Collecting and Change in Native American Basketry

Native American baskets

Based on early evidence, we know that prior to contact with European cultures, the basket-making tribes of the American West 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 remained rather constant over time with little emphasis on experimentation or innovation. The volatile impact which Euro-Americans had on the native cultures was eventually reflected in the material culture of the various tribal groups, basketry being no exception.

These newcomers had little interest in Native American basketry until the late 19th century when the belief that the native cultures of the West were soon to disappear. Motivated by this belief, 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 still utilized in the traditional manner as decorative elements merely substituting for native-made clam shell beads and wild bird feathers.