Murray Morgan

Although he grew up in Tacoma, Dale Chihuly was in his thirties before he first went to the Washington State Historical Museum on the bluff above the Tacoma waterfront and encountered the Indian baskets on the third floor. His friend Jamie Carpenter, a basketry buff, showed him the display pieces in the glass cases, then led him to the storeroom next to the museum’s library.

Opening the storeroom door, Chihuly found himself facing an impending avalanche of basketry—big baskets, little baskets, soft baskets and hard baskets, small baskets made to hang at the waist of berry pickers, big baskets to pour the picked berries into, tiny baskets to hold fish hooks, twenty-gallon baskets to hold fish oil, baskets for storing clothes, baskets for holding flour made from pounded dried salmon, baskets of unknown purpose.

Chihuly stared at them a long time. Like an Indian youth at the climax of his spirit quest, he felt some inexplicable connection with the baskets and through them with something universal. These old baskets, the worn tools of everyday life, outmoded, nested together in a man-made cave, spoke to him then and still do.

In Native American creation myths, Transformer walked the shore where land and water, idea and reality blended. As he moved through the mists, he turned spirit into being, giving name and purpose to all things, establishing relationships among plants and animals and mankind. The great bird that nested at the tops the of trees, fished at land’s edge and skimmed low and fast over salt water became Heron, spirit guide to the makers of canoes, most honored of the artisans. And Crow, The Gatherer, observant and loquacious, became spirit guide to the women whose skill turned tree and plant into basketry.

In the world as deduced by anthropologists, the earliest Americans on the Northwest Coast were making baskets when they still shared the land with the mammoth. Bits of twined basketry at least 9000 years old have been found in the vicinity of the Dalles on the Columbia River. Fibers being biodegradable, no traces of similar antiquity have been found on the wet side of the mountains, but some split-cedar roots woven into a cross-warp pattern go back to 2000 B.C. Research teams probing the site of a 3000-year-old fishing village at the mouth of the Hoko River five miles west of Sekiu on the Strait of Juan de Fuca have found a quartz crystal knife still hafted in its cedar handle, scores of wooden fishhooks, a gill net made of cedar root and parts of about 300 baskets carbon-dated as pre-Christian. Digs at the site of a 500-year-old village buried on the shore of the Pacific near Ozette show a culture that, long before contact with Europeans, had evolved to a point where the dwellings were as crowded with material goods as those of a middle-class American home today—and much better supplied with basketry.

In a culture devoid of pottery and poor in metal, the gathering and weaving of fiber was as important as fishing and hunting, integral to the warp and woof of community life. From birth to death, the coastal peoples were surrounded by basketry. A mother placed her new-born in a cedar basket, diapered it with shredded bark, wove a bark cape as its first clothing. Relatives laid their dead in open baskets to await burial or cremation.

Basketry figured in nearly every aspect of life. Women did much of their cooking by dropping hot stones into water-tight baskets. Drinking cups were woven. Baskets were used as hats: simple bowl-shaped gear for commoners, handsomely decorated hats topped with a spiked knob for distinguished whalers.

Much fishing gear was woven, not only the nets but basket traps to set atop weirs to catch leaping salmon, narrow funnels to be set at the end of side weirs into which fish would be herded by boys beating the water with branches, baskets shaped like cuspidors to be lowered into rocky coves to lure octopuses from their dark nooks. There were even special nets to string between trees to catch wildfowl.

The men who carved the great canoes communed with the chosen cedar tree before it was felled. The carver solicited its cooperation in the creation of an instrument of strength, beauty and speed. Women weavers, too, conversed with the spruce, alder, cedar and cherry trees whose roots they dug or bark they stripped for basket material. They thanked the plant for its contribution and promised to call again in season. At times they brought the finished basket to show the “donor.”

This tradition of respect for the material great nature offered the Indian was part of the received wisdom children absorbed with their mother’s milk. Young girls were introduced to the processes of basket-making from the time their eyes could focus. They were trained early in the basics of twining, coiling and plaiting and joined their mothers and grandmothers when they set out with digging sticks to uncover roots or went to the ponds and bogs to gather tules, maidenhair fern, skunk cabbage, cattails and nettles. They learned which grasses turned colors when dried. They knew purple stain could be made from horsetail root, yellow stain from Oregon grape root, black from the stems of maidenhair fern, and that red elderberry and purple huckleberry kept their natural colors when crushed.

Girls were taught early to split the grasses into thread with their fingernails, to separate layers of the inner bark of a cedar into thickness that could be divided with a sharp shell, to use scrapers and pounders to soften and spread strands for drying. All of this was part of growing up. It was at the onset of womanhood, when girls were confined in complete isolation to the menstrual lodge for periods ranging from one-to-eight months, depending upon the tribe, that they were expected to concentrate on perfecting their weaving skills. When they were returned to community life, they displayed the fruits of their labors. The best weavers were rewarded with praise and respect. Some were even relieved of other household duties and urged to concentrate on basketry.

Across centuries, each tribal group from the Columbia River north to Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet developed stylistic variations on a common theme. It was possible to tell from which group a basket came, sometimes from which weaver. Northwest Coast basketry was first noted by Europeans on July 20, 1741, when Georg Steller, a German scientist on a Russian exploration expedition led by the Dane Vitus Bering, went ashore on Kayak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. During his few hours on land, Steller uncovered a storage pit for bark baskets, containing smoked salmon, rolls of spruce bark, nettle stalks and strips of seaweed. His journal makes no reference to the workmanship of the baskets. Subsequent Russian voyages in the fur trade brought back Aleut, Tlingit and Eskimo basketry, examples of which are still on display in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

On July 19, 1774, a Spanish ship under Juan Perez, sent north from Mexico to learn what the Russians were doing, made contact with the Haida in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Perez noted in his diary that “they weave beautiful blankets, of which I acquired four…not large, but woven and wrought nicely.” Four years later Captain Cook’s two vessels spent a month on Vancouver Island, then followed the coast north. Cook’s officers collected a number of baskets that eventually found their way to museums in England, Ireland, Denmark and Switzerland. They also brought back word that the sea otter pelts, which could be obtained in trade with the Indians for trinkets of little value, could be sold in China for extraordinary sums. The fur trade soon became a fur rush. Vessels from Europe and the United States sailed around Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast and traded furs to be sold in China, from where they brought home cargoes of tea, silk and porcelain.

The maritime fur trade introduced the coastal Indians to metal utensils that replaced baskets and machine-spun cloth that supplanted hand-woven garments. They also brought new diseases, alcohol, firearms and an invasive culture that ate away at the old social fabric. Within a century the sea otter were all but gone, the tribes were wards of white governments and the great potlatch celebrations for which much weaving had been done outlawed. A few venerable women continued to create baskets for sale to tourists. Almost no young women wanted to learn the art.

In the late nineteenth century, museums began to realize that an entire culture was vanishing. They sent collectors to the Northwest Coast to gather remnants. Many fine pieces were “saved,” but survival meant being transported to distant centers for out-of-context display. Slowly, curators and students who fell under the spell of these extraordinary objects began to study the culture that had produced the carvings and the basketry and joined the Native American leaders in efforts to reconnect the life of the coastal peoples in a meaningful way with their old culture. Today a new generation of Indian women has returned to making baskets. And, Dale Chihuly, a modern “transformer,” is turning his memory of slumped baskets in a museum storeroom into a fresh statement of beauty through a miracle of modern alchemy.

Published in Chihuly Baskets. Portland Press, 1994.