WORLEY, Idaho – Native basket weavers from throughout the Northwest recently met at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort and Hotel for the annual gathering of the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association. This marked the 12th year in which the association has met, alternating every two years between sites east and west of the Cascades.
Laura Wong-Whitebear, Colville, is president, now in her fifth year. She explained the importance of this gathering that allows weavers to get together to exchange ideas, learn from one another, meet and welcome new members, and keep the tradition of basket weaving alive. She related her first meeting, nine years ago: “There were baskets from all over and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she laughed. “That’s the feeling you get.”
“What I really like is that you get to meet weavers from many areas,” Wong-Whitebear said. “I originally became a board member to get to know these people better. I love to sit down with the elders to find out who taught them. They have a lot of wisdom to pass on.”
The gathering lasted three days, with the first day devoted to the weavers themselves. “This is their day to teach and pass on the culture,” Wong-Whitebear explained. “Weavers teaching weavers” was one session amid panel presentations and youth classes. “It’s real important to us that our youth can carry on the traditions.”
One session dealt with how to price one’s work. Weavers were encouraged to keep track of time spent gathering material and mileage incurred in doing that. That time should include that spent in weaving and preparing materials for weaving, plus the time in which family members help. Wong-Whitebear pointed out that the more noted weavers and some of the elders can command good prices, but many weavers will find they are working for minimum wage when all the time and expenses involved are computed.
Following an evening reception, a fashion show was hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Wilma Bob, Coeur d’Alene, was chairman for this year’s gathering and it was her idea to hold a fashion show – the first time such an event has been held in conjunction with the basket weavers group. The show featured items dating to the 1800s and recently made items. Some models were clothed in full traditional regalia and ranged down to others carrying small baskets. Some were strictly for display to show old or cherished items and others would be for sale later during the weekend.
Bob had tried to get this group to meet on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation for past three years. “They finally let me have it,” she laughed. “It’s the first time it’s been this far and we have a huge crowd, much larger than we’d planned for.”
The second day was an open market where visitors could purchase baskets, and the gathering concluded with a traditional dinner and silent auction. Lots of ideas were exchanged and instruction given in between. Small groups of weavers sat together working on a similar style of basket while a master weaver of that style assisted. Different people occasionally took the microphone to relate a story or introduce a newcomer, and applause frequently echoed in the room when someone finished a basket.
At first, the organization was primarily a group from the Puget Sound area and comprised mostly of women. The only male in the group was the nationally recognized
artist and spiritual leader Bruce Miller, known as Sibiyay, from the Skokomish Tribe. Nettie Jackson, Yakama, one of the master weavers, created a large cedar and bear grass basket showing women encircling the top plus one man; and that logo basket is brought and displayed each year at the annual gathering in commemoration of the original group. These master weavers have their attendance expenses paid, and each year 35 weavers are selected as master weavers.
Membership in NNABA now stands in excess of 600 members. On the first day of the gathering, all 500 name tag packets had been given away and more members arrived the following day. That total included family members as well. Wong-Whitebear commented, “It’s safe to say that we had 300 active members here, roughly half the total membership.”