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Baskets Tell the Story at Santa Fe Museum

An ongoing major cultural exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, New Mexico, delves deeper into basket making and how it plays a significant role in the lives of American Indians today and in the past.

“Every basket has a distinct identity—a woven identity that reveals its origins,” said Valerie Verzuh, curator of the exhibit aptly called “Woven Identities,” on view through May 1, 2014.

This is the first time in over 30 years that the Museum is showing a comprehensive collection. On exhibit are baskets woven by artists representing 60 tribes in six culture areas of Western North America—The Southwest, Great Basin, Plateau, California, the Northwest Coast and the Arctic.

The Museum, off Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe, is the repository of Native Art and material culture and tells the story of the people of the Southwest. Currently showing, alongside “Woven Identities,” are exhibits on saddle blankets and paintings of Margarete Bagshaw.

There are a total of 241 baskets on display, but only 45 have been attributed to individual artists. This, according to Verzuh, is because at the time the baskets were collected for the exhibition there was hardly any information about the weavers’ names.

“Nonetheless, each basket has a woven identity. We deduce the identity of each basket—where it was made, when it was made, who made it, who it was made for, why it was made—by reading its individual characteristics,” she said.

Five things—material, construction, form, design and utility—give clues to the identity of each basket. “All objects tell a story, if you know the right questions to ask,” Verzuh said.

By identifying the materials used and determining the geographic availability of plant resources used in the construction, one can learn where the artist lived and his/her tribal roots.

On view are baskets made from wrapped twine, corn husk, roots, rhizomes, stems, branches, leaves, grass and cedar barks. Among the techniques used are false embroidery, cross weave, plaiting and coiling.

Observing the shape of the basket and design can tell a lot about when the artist made the piece. “The designs on the baskets in Woven Identities are abstract or representational, narrative or decorative,” said Verzuh.

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One of the oldest pieces on view is the “Ancestral Pueblo” baskets (ca.1150). Verzuh said the baskets are in pristine condition because someone, over 800 years ago, carefully stored them in a pit lined with sandstone slabs, covered and seated.

The baskets were part of a group looted from an Ancestral Pueblo site in Southern Utah in the 1980s, said Verzuh.

Part of the Museum collection, “Tray,” dates back from (1890,) identified as Cahuilla. The artist, who is unknown, made the tray by coiling it and used deergrass bundle and wove it with sumac shoots and juncus stalk.

Other objects on display include “Work Basket,” (1902,) from an unknown artist believed to be Pomo, who used hazelnut rods in the construction; and “Carrying Basket,” (1925,) from an unknown artist representing San Carlos Apache. The latter artist used cottonwood rods and constructed the basket using plain, diagonal and three-strand twining techniques.

“The late nineteenth century was a significant turning point in the lives of North American Indians,” said Verzuh, noting that by the 1880s when the tribes were relocated on reservations and mass-produced household wares were readily available in the market, utilitarian baskets became obsolete.

In the earlier years, baskets were not always decorative or artistic. They were used for harvesting, carrying and storing food. They were kitchen utensils for food processing and preparation, cooking and serving, said Verzuh.

From being serviceable, baskets evolved to servicing another market—that of the commissioned dealers, collectors and museums and the eccentric and “trinket” baskets that appealed to tourists and casual collectors.

This new market, Verzuh said, required a high quality of workmanship from the artists.

“For dealers in fine arts, collectors, and museums, the indigenous baskets they collected had to be ‘culturally real and meaningful,’ and not a product,” Verzuh said.

If in the past the art of basket making was fully integrated to everyday community living, today the art has become an act of devotion done in between times when all other obligations are met, said Verzuh.

“Change does not always mean that a culture or cultural practice has been destroyed by modernism and is degrading or dying out—modernization is not synonymous with cultural loss. Basket weaving is always transforming to fit the changing cultural obligations of the weavers and their communities,” Verzuh said.