By Valerie K Verzuh
North American Indian baskets are cultural histories—documents of the aesthetics, beliefs, lifestyles, natural environment, and technologies of the people who made and used them. These unique baskets are producible and fully comprehensible only within the social context of the weavers. Just as words take on unique meanings within sentences, baskets take on unique meanings within their social contexts. When anthropologist Deborah Neff collaborated with Tohono O’odham basket weaver Frances Manuel on her life history, Neff recognized that in order to understand something from another world we have to try and step outside our taken-for-granted realities and work on understanding difference. This means that because baskets are derived from and maintained by social interactions, and are not solely a consequence of utility, their forms and meanings are contingent on social and historical processes.
Like each basket, Woven Identities is an exploration of both the concrete and conceptual; it is a study of how weavers have worked with the utilitarian and aesthetic attributes of baskets for centuries to create both functional and cultural art forms. When the baskets included in this catalogue were first collected, little to no information about them was recorded—we know few of the weavers’ names, we have few of their words. Nonetheless, each basket has a woven identity, and all tell a story if you know the right questions to ask. Museums exist to collect objects as one means of understanding and documenting people, events, places, and times. We study peoples’ material culture to learn who they were and how they lived. When exhibiting and representing the lives of peoples with oral cultures—where no written record exists from the point of view of a cultural insider—the histories baskets hold become especially significant. We deduce the identity of each basket—where it was made, when it was made, who made it, who it was made for, and why it was made—by “reading” its individual characteristics.
To understand the language of a basket and to reveal its woven identity, we study five principal traits: materials, construction techniques, form, function, and two-dimensional design and ornamentation. By identifying the materials used in a basket and then determining the geographical availability of those plants, we can establish where the weaver lived and can begin to assign a tribal provenance. For construction, we know that weavers chose techniques based on tribal tradition, personal choice, and the basket’s intended use. When determining the form and size of the basket, function drove these attributes, but so did the social milieu in which it was made. Finally, two-dimensional design motifs and the ways they are combined, as well as their subject, are socially determined and thus tend to be unique to each individual tribe.
Excerpted from the introduction to the Museum of New Mexico Press book, Woven Identities: Basketry Art of Western North America, by Valerie K. Verzuh. Clothbound, 220 pages, 180 color and 55 black-and-white images, $34.95. This and other publications by the Museum of New Mexico Press are available at bookstores and museum shops, including the Museum of New Mexico Foundation Shops in Santa Fe, or by calling 800-249-7737, or at mnmpress.org. This book accompanies an exhibition of the same name on view at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture through February 23, 2014.