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Reviving the Burden Basket

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: November, 2015, Page 47
Photos by Garrett Cook

Sitting in his backyard under the shady relief of a round Olas-Ki”—a primitive Pima dwelling—that he built himself, Royce Manuel strings a bow with cordage he created of twisted agave fibers.
A retired firefighter breathes new life into one of the Salt River
Pima-Maricopa Indian community’s long-forgotten crafts

A thick silver band gleams on Royce Manuel’s right ring finger as his weathered hands dip into a small blue bucket filled with wet agave fibers. The ring commemorates Royce’s 20 years of service as a fire fighter for the Scottsdale and Salt River communities. Now, he works hard to revive a different kind of victim—the “kiaha.”

The kiaha (pronounced kee-ha) is a type of burden basket exclusive to Pima Indians. Once common for everyday use, kiahas haven’t been made in about 100 years, says Royce, a member of the Akimel O’Odham nation. Today, he stands alone as its sole champion.

Details of the hand-twisted agave-fiber cordage Royce uses for his kiahas reveal its impressive and crucial symmetry.
Lost in Time

Royce’s knowledge of the kiaha goes back to his childhood. Each summer, he and his nine siblings would visit his grandparents and listen to their stories. During one such visit, his grandmother passed down the legend of the “walking baskets.”

“It was said that when a man put his skill into making a kiaha for a woman, it would come to life with his spirit and walk along behind her to help her with her duties,” Royce recalls. “See how the spokes on the baskets stick out like two arms and two legs?  That was how they walked. My grandmother said that only men could make them, and only women could use them.”

Continuing the story, Royce relays that Coyote—a crafty and often jealous mythological figure featured in many Native American legends—began to make fun of the walking baskets. “He teased them so much that eventually they fell down and refused to walk ever again, forcing the women to carry them on their backs,” he says.

With his curiosity piqued, Royce searched for pictures of the baskets in textbooks and vintage postcards throughout his lifetime, finding very little. He was eventually able to view one at a small museum in Bapchule, just south of Phoenix. He would later discover that even scarcer than the baskets were instructions for making them.

True to form, it was a young lady who would inspire him to take his own turn at producing the long-forgotten baskets. “I did this for her,” Royce says, pointing to a framed picture of a smiling 6-year-old wearing a traditional muslin top and a wrap-around skirt known as an “ipud” (ee-pud) and carrying a small kiaha on her back. It is his youngest daughter, Marissa. “We filled the kiaha with her teddy bears. She still has it to this day, and she’s in her 20s now,” Royce says affectionately.

Images of Pima women carrying kiahas are rare to find, says the artist. Royce has amassed a small collection of photographs, including this one, that he found in books and on vintage postcards.
The picture was taken at a fashion show where Marissa modeled the kiaha Royce had made for her out of cotton string. Come showtime, “nobody knew what it was,” he says. “A man older than me came up to us and asked ‘What is that?’” The experience prompted Royce to begin the long journey of rekindling the ancient art form.

Finding New Purpose
While burden baskets aren’t unique to Pima Indians, the kiaha’s unusual (and sometimes collapsible) framework, is. It was typically worn by Pima women on their way to market—often times a 9-mile trek.

Capable of holding as much as 90 pounds, the strong baskets feature shoulder and forehead straps and were used to carry everything from large clay pots to towering loads of firewood.

Royce points to modern-day backpacks as an example of how the baskets disperse weight evenly along the top of the wearer’s back. His father once recalled Royce’s great-grandmother putting on a kiaha, describing how she would stand it up before crawling underneath it to strap it on.

Unable to walk upright, the women would lean forward so that the heavy weight would shift and provide a useful momentum. “My father said his grandma didn’t walk heel to toe when she wore her kiaha to market. Instead, she had to walk on her toes the entire time and used a walking stick for balance,” Royce explains.

As his knowledge of the kiaha and its construction grew from his own research, a chance meeting with a 94-year-old basket-maker named Anita helped fill in the final gaps in his understanding.

Royce’s wife, Debbie, recalls meeting Anita at the Heard Museum, and the impromptu inter-view that took place. “We sat down with her right where we met. Once an elder decides to give you something, there is nothing you can do to make them wait, and we didn’t dare interrupt her story,” she says.

Anita’s firsthand memories of watching the men in her community make the baskets would prove an invaluable resource for Royce.

Details of the hand-twisted agave-fiber cordage Royce uses for his kiahas reveal its impressive and crucial symmetry.
No Pain, No Gain

A single kiaha takes Royce, on average, six months to a year to complete. He twists agave fibers into a single twinelike cordage, which is then methodically looped to form the burden basket’s stretchable netting. The netting is then attached to a frame made of gathered saguaro ribs and a flexible hoop of willow.

After significant practice making string kiahas similar to the one he had made for Marissa, Royce began extracting agave fibers to make his own cordage. This is one of the most difficult parts of the process, he shares. But even a painful encounter with a neighbor’s agave plant didn’t deter him from mastering the traditional technique.

“I went over to my neighbor’s yard and just began pulling fibers out of his agave plant, and that’s how I learned that the plant has an irritant in it. It burned off all of the hair follicles on my right hand!” he laughs. “It didn’t help that I was also wearing shorts and other light clothing. The itching lasted for about 10 days.”

Familiar with the tribal practice of baking agave hearts underground in order to make them edible, Royce tried cooking the leaves in a similar fashion. “Unfortunately, they burned up,” he recalls with a shrug. A follow-up attempt to cook the leaves in the oven stunk up his house. Finally, an experiment of boiling the leaves revealed his preferred method.

“I discovered that I had to boil them three times before all of the irritant came off,” he notes. “It was just as Anita had told me about cooking the agave underground for three days. I guess three times boiled equals three days underground.”

Once the leaves are properly cooked, Royce strips off their stringy fibers using his thumbnail, a process that wears it down to the skin. “I have very little feeling left in my thumb, index finger and middle finger from cleaning off the pulp from the agave fibers,” he says.

As for how he mastered the special knotless weaving pattern that allows the kiaha’s net to stretch, Royce pulls out a dated picture book that he and Debbie salvaged from a bookstore’s bargain bin. Flipping through its pages, he admits that it took him several failed and frustrating attempts before he finally realized that the book’s instructions were upside down. He has since added his own colored pencil markings to show the correct method.

Royce dabbles in several native crafts including the upkeep of a community calendar stick. Marked annually to commemorate each year’s major events, a close-up of the 2001 notch reveals two rectangles that memorialize the World Trade Center towers.
The Community Effect
In 2011, the four tribal leaders of the Pima and Maricopa Indian community met at Talking Stick Resort to discuss their affairs. Royce and his wife brought several of his burden baskets to share with them and were met with moving results.

“We felt responsible to help the leaders understand what we are doing here,” Debbie says. “They set aside their politics, and some of them were actually moved to tears at the memories of their grand-parents making and wearing these baskets.”

Royce entered his first juried art show at the Heard Museum in 2009. He won Best of Show. A humble man, he simply states, “I lucked out because there was a judge there who recognized what it was.”

The knowledgeable judge was Larry Dalrymple, a Southwest basket expert from New Mexico. “All I could think when I first saw Royce’s basket was, ‘This is so hard to do … I can’t believe that some-body figured this out. It’s spectacular!’” he recalls. His excitement grew as he explained to the other judges the rarity of the piece before them.

“Royce is really a type of engineer,”Dalrymple continues. “He has the patience, diligence and intelligence to master this extremely complex basket. Sometimes we think that we are so sophisticated in today’s terms, but you look back at things like this, and the designs are just so brilliant.”

In 2010, Royce received special recognition from  the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where he was given the opportunity to explore the museum’s extensive archives to further his research of the kiaha. He and Debbie have since produced a handful of videos on the topic in order to share their knowledge with future generations.

“I like to say that it took a firefighter to breathe life back into this,” Debbie says fondly of her husband. Continuing their shared pursuit of renewing interest in the craft, the pair regularly enters baskets in various art shows and occasionally brings them to market where they sell out “before we have a chance to unload the truck,” Debbie says.

Because of its antiquity, not many people know how to put on and properly wear kiahas. However, Royce and Debbie managed to find a few who were able and willing to wear one. “The first girl we found was down near Tucson. She wore one of our baskets during a market event, and we told her, ‘You are the first person to wear a kiaha to market in about 100 years.’ The weight of that really hit her,” Debbie says. “We put stuffed animals in the back of it just in case she fell backward,” Royce jokingly adds.

With a strict mission of increasing awareness and keeping the technique alive, Royce says that making the kiaha was never about the pursuit of money or notoriety. He rarely sells his pieces, preferring to give them as gifts to influential members of his community.

This philosophy coincides with another one of the many life lessons passed down by his grandmother.

“I remember one morning, when we were kids, following my grandmother outside. We kept asking her, ‘What are we going to do?’ But she wouldn’t answer us,” he says. “Eventually, she stopped and took up a piece of dried sand and tasted it.

“So, we did the same of course. You should have seen my cousin eating away! After that, she went back home. It wasn’t until later that I learned about an old ritual called the dirt tasting ceremony. The idea is that stopping to taste the dirt keeps you from being arrogant,” Royce says.

He continues, “There are sweat stains and other characteristic markings on my baskets because we’ve made sure that they are used. We want people to see them and ask ‘What is that?’ because this is the best way to renew interest in the kiaha. When a woman wears one, she thinks, ‘Wow, this is the basket that my great-grandmother used to wear.’ And that’s what really makes them valuable.”

You have to weave a design in the basket, or it gets too tight and won’t stretch,” Royce says of the intricate patternwork featured in his kiahas. A single string—some measuring up to a quarter of a mile long—is used for each basket.

In addition to kiahas, Royce also makes bows and arrows, using his father’s bow as a prototype. My father received his first bow in 1926 when he was 6 years old,” Royce shares. My great-grandfather used to sell bow-and-arrow sets at the railroad station in Phoenix.”

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