The University of Arizona

ArtiFACT: O'odham Coiled Basketry

Willow bowl with four sided geometric designThe Akimel and Tohono O'odham (Pimas and Papagos) of central and southern Arizona are closely related people well known for their coiled basketry. Until the late 19th century, the O'odham used these baskets for washing, collecting saguaro fruit, mixing dough for tortillas, and parching and winnowing seeds. Baskets were also used as gifts, as trade items for food, as payment for services from medicine men, and to serve wine at the yearly saguaro wine festival.

Plant materials used in O'odham baskets were native to the Sonoran Desert. The Akimel O'odham, living near the banks of the rivers, used the abundant willow and cattail growing there. Their coiled basketry had a foundation, or "bundle", made of split cattail (Typha angostifolia) stems. Strips of willow (Salix sp.) were used to stitch the bundle together. Devil's claw (Proboscidea parviflora), a crawling desert vine with both wild and cultivated varieties, was used to work the black designs.

O'odham baskets with geometric designsThe Tohono O'odham lived in the drier central area of the Sonoran Desert where willow and cattail were not as plentiful. Instead of using cattails for the foundation , they mostly used beargrass (Nolina microcarpa). Beargrass is coarser than the cattails making the baskets less supple. Tohono O'odham also stitched in willow but it was scarce.  The Tohono O'odham tended to use more devil's claw in their designs than the Akimel O'odham.

While there were differences in the plants used by the Akimel O'odham and the Tohono O'odham, the manufacture of the coil beginning in the basket's center-the "starts"-were very similar. Common to both groups were a four square or plaited knot. The plant bundles were then wrapped around this start and stitched together with the willow or yucca and devil's claw splints. The walls of the baskets were pounded with stones to flatten and smooth their surface.

In the mid-1880s, the Tohono O'odham basket makers found that tourists and local residents admired and wanted to purchase their baskets. Since collectors would not need the baskets for heavy duty chores, the basketmakers no longer needed to use the sturdy but scarce willow. Readily available yucca was substituted for the willow stitching. New, simpler designs, new basket forms, and open-stitch techniques were developed for the tourist market.

Today, basket making flourishes among the Tohono O'odham but has declined among the Akimel O'odham. There are currently efforts to encourage both traditional and contemporary style basketry production among all the O'odham communities.  A group of Tohono O'odham craftspeople have formed a cooperative, the Tohono O'odham Basketry Organization to help weavers gain more control over how their baskets are priced and marketed.

Kelly Clarke and Diane Dittemore

To Learn More About O'odham Coiled Baskets:

Adult Literature:

DeWald , Terry. The Papago Indians and Their Basketry. Tucson: privately printed, 1979.

Kissell, Mary Lois. Papago and Pima Basketry. Glorieta, NM: Rio Grande Press, 1972.

Whiteford, Andrew Hunter. Southwestern Indian Baskets. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1988.

Or Contact:

Tohono O'odham Basketry Organization (TOBO), Tohono O'odham Community Action, P.O. Box 1814, Sells, AZ 85634


Upper Left: Akimel O'odham willow bowl, c.1920 (asm# 18504)
Upper Right: Sunflower willow design basket by Akimel O'odham Nellie Preston, c.1930 (asm# E-537)
Center: Akimel O'odham man-in-the-maze plaque c.1930 (asm# 26497-x-10)
Center Right: Miniature Yucca basket, Tohono O'odham, c.1940 (asm# E-4708)
Lower Left
: Yucca basket, Tohono O'odham, c.1970 Margaret Lewis (asm# E-8798)
Photo by Helga Teiwes.

These closed stitched coil baskets are decorated with the Man in Maze, squash blossom, and sunflower designs.