An Intricate Weaving together of Arts & Culture – Native American Basketry
Faith Kreskey, the exhibit curator and Heather Kliever, the education curator at the Lane County Historical Museum put their heads together to come up with a new exhibit on Native American basketry.
The exhibit curator, Heather Kliever is a basket weaver herself and she comes from the heritage of Tututni, which made it quite natural for her to suggest the exhibit, says Kreskey. Her paternal side of the family may be Dutch, but it was the Native American heritage of her maternal side of the family piqued her interest in the art, crafts and the entrepreneurial aspects of Native American basketry. The interest she took in it was so deep that she took it to devote her master’s thesis to the topic – “A Case Study of Fancy Dance Caps of the Lower Klamath River”.
Kliever talks about the relationship between Native American dance hats and the intricate art of basketry on a humorous under note. She describes her experiences of visiting shows displaying Native American baskets where the dance hats have sometimes been displayed upside down and marked as ‘Native American bowls’. There are times when she has corrected them, only to meet with an indifference.
One of the things that really sets the dance hats apart from bowls or other kinds of baskets is that the top part is covered by a woven pattern; this is because often the spectators who are witnessing the performances tend to sit above the dancers and look down at the performances.
Those that aren’t familiar with the art of basketry may consider this intricate Native American art as primitive, but nothing could be further from the truth, says Kliever. It, in fact is up there with all other kinds of art and enjoys the same status. The artisans or the artists who practice this art first need to understand the weather cycle, the life cycle of the plant, to understand how and when to collect the materials without tipping the natural balance.
Next the artist needs to acquaint oneself with the properties of each plant to design and use the proper material for proper sections. For white or yellow sections often they use Beargrass, the glossy black sections are built with the stem of Maidenhair fern and a reddish brown dye may be collected from certain parts of white alder.
A keen understanding of the three dimensions and spatial relationships and a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics is imperative for a skilled basketry artist. There is a certain set of skills and intellect required to understand how to adjust the pattern as per the intended circumference or the changes in it as per the required shape while ensuring that the geometric pattern stays intact.
What is interesting is that the Native Americans employed this art not just to create sturdy practical baskets, but quickly used it to their entrepreneurial advantage as the white culture slowly spread to their areas. This fact is fortified by the presence of certain articles in the museums.
A particular basket that has the shape of an arrow woven into it could not possibly have been made for their own use, but to attract prospective buyers among the white tourists, as was the basket that had woven in it the letter “z”.
As they stepped into the 20th century some of these artists began to draw their inspiration from the material culture of the whites and began to diverge from the authentic motifs and patterns to make them more salable. This was done with the intent to cater to the target consumer who was white who made a halt in the local towns during their travels towards east or the west railroads.
According to Bob Hart, the museum director, this, in fact represented a great irony. There was a Social Darwinism of sorts at play here, he says. The culture that was dominant first advocated and employed the “survival of the fittest” theory, and turned around midway of destroying to actually try and save it. The Native culture, meanwhile was intentionally changing and evolving in its own manner to make their produce salable to the said dominating culture in an effort to save themselves.