Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Basket-Making by Indians


[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information on Indian baskets, consult the Encyclopedia of North American Indians ]



Basketry, including wattling, matting, and bagging, may be defined as the primitive textile art. Its materials include nearly the whole series of North American textile plants, and the Indian women explored the tribal habitat for the best. Constant dig­ging in the same favourite spot for roots and the clearing away of useless plants about the chosen stems constituted a species of primitive agri­culture. They knew the time and seasons for gathering, how to harvest, dry, preserve, and prepare the tough and pliable parts for use and to reject the brittle, and in what way to com­bine different plants with a view to the union of beauty and strength in the product. The tools and apparatus of the basket-maker, who was nearly always a woman, were most skilful fingers, aided by finger nails for gauge, teeth for a third hand or for nippers, a stone knife, a bone awl, and polishers of shell or gritty stone. She knew a multitude of dyes, and in some instances the bark was chewed and the splint drawn between the lips. In later times knives, awls, scissors, and other utensils and tools of steel were added. In its technic basketry is divided into two species - woven and coiled. Woven basketry has warp and weft, and leads up to loom work in softer materials. Of this species there are the following varieties: Checkerwork, in which the warp and weft pass over and under one another singly and are indistinguishable; twilled work, in which each element of the weft passes over and then under two or more warp elements, producing by varying width and colour an endless variety of effects; wickerwork, in which the warp of one larger or two or more smaller elements is inflexible, and the bending is done in the weft; wrapped work, wherein the warp is not flexed, and the weft, in passing a warp element, is wrapped once around it, varied by drawing both warp and weft tight so as to form half of a square knot; twined work, in which the warp is not bent and the weft is made up of two or more elements, one of them passing behind each warp element as the weaving progresses. Of this last variety there are many styles - plain twined, twilled twined, crossed or divided warp with twined work, wrapped, or bird-cage weaving, three-strand twining after several methods, and three-strand braid. Coiled basketry is not weaving, but sewing, and leads up to point lace. The work is done by sewing or whipping together, in a flat or ascending coil, a continuous foundation of rod, splint, shredded fibre, or grass, and it receives various names from the kinds of foundation employed and the manner of applying the stitches; or the sewing may form genuine lace work of interlocking stitches without foundation. In coiled work in which a foundation is used the interlocking stitches pass either above, through, or quite under the foundation. Of coiled basketry there are the following varieties: Coiled work without foundation; simple interlocking coils with foundation; single-rod foundation; two-rod foundation; rod-and-splint foundation; two-rod-and-splint foundation; three-rod foundation; splint foundation; grass-coil foundation; and Fuegian stitches, identical with the buttonhole stitch. By using choice materials, or by adding pitch or other resinous substance, baskets were made water-tight for holding or carrying water for cooking.


The chief use of baskets is as receptacles, hence every activity of the Indians was associated with this art. Basket work was employed, moreover, in fences, game drives, weirs, houses, shields, clothing, cradles, for harvesting, and for the disposal of the dead. This art is interesting, not only on account of the technical processes employed, the great delicacy of technic, and the infinite number of purposes that it serves, but on account of the ornamentation, which is effected by dyeing, using materials of different colours, overlaying, beading, and plaiting, besides great variety in form and technic. This is always added in connection with the weaving or sewing, and is further increased with decorative beads, shells, and feathers. In forms, basketry varies from flat wattling, as in gambling and bread plaques, through trays, bowls, pots, cones, jars, and cylinders, to the exquisite California art work. The geometric forms of decussations and stitches gave a mosaic or conventional appearance to all decoration. The motives in ornamentation were various. No doubt a sense for beauty in articles of use and a desire to awaken admiration and envy in others were uppermost. Imitation of pretty objects in nature, such as snake-skins, and designs used by other tribes, were naturally suggested. Such designs pass over into the realms of symbolism and religion. This is now alive and in full vigour among the Hopi of Arizona. The Indian women have left the best witness of what they could do in handiwork and expression in their basketry. In E. United States almost all of the old-fashioned methods of basket making have passed away, but, by taking impressions of pottery, Holmes has been able to reconstruct the ancient processes, showing that they did not differ in the least from those now extant in the tribes W. of the Rocky mts. In the southern states the existence of pliable cane made possible twilled weaving, which may still be found among the Cherokee and the tribes of Louisiana . The Athapascan tribes in the interior of Alaska made coiled basketry from the roots of evergreen trees. The [Inuit] about Bering str. manufactured both woven mattings and wallets and coiled basketry of pliable grass. The Aleutian islanders are now among the most refined artisans in twined work. South of them the Tlingit and the Haida also practise twined work only. From British Columbia , beginning with the Salishan tribes, southward to the borders of Mexico , the greatest variety of basket making in every style of weaving is practiced.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 56-57.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College