The Language of Native American Baskets
Introduction The Weavers' View Techniques, Tools & Workplaces The Weavers' Aesthetic Burden Baskets A Set of Values Basketmaking Associations
  “He was sitting by his campfire, listening to the star echoes. His burden basket rested upright against a pine.

“The voices inside the basket got pretty loud and disturbed Coyote.

“He stuck his head inside the basket and said, ‘You people be more quiet or I’m going to dump you out all over the world.’

“They didn’t make another sound for many, many eternities.”
— Peter Blue Cloud, Mohawk, from Elderberry Flute Song: Contemporary Coyote Tales

In earlier days, baskets accompanied Indian people throughout their lives. Babies were carried in baskets, meals were prepared and cooked in them, worldly goods were stored in them, and people were buried in them. As the scene described here by writer Peter Blue Cloud makes clear, many Native American people believe that baskets were not given to humankind during the Creation, but had already been part of the world for many eternities. Today, baskets serve as markers of cultural pride and inheritance. Some are used on religious occasions. And hundreds of weavers make baskets for sale.

I began this exhibition with the idea that we can understand baskets through the details of their making—the weavers’ view. This idea is based upon a knowledge of baskets gained through many years of conversations with weavers, observation, and hands-on learning. Understanding basketmaking as process offers a means to see the interrelation of conception, creation, and expression.

Objects for the exhibition were then preliminarily selected and laid-out and five Native basket-makers and one Native basketry scholar were invited to a two-day seminar to review the proposed contents and organization. While the basic outline of the exhibition remained constant, the consulting curators honed my ideas and choices. Above all, they wished to see more contemporary baskets on view. They wanted to make clear that basketry is a living art, and that the baskets in the Museum’s collections remain rooted in their cultures, no matter how long ago they were made, used, purchased, and removed from their communities.

To help illustrate this continuity, they each chose four baskets from the collections and paired them with baskets from their own or other Native basket-makers’ contemporary works. These juxtapositions, and my Native colleagues’ thoughts on what they tell us, are presented in “The Weavers’ View.” There is an intellectual and artistic replenishment that occurs when Native weavers look at baskets made by their ancestors. The exhibition, then, is about the continuing conversation of weaver to weaver through their art.

I am indebted to Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco–Tlingit), Theresa Hoffman (Penobscot), Terrol Johnson (Tohono O’odham), Julia Parker (Pomo), Sherrie Smith-Ferri (Dry Creek Pomo), and Lisa Telford (Haida), and to the many other weavers who have shared their ideas with me. Ann McMullen, of the NMAI curatorial department, has also contributed her knowledge and insights to this exhibition, in particular, adding her expertise in Arctic and eastern North American baskets.

—Bruce Bernstein, Assistant Director for Cultural Resources, National Museum of the American Indian