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Tohono O’odham American-Indian baskets

Author: Anne O'Brien
Issue: January, 2011, Page 40
Photos by David B. Moore

With delicately woven radii and light colors, this basket was made with yucca and bear grass

What if your home’s accessories told a story? What if each of them was one-of-a-kind? What if they could not only start a conversation but turn it into a tale of Arizona botany, history and native culture?

Basketry made by the Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, can do that. Formerly known as the Papago, this southern Arizona tribe is commonly referred to as T.O. The T.O. community, whose land lies on the border of Mexico south of Tucson, produces more baskets today than any other native group in the state. “When you purchase a T.O. basket, you are buying much more than an object,” says Debra Utacia Krol, a Xolon Salinan Tribe member and Heard Museum communications manager. “You are getting the result of thousands of years of experience, passed down through the strong hands of the T.O. women. You own an example of one of the last genuinely handcrafted arts, since not even the raw materials for baskets are mass-produced,” she explains.

“A basket showcases plants native to the area,” notes Krol. She says that for desert-dwelling T.O. weavers, gathering material is a year-round pursuit that involves tending the plants—bear grass, banana yucca and devil’s claw. “They may grow wild,” she elaborates, “but the weaver will go to places where they are found to prune them in a way that encourages straighter splints. They also may save seeds to cultivate good material for future baskets.”

Woven of yucca, bear grass and devil’s claw plant material, this basket features a traditional Man in the Maze design, a symbolic pattern shared by both Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham peoples. All baskets pictured are from the Heard Museum Shop.
Basket materials have changed over the years, but they still need to be strong and supple, attractive and also readily available. Older T.O. baskets were created from light-brown willow because willow was plentiful when rivers were running in the days before dams. Traditional baskets had black borders and geometric patterns woven from devil’s claw, which matures in the heat of the monsoon season. Nowadays, a T.O. basket likely is made from bleached yucca, which gives it a white appearance. Baskets often are stitched so that their bear grass foundations will show through as part of a design. The banana yucca root provides rusty-brown touches among the coils.

When the conversation turns to the history of the basket, we find ourselves at the beginning of man’s domestic life, which began at least 8,000 years ago in the Southwest. Baskets were used to carry water, to strain saguaro fruit juice and to parch—or dry out—corn or nuts, explains Mary Paganelli, co-author of From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions (Blurb Bookstore, “They were light and, unlike pottery, they did not break when the community moved around,” she writes.

Today’s baskets evolved from these utilitarian containers. Basket making became a profitable enterprise when the railroads created the tourist market. “By the time I started learning to weave, people told me to make baskets to sell,” recalls artist Terrol Dew Johnson, whose pieces are held at the Smithsonian and Heard museums. Over time, says Johnson, people came to recognize the baskets’ artistic value.

Crafted of willow and devil’s claw plants in the 1920s, this basket measures 14 1/2" across and stands 4"H.
“Today, T.O. baskets tend to be wonderful works of art,” adds Daniel Garland Jr. of Garland’s Indian Jewelry in Sedona. James Barajas, assistant shop manager and basket buyer for the Heard Museum Shop, agrees. “You can’t collect these anywhere in the world except here,” he points out.

“Designers today are sensitive to buying pieces that are authentic, and they’re willing to pay a price for an uncommon piece with a good shape and design,”  he explains. “We’re lucky to be able to sell them to individuals who are looking for value, too. There’s no reason to offer a replica, because the real ones are very reasonably priced.”

Clockwise from top left: The Tohono O’odham tribe has long incorporated materials other than plant life into its basket weaving. Woven by Edward Lewis, this new example of a traditional bailing-wire basket is made of copper instead of bailing wire. It measures 4"W by 5"H. • Miniature baskets gained favor in the 1920s and have continued to be popular, says Heard Museum’s Debra Utacia Krol. These modern-day miniatures are made of horsehair. The Tohono O’odham learned how to weave the horsehair from Mexican people, who were using it for bridles and ropes, she notes. Made by contemporary weavers, baskets pictured are: 3 1/2" in diameter, by Patricia Sanchez • 4" in diameter, by Patricia Sanchez • and 3" in diameter, by Annette Joaquin.

Weave quality: “You want a tight weave,” advises the Heard Museum Shop’s James Barajas. He notes that buyers can expect open-stitch modern pieces to be looser than those made from old willow.
Visual interest: Daniel Garland Jr. adds that visual appeal is increased by symmetry of shape and design.

: Any damage at all affects the value of a basket, warns Barajas. Look for wear on the rim, as well as holes or moisture stains.
Imported copies: Avoid imported replicas. These usually are made of raffia, lack devil’s claw or banana yucca root, and are not structurally well-made, Barajas states.

•Like all artists, T.O. weavers are inspired by the changing world around them, points out Mary Paganelli. The result is an enormous variety of basket styles and shapes, from plaques to animal figures to water-carrying ollas.
•O’odham baskets use only natural colors and fibers. You will not see bright, dyed colors.
•Willow baskets woven a century ago are collectors’ items. Factors in pricing include age, condition, complexity of design and quality of workmanship.
•For online buying, James Barajas suggests that all but the most experienced consumers make sure the seller is trustworthy before buying something they haven’t touched. He recommends contacting the seller before making a purchase to ask for the facts in writing.

Desert Rain Gallery’s online store, The gallery is located at T.O. Community Action, Tohono Plaza, Sells, Arizona (part of the nonprofit T.O. Basketweavers’ Cooperative)
Garland’s Indian Jewelry, 3953 N. State Route 89A, Sedona
Gilbert Ortega Museum & Galleries (mainly antique baskets and miniatures), 3925 N. Scottsdale Road; Gilbert Ortega Galleries, 7155 E. Fifth Ave.; both in Scottsdale
Heard Museum Shop, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Heard Museum North Shop, 32633 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Old Territorial Indian Arts, 7077 E. Main St., #7, Scottsdale
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