Baskets are one of the oldest known forms of Native American art and, today, one of the most valuable and widely collected. For centuries, Native American cultures have made baskets in a wide variety of forms and styles and used them for carrying, serving, storage and more. In addition to their utilitarian value, baskets were also appreciated for their incredible beauty, and skill in basket-making was a source of pride for Native communities. In the Southwest, baskets were often made from sumac, willow or yucca in both coiled and woven styles. The Hopi, Apache, Tohono O’Odham and Navajo are most known for their basketry, and today many skilled artists from these cultures create exquisite traditional baskets using all-natural plant fibers and methods passed down from their ancestors. Basketry remains a diverse Native American art form as artists create pieces with a variety of contemporary and traditional designs, carrying on an important legacy in their timeless works of art.
The art of basket-making has been practiced by generations of Hopi women. In Hopi culture, they are used for both ceremonial and everyday functions and are made in much the same way today as they were centuries ago. There are three techniques for making Hopi baskets: wicker, plaiting and coiling. The wicker and coil methods are used to create plaque and bowl baskets, while plaiting is generally used to make trays. Wicker baskets are usually made from sumac and rabbit brush, plaited baskets from sumac and dune brush, and coiled baskets from rabbit brush and yucca. In all three techniques, plant fibers are wrapped around a central stem of bundled plant fiber. In their baskets, Hopi artists create complex geometric patterns and beautiful designs in yellow, red and black hues that come from natural and synthetic dyes. Baskets are used to hold food, prayers sticks, prayer feathers, and as decoration in the home, and they also play an important role in weddings and dances. A revered art form passed down from their ancestors, baskets continue to play an important cultural role in Hopi life.
The Apache have a long history of basket-making, and it is one of the most celebrated art forms in their culture. In the past they created many types of baskets, including trays, ollas, bowls and burden baskets, and used these in all aspects of daily life. The most common style of Apache basket today is the burden basket, a cone-shaped basket with a flat or round bottom. Usually, the rim of the basket is wrapped in buckskin and strips of buckskin with tin tips hang from the basket’s body. Most also come with a carry strap. Historically, the Apache were a nomadic people, and burden baskets were an efficient tool for collecting and carrying food. They are made from all-natural fibers, including devil’s claw, willow and yucca root, and an artist constructs them by wrapping fibers around a central core of plant fiber. Most feature beautiful designs including geometric forms, animals motifs or cultural symbols. Today, burden baskets are made to be enjoyed in the home and are also used in some Apache ceremonies. Traditionally, they are hung just outside the entrance to a home, to represent leaving one’s burdens at the door before entering. Many contemporary Apache artists create exquisite handcrafted burden baskets in a variety of sizes, celebrating and honoring the Apache tradition of basket-making.
Basketry is a centuries-old Navajo craft that is still practiced and celebrated today. The Navajo used baskets for a wide variety of everyday functions such as storing food, as well as ceremonial purposes, the most well known being wedding ceremonies. Traditional Navajo baskets feature black and red bands or triangular patterns and a braided rim. Usually, the artist would leave an opening, or spirit line, in the banded design. To make a basket, the artist creates long laces of sumac, willow or yucca by hand then weaves the basket in concentric circles from the center, alternating the laces to create patterns in the design. In recent decades, a group of Navajo weavers led by Mary Black and her family have revitalized Navajo basketry by embracing contemporary designs and incorporating Navajo symbols and vibrant colors not traditionally used in baskets. Today, Navajo basketry is an art form known for its incredible innovation and creativity as artists update an ancient craft with their unique contemporary vision.