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Weaving a Collection: Native American Baskets from the Bruce Museum
February 10 - June 10, 2007
The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, highlights its Native American basket collection in a new exhibition that opens Saturday, February 10, 2007, and runs through Sunday, June 10, 2007. Weaving a Collection: Native American Baskets from the Bruce Museum explores five geographic regions of basketry: the Northeast, Great Plains, Southwest, California, and Northwest. On view are approximately 45 examples from all the major basket makers of North America that illustrate the distinctive elements of technique and materials from these regions. The show focuses on the differences in forms and materials among tribal affiliations and geographical regions and examines the evolution of basketry following the arrival of the collector. (right: Pomo Gift Basket, California, 19th century, 5 _ h x 14 d x 19 c inches, One rod coiling; horizontal "V" motifs and blue seed beads. Bruce Museum collection 19908)
Basketry has been a part of the rich tapestry of Native American cultures for centuries. Native American basket weavers have transformed twigs, grasses, roots, ferns, and bark into works of art that are unsurpassed for their beauty and technological skill. Basket weaving is one of the oldest known Native American arts. Archaeologists have identified some ancient American Indian baskets from the Southwest as being nearly 8,000 years old.
As with most Native American art, a multitude of distinct traditions became established in North American basketry. Different tribes used different materials, weaving techniques, basket shapes, and characteristic patterns. Northeast Indian baskets, for example, are traditionally made out of pounded ash splints or braided sweet grass. As native people were displaced from their traditional lands and lifestyles, their traditional tribal basket-weaving styles started to change as they adapted to new materials and absorbed the customs of new neighbors. In places like Oklahoma, where many tribes were interned together, fusion styles of basket weaving arose. However, unlike some traditional native crafts, the original diversity of Native American basket styles is still very much evident today. (right: Yokut rabbit dancers, Yokut, California, 19th century, 4 h x 8 d x 24 _ c inches, Coiled sedge, three rabbit dancers. Bruce Museum collection 21291)
Based on early evidence, we know that prior to contact with European cultures, the basket-making tribes of North America had created a repertoire of basket shapes and design elements specific, if not unique, to each tribal grouping. Tribal customs and artistic traditions dictated that basketry styles remain relatively constant over time, with little emphasis on experimentation or innovation. The volatile impact that Euro-Americans had on native cultures was eventually reflected in the material culture of the tribal groups, basketry being no exception. These newcomers to North America had little interest in Native American basketry until the late 19th century, when the belief arose that the native cultures might soon disappear. Motivated by this sentiment, some individuals began collecting Native American cultural material with an enthusiasm and appreciation previously unknown.
Before these early collectors entered the arena, some Native American basketry had already begun to exhibit change as evidenced by the appearance of trade items incorporated into the baskets such as glass beads, commercial yarns, and exotic feathers from the ostrich and peacock. However, these new materials were utilized in the traditional manner as decorative elements merely substituting for native-made clamshell beads and wild bird feathers.
As collectors became more discerning about the quality of a basket's weave and exhibited a preference for particular types of designs and shapes, the weavers responded to this new market. Graceful and distinctive shapes such as bottleneck baskets and more literal design elements such as human figures or animal forms (which replaced the often more sophisticated, abstract designs) were in great demand in the early collector market. However, these basketry shapes and design motifs were only produced by a few tribal groups and then only occasionally. Thus, borrowing shapes and motifs from other tribal groups became, if not commonplace, at least an acceptable practice among some of the weavers. This phenomenon ushered in a new period of experimentation and creativity while it maintained the on-going high standards of technical and artistic expertise.
(above: Makah lidded box, Makah, Northwest Coast, Olympic WA, 19th century, 3 h x 4 d x 13 _ c inches, Shallow circular lidded box, crescents on lid, natural and dyed grasses. Bruce Museum collection 20940)
(above: Apache, Southwest, Arizona, early 20th century,
10 h x 8 _ d x 32 _ c inches, Food storage olla, human motifs. Bruce Museum
(above: Washoe, Great Basin, Nevada, early 19th century,
5 _ h x 11 _ d x 37 c inches, Classic bowl, native use patina, geometric
design. Bruce Museum collection 67.03.36)
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