In looking at American Indian art, there is a different between tribal art and ethnic art. In his book Native Arts of North America, Christian Feest writes:
“Tribal art was (and is) produced by members of tribal societies primarily for their own or their fellow members’ use.”
One of the classic examples of tribal art is seen in the Plateau basketry hats. The Plateau Culture Area is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. These hats were woven for and used by the women of the tribe.
As tourists began to discover the Plateau area, Indian artists became making basketry items specifically for sale to Non-Indian tourists. These small trinket baskets are a classic example of ethnic: tourists buy and cherish them because they were made by Indian arts, but they are not items which would have been traditionally used by the Indians who made them.
The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Oregon has displays of Columbia River basketry hats and small trinket baskets.
According to the Museum display:
“Native women of the Mid-Columbia have worn twined basketry hats for generations. Known as Patl’aapa, the hats provided protection from the elements, as well as comfort for cradle boards and gathering basket support straps worn around the forehead. The hats distinguished social hierarchy and expressed personal or family identity. As the tradition of basket making diminished, the basketry hat became a symbol of heritage reserved for special occasions.”
These small trinket baskets were made by Native woman for trade to non-Natives, primarily tourists.
The Aleutian Islands are a chain which extend into the Pacific Ocean from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. This is an area which is cold and damp, with few trees. In spite of this seemingly inhospitable environment, people have been living on the islands for at least 9,000 years.
Basketry is probably the oldest art form, although the archaeological record is devoid of the earliest basketry. In his 1904 book American Indian Basketry, Otis Mason writes:
“In ultimate structure, basketry is free-hand mosaic or, in the finest materials, like pen-drawings or beadwork, the surface being composed of any number of small parts—technically decussations, stitches, or meshes, practically separate from one another so far as the effect on the eye is concerned.”
The Polson Museum in Hoquiam, Washington, has a room dedicated to “Common Land, Uncommon Cultures: Traditional Peoples of Grays Harbor.” The Quinault and Chehalis basketmakers used both wrapped and plain twined techniques. Shown below are some of the baskets which are on display.
Shown above is a Quinault storage basket which uses cedar twining. The lid is Makah in design.
The Northwest Coast is a region in which an entrenched and highly valued artistic tradition flourished and continues to flourish. The Suquamish are the people of the clear salt water. For more than 10,000 years they have occupied that area known today as the Kitsap Peninsula, Bainbridge Island, Blake Island, and parts of Whidbey Island in what is now the state of Washington.
Traditionally, the Suqamish made several different kinds of baskets, each with a special use. Writing in 1895, anthropologist Franz Boas reported:
“A great variety of baskets are used-large wicker baskets for carrying fish and clams, cedar bark baskets for purposes of storage.”
Coiled baskets were used for collecting berries, carrying water (yes, they were woven tight enough to be waterproof), cooking (hot stones were dropped in the water filled baskets to cook the food), and for storing dried foods. Open weave baskets were used for gathering clams, small fish, and seaweed.
After the European invasion began, the Suquamish basketmakers began making special baskets for sale as collectables. They also wove other small items for sale including dolls and toys.
Shown below are some of the baskets which are on display in the Suquamish Museum.