The Diné Ceremonial Basket
BY VALERIE K. VERZUH
The Diné baskets generally known as “wedding baskets” are actually woven for use in many different ceremonies, including those for weddings and healing. The overall design is always broken at one point, allowing a pathway from the center of the basket to the rim; the rim finish (always finished with a plaited herringbone pattern) ends at the pathway. In Diné ceremonies the pathway is pointed towards the east.
Although the traditional wedding design originates with the Diné, the design is also woven by the San Juan Paiutes and Hopis. As a group of three baskets illustrates, the use of the same design indicates the close geographic and historical connections of these three tribes. San Juan Paiute weavers have traditionally made baskets with this design for sale or trade to the Diné. Hopi weavers originally wove small basketry plaques (about five inches in diameter) with this design to attach to the Konin kachina’s belt. Diné weaver Roy Kady has told me that baskets are carriers of songs and stories. He begins his reading of the ceremonial basket from the center, or belly button, which is the connection to the earth; the spiraling coil is a lifeline, which represents an individual’s life as seen in the whorls of their fingertips and hair; and the opening in the design is a path through which to acquire goodness.
When Ishowed two late nineteenth-century baskets to Kady, he identified them as Diné ceremonial baskets and the two-dimensional design, an open red crescent with radiating “flags,” as an earlier version of the present-day “wedding basket” design. The design, he suggested, is linked symbolically to three-dimensional headdresses, or crowns, worn by masked holy personages during Diné ceremonies. This connection is supported by the design of crowns dating to the late 1600s through the late 1700s in the collection of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. They are shallow basketry bowls with the bottoms and rims cut out. The outsides of the baskets are painted black and the insides are painted red. Faint geometric designs are visible on both surfaces. Radiating carved and painted wooden feathers (red, white, and black) attach to this interior red band and radiate into space, much in the same way as do two-dimensional flags on the red-crescent basket design. (Out of respect for Diné cultural sensitivities, these ceremonial crowns are not exhibited or photographed.)
Close geographical and historic connections may also be an explanation for this same design. When comparing Puebloan and Diné basket designs and weaving techniques, we can see that a strong connection developed over time between two cultural traditions. Archaeologist John Torres-Nez (Diné) links the ceremonial basket design to one found on Rosa Black-on-white pottery and in rock art created by Ancestral Puebloan artists prior to AD 900 in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. He suggests that when they settled this area no earlier than four centuries later and established their homelands (the Dinetah), Diné people encountered and were inspired to incorporate this design element into their work.
As highly mobile hunters and gatherers, the Diné left little behind to mark their presence on the landscape prior to this time. Because of this, our knowledge of their basket weaving materials and techniques prior to their contact with Puebloan culture is limited. The baskets used for the crowns are woven using the coiling technique on two-rod and bundle foundations, using sumac sewing strands; these are the attributes of the Diné baskets that weavers continue constructing today. These were also the materials and techniques used by Ancestral Puebloan basket weavers beginning as early 400 BC and continuing until at least 1800. These attributes, paired with use of the herringbone rim finish in both traditions, suggest a sharing of ideas between the two cultures.
Valerie K. Verzuh is curator of individually catalogued collections at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.