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Native American Basket Weavers Showcased on National Mall

Before there were plastic bags, cloth sacks and iron pots, there were woven baskets, and they are in the spotlight at the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival this year. More than 75 Native American basket weavers from across the United States are in Washington, demonstrating their craft. Some of the artists are adhering strictly to tradition; others are taking it in new directions.

"I hate the word 'contemporary,' even though I know it has its place," says Lois Conner, a Mono Indian from central California. "I consider myself a traditional weaver, a traditional woman in every respect when it comes to my culture."

Conner has been making baskets full-time for the past ten years. The large, tightly woven containers were used by her ancestors as cooking vessels to prepare acorn soup, as she demonstrated to a group of a dozen onlookers who gathered under the shade of a tree.

A stone, which has been heated in a wood fire, actually cooks the soup. Conner stirs the contents to distribute the heat, using two long sticks, made from green branches that have been split and tied to form loops on the end.

The idea, she says, is to keep the rock moving. "You'll notice if you go to museums sometimes, you'll see big cooking baskets that have burn marks in the bottom, where somebody has let that rock sit too long," Conner says. It takes eight months to make a basket, Conner says, which is great incentive to not let that rock sit too long in one spot.

While her cooking baskets do stand up to the heat, the ones she weaves are usually sold to collectors as works of art. But Conner makes them the same way her Mono ancestors did and from the same natural materials.

"The dealers really like the sedge root, the tan color on our baskets; the red bud; the bracken fern," she says. "Bracken fern I get up at 8,000 feet (over 2400 meters), and it grows four feet (more than a meter) under the ground, so to extract that root is really something. It has to be cleaned. Everything is just a lot of work." Despite all of that hard work, Conner says she wouldn't consider tampering with tradition.

Other weavers at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival are expanding their craft beyond the traditional art form. Joseph Lopez, a Tohono O'odham from Arizona, is among them. "Basically, I guess I try to represent all of my deceased family members. Hopefully a part of their soul will go into my art," says Lopez. He creates woven figures that resemble people, using the same materials and methods his ancestors used -- and his mother still uses -- to create more traditional baskets. Lopez comes from a family of basket weavers, but all of them are women. Just by being a man, Lopez is breaking with tradition.

"I've seen a couple (other) men (who weave) and that made me come out of the closet to show my work, because it was a good feeling to see other men do it. In the beginning I did it for the money. I needed the income, and I saw how much it was worth, so I started doing it."

That was two years ago. Weaving changed his life, he says, getting him out of a gang and more involved with his family. In fact, he is teaching his young daughter how to weave, and offers to teach anyone who is interested. "I would teach them not just the traditional way, but to express their feeling, because it's more modern now," Lopez says. "It's not used for utilities and trades; it's just to keep the heritage art going."

Both Joseph Lopez and Lois Conner are keeping their weaving traditions alive in their own ways. Other artists at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival are doing the same for Native communities in Hawaii, Alaska and elsewhere across the United States.