The Tohono O’odham today weave more basketry than any other American Indian tribe. It is estimated that there are 300-400 active weavers today. This number is still a far cry from generations past when essentially all women wove baskets for their families and communities, for tasks that included desert plant gathering to holding ceremonial saguaro wine. Young girls learned basketry arts along with other important life skills through informal instruction from their mothers and other female relatives.
Today, baskets continue to serve as sources of artistic and cultural pride, but do not play the same central role in Tohono O’odham society as they did in the past. They also provide income for weavers who might live in remote villages on the reservation or in cities such as Tucson and Casa Grande, neither of which offer plentiful employment options. Trading posts, Indian art stores and dealers, as well as the Desert Rain Gallery (part of Tohono O’odham Community Action/TOCA) in Sells provide outlets for weavers to sell their baskets. Since it was built in 1958, Kitt Peak Observatory on the Tohono O’odham Reservation also has been a popular place for visitors to purchase baskets. The Arizona State Museum museum store always has a fine assortment of baskets for sale, and the inventory has been ramped up recently to accompany the Museum’s recently installed exhibit, Basketry Treasured.
O’odham men have always contributed to the production of basketry by gathering, transporting, and processing the necessary materials. But today it is increasingly common for men to weave as well. When asked about this changing role, Terrol Johnson, executive director of TOCA and an award-winning basketmaker, explains, “I tell people that traditionally weaving was done by women, but when I began learning basketry from the elders they assured me that it does not matter to them whether it is O’odham men or women who are doing the weaving today as long as the tradition is being kept alive.”
TOCA has participated in Arizona State Museum’s annual Southwest Indian Art Fair (SWIAF) for many years, first as a basketry cooperative and now representing their gallery enterprise, Desert Rain. They will again be among the artists presented at SWIAF this year. Visitors can engage with the weavers at the TOCA tent while they demonstrate the difficult and time-consuming task of coiling basketry.
The process begins with preparing materials: shredding the mo:ho (beargrass) that forms the bundle foundation, and moistening and sizing the strips of ta:kwi (yucca) and i:hug (devil’s claw) that are used for the sewing material. The weaver knots or plaits a yucca “start” that becomes the center of the bas
Tohono O’odham weavers coil their baskets in two major ways: open or “wheat” stitch and closed stitch. For the former, stitches from one coil split the stitches of the previous coil and the stitches are spaced far enough apart that the beargrass foundation is visible. The resulting pattern resembles a stalk of wheat. With closed stitching, the sewing materials completely obscure the foundation.ket. Yucca coils are stitched around the start, with beargrass incorporated to form the bundle foundation. A sharp awl pierces the holes through which the stitches are threaded.
The impressive array of basketry that TOCA brings to the Southwest Indian Art Fair comes from dozens of weavers. Buyers can be sure that the baskets they purchase at the TOCA booth are authentic—the real deal—as is the case with all of the artwork found at the fair.
The Arizona State Museum is proud to partner with TOCA, Ha:san Prepartory and Leadership School and other organizations dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional cultural arts. Indeed, it is at the core of the SWIAF mission to provide a venue for Native artists to sell their creations, enabling them to carry on and hand down these traditions to the younger generation, as well as share examples of outstanding Native arts with the fair’s visitors.
This blog was written by Diane Dittemore, ethnological collections curator, who was the lead curator for ASM’s Basketry Treasured exhibit.
Editor’s note: Our next blog will focus on Ha:san Prepartory and Leadership School’s cultural arts program. Arizona State Museum’s 20th annual Southwest Indian Art Fair will be on February 23rd and 24th, 2013. Come meet members of TOCA and watch Tohono O’odham basket dances presented by No:ligk Traditional Singers and Dancers at SWIAF on both days.