Building a Better Basket: Quality Time With Master Weavers in Idaho

Photo by Jack McNeel / A weaver's busy hands at work on a cedar basket at the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association annual event.

Jack McNeel

Baskets and basket making supplies were seen on every table.

Master weavers and beginning weavers huddled intently. Youngsters were in another room, also learning this ancient craft, part of the culture of the tribes throughout the northwest. Judging by the hundreds that met for three days at the new Event Center, part of the Clearwater Casino on the Nez Perce Reservation, basket weaving is alive, well, and in good hands. Motel rooms had been sold out many days in advance of the October event.

It was all part of the 19th annual meeting of the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association (NNABA).

Ann McCormack, Nez Perce, was one of the founding members of the organization and served on the board for many years. She explained the mission of the organization is to perpetuate weaving. “It had been lost to some tribes or there were very few master weavers in the tribe. The way to reintroduce that was by having this gathering and teaching.”

Kits were made up by the master weavers, the teachers, which contained the necessary items for students to construct a basket in the style of the teacher. The students, many of them very good basket makers in their own right, paid a nominal fee to the teacher for the materials and the instruction. There were other tables where one might simply purchase materials for their own use: cedar strips, sweet grass, bear grass, raffia, etc.

Trudy Marcelley, one of the teachers from the Chehalis Tribe, pointed out that sweet grass is a critical component of Chehalis basketry. She explained it’s actually sedge with three sides, rather than round like medicinal sweet grass, and once grew from Canada to Mexico but now is found only at the mouth of the Chehalis River in a bird sanctuary. “We have only tribal access to it and really watch it and protect it. It used to be a gathering site for all the tribes in western Washington.”

Cedar basketry was the best-represented craft, with weavers from such tribes as the Muckleshoot, Makah, Squaxin Island, Samish, Lummi, Chehalis – and probably more. Other tables featured flat corn husk basketry from various Plateau Tribes. Jacquiline Rickard of the Walker River Paiute Tribe of northern Nevada was there with her gorgeous beaded pine needle basketry. Elaine Emerson, Colville, had a display of very fine baskets from her family. The list could go on and on.

McCormack added that for her the mission was to get weaving classes on a regular basis in her own community. “I just decided we’re going to set aside a time every week and never break from that tradition. Now we’re celebrating over 10 years since we established that. It works out beautifully in our community. It’s happening in other communities as well.”

Bud Lane, Siletz, and President of NNABA, demonstrated making natural dyes for coloring the various materials. “Yellow dye is from Oregon grape root,” he said. “Red is from alder. You cut the outer side of the alder off.” He explained the need to get it in a powder form and that it may take a long time to pound it up that well. Bud had a flat stone and a round pounder stone. “You need a good pounder,” he added.

People were there to teach or to learn but it’s also a time of socializing, meeting old friends and getting acquainted with new friends. Laughter was frequently heard and the hum of talking was continual. About thirty tribes were represented, and Saturday evening featured a dinner.