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The ancient Native American art of basket weaving is undergoing a revival. A new exhibit at the Autry National Center of the American West brings together some of the finest traditional and modern examples of the art.
Baskets made of reeds and grass are found throughout the Americas, says Steven Karr, curator of history and culture at the Autry National Center. They have a practical use as containers for food or household objects, while woven hats and socks are used to protect the body. Ornately woven baskets have a role in ceremonies, and are offered as gifts. Some baskets are simply made to be admired, and are valued as works of art. Karr says examples of all kinds from the native cultures of North America can be seen in this exhibit.
"And it encompasses cultures from the Northeast, from as far east as Maine, up to Alaska, to the southeast in Louisiana, to the southwest in California, and everywhere in between," said Steven Karr.
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The exhibit is drawn from nearly 14,000 baskets in the collection of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Autry center. It is the world's largest collection of Native American baskets. Some are centuries old, and they are shown alongside the work of modern basket weavers.
June Pardue, an Alutiiq native American from the Kodiak Islands, Alaska, is one of 14 modern native weavers whose work is featured here. She started making baskets in 1964, after a major earthquake and tsunami destroyed her Alaskan village, and the family turned to baskets for added income.
"And it was the year after that that my mother got serious with me about basket weaving," said June Pardue. "I had already fallen in love with weaving because I was watching my mother as she was learning."
Like the generations before her, June uses traditional material materials, especially the beach grass that grows in the Kodiak Islands.
Carol Emarthle-Douglas represents the Seminole and Northern Arapaho tribes. The Seminoles are found in the southeastern state of Florida and to the west in Oklahoma, where many were forcibly relocated by the U.S. government in the 1840s. The Northern Arapaho are found in the Great Plains, especially Wyoming. Today, Carol lives in suburban Seattle, where it is hard to find the white willow that was used for traditional baskets, so she has adapted her art by using modern materials.
"I do coiling and it's hemp, which is the core, and I use wax linen thread, which is what I wrap the core with," said said Carol Emarthle-Douglas.
Traditional Indian baskets feature geometric patterns and images of animals and humans. A sample of Carol's work blends ancient and modern themes. It is a broad woven basket called Heritage and High Tech, and she says it reflects the lives of modern Native Americans, who live in two cultures.
"There's horses," she said. "There's people in their traditional regalia, but with a twist, and the twist is that they have their cell phones, they have their laptop, and kids have, of course, their Gameboy."
Carol did not learn basketry as a child. She was an adult living in Seattle and got involved with a native group that promotes the traditional art form. She became a master weaver, and then a teacher.
Her student, Darlene James, is a transplanted Native American from Northern California who now lives in Washington state. She is a member of the Kashaya Pomo tribe, and her mother was a weaver. She learned basketry as an adult, however, after attending a meeting of native basket weavers in California.
"And it inspired me to try to learn basket-making with natural materials that they use, and that the Pomos use, but it's hard to get it because, of course, I don't live in the area, and what we have in Washington is a little bit difference, so I've go to maybe improvise or maybe make lots of trips to California," said Darlene James.
Darlene has substituted hemp and wax linen for the sedge, willow and fern that were traditionally used by members of her tribe.
Basketry has changed to meet the needs of the marketplace. June Pardue says that in the early 19th century, when Russia ruled Alaska, native Alutiiq weavers adapted their style to the tastes of Russian collectors, weaving tiny, intricate baskets that the Russian collectors favored. Today Native American baskets of all sizes and shapes are valued as works of art, and can sell for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
These weavers say there is also a blend of tribal traditions asNative Americans from different parts of the United States move to other parts of the country, and come together for exhibitions like this one to share ideas and techniques.