The Language of Native American Baskets
Introduction The Weavers' View Techniques, Tools & Workplaces The Weavers' Aesthetic Burden Baskets A Set of Values Basketmaking Associations
  “There’s a reason for the huckleberry-pail’s shape. Huckleberries are soft, and so if the basket were cylindrical, the berries on the bottom would be crushed. If you look at the physics, the cone shape gives even distribution of the weight outwards, so the berries on the bottom don’t get crushed.”
—Pat Courtney Gold
  Burden baskets

Sometimes we overlook burden baskets—perhaps the simplicity of their function blinds us to their beauty. Many Indian people share the idea of using baskets to carry loads, but the baskets they make vary in shape, size, color, design, and weave. Although all burden baskets are straightforward and similar in use, each tribe makes them in a unique and identifiable style. Elements that appear to be ornamental are often functional—the tin cones attached to Apache burden baskets that tinkle and ring as the wearer walks, warning away snakes. Other baskets, too, would not work as well if certain design elements were not woven into them. Burden baskets may be carried in nets, or by woven, leather, or rope shoulder straps or tumplines, straps worn across the chest or forehead. A basket’s conical shape conforms wonderfully to a wearer’s back, evenly distributing the load’s weight. They may be made in a closed (tightly spaced) weave—plaiting, twining, wicker, or coiling—or in open twining or wicker, depending on their use.

Open burden baskets

Indian people all over North America make open-weave burden baskets. Woven by both men and women, often quite quickly, they are used to carry loads of food and firewood, as well as personal belongings. A Pima basket-maker gathering piñon wood may weave an open burden basket on the spot. Along the Northwest Coast, clamming baskets are made in open weave to allow water to drain from the clams before they are carried home.

Closed burden baskets

In the past, some Indian people harvested grass seed and other grains by loosening the seed with a seed beater and catching it in a tightly woven burden basket held in the other hand. Southeastern Indian basket-makers designed carrying baskets to bear the weight of garden produce and comfortably fit the curves of the human body. Native people of the Plains usually relied on containers of leather and hide, but women of the Upper Missouri River tribes bent wooden frames to create strong baskets to carry firewood, garden produce, and personal belongings.
In the Southwest, closely woven baskets with narrow necks were made to carry water. Burden baskets are still used in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere to collect berries. The picker fills a quart-sized basket worn on the waist or hip, then empties it into a larger basket worn on her back.

Hats and small burden baskets

Burden baskets come in all sizes. Smaller baskets worn over the shoulder, around the neck, or at the hip were made to collect berries or seeds or carry food and other small items. Women from some Native groups wore basketry hats to cushion the weight of the tumpline on their forehead. Some of these hats could double as personal food bowls as well.
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