, cultural demonstrations, and dancing. The public is invited for one or two days to watch the activities and purchase baskets.

Today, as in the past, each new generation of basket-makers learns from the generation before. The Passamaquoddy baskets from the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance illustrate this cultural inheritance. Sylvia Gabriel taught Gal Frey, and Gal taught her son Jeremy.

The handful of basketmaking associations highlighted here represent the growing number of such associations across North America.

California Indian Basketweavers Association

Founded in 1992
800 members

The California Indian Basketweavers Association’s mission is to preserve, promote, and perpetuate California Indian basket-weaving traditions while providing a healthy physical, social, spiritual, and economic environment for basket-weavers. We work to create a functioning network of basket-weavers who support one another in their gathering and weaving activities, and who pass our tradition to the next generation.

The California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA) formed largely out of a need to protect plant species used by Californian Indian basket-weavers. Historically, weavers in California returned each year to specific locations to gather basketry material, and the health of that land was a personal responsibility. In recent years private land ownership, development, and farming have restricted access to gathering sites.

Weavers also express concern that pesticides sometimes destroy the plants they use and jeopardize the health of the weavers who handle plants. In 1993, in response to pressure from CIBA, the California Department of Pesticides Regulation promised to test effects and longevity of pesticide residues. CIBA has also received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study pesticide issues in Northwest California.

Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance

Founded in 1993
115 members

The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance is a nonprofit, Native American arts service organization dedicated to preserving the ancient traditions of ash and sweet grass basketry among the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes in Maine. The goals supporting our mission are to expand markets for baskets in Maine and beyond; ensure a supply of high-quality brown ash and sweetgrass for present and future generations; and provide outreach, education, and apprenticeships to younger members of the tribes to ensure continuation of the traditions.

The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet have been selling their baskets to tourists, visitors, and farmers for more than 200 years. Like many of the basket-makers’ associations, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA) had its beginnings in intertribal gatherings of basket-makers who shared concerns about the endangered ash and sweetgrass basketry tradition.

In the early 1990s the Maine Arts Commission started an apprenticeship program that MIBA has continued for the past decade. Master weavers spend six months to a year teaching their apprentices how to prepare and dye basketry materials, as well as various weaving techniques. Recent MIBA-sponsored workshops combine Native language-speaking with basketry instruction. These programs reinforce other important cultural traditions, such as spending time with elders, and boost achievement and self-esteem. The apprenticeship program has doubled the number of Maine basket-makers, and some of its early students now make up a second generation of teachers. In an effort to support these basket-makers and encourage younger people to learn the art form, MIBA created the Wabanaki Art Center Gallery in Old Town, near Bangor, where members’ baskets are sold year-round.

Tohono O’odham Basketweavers Organization

Founded in 1996
More than 225 members

The Tohono O’odham Basketweavers Organization is dedicated to keeping basketry traditions vital. We work with more than 250 weavers to offer classes to teach weaving traditions and techniques on to a new generation of Tohono O’odham weavers; establish a cooperative that guarantees weavers access to markets and fair compensation for their artistry and hard work; and preserve access to traditional gathering sites and organize trips to gather weaving material.

Virtually all Indian basket-makers’ groups host a yearly gathering and market. The Tohono O’odham Basketweavers Organization (TOBO), under the umbrella group Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), boasts the largest convention, bringing together weavers from more than 20 different tribes. Intergenerational weaving circles are among the meeting’s highlights, as well as workshops that equip weavers with important marketing skills.

On the weekend, TOBO welcomes the public to its annual market. Proceeds from sales go directly to the artists. TOBO points out that selling baskets is an appropriate contribution to the economic development of O’odham communities, because it relays traditional knowledge of basketry and helps ensure cultural values. The weekend includes presentations of dancing, drumming, and singing that promote the public’s understanding of the cultural importance of baskets for Native communities.

Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association

Founded in 1996
600 voting and non-voting members

The Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association will preserve, promote and perpetuate the traditional and contemporary art of Northwest Native American basketry.

Great Basin Native Basketweavers Association

Founded in 1999
85 voting members

Our goal is to revive, enhance, and promote the traditional art of basketmaking handed down throughout the Great Basin Region.
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