Reviving A Native Tradition - Basket Weaving
“Today, Johnson, 32, is helping to reweave that gap in an effort to preserve the tribe’s culture.” Johnson and his partner, Tristan Reader, 39, founded TOCA in 1996. The cooperative teaches weaving to young tribal members and how the tribe’s history and its relationship to the land are represented in the baskets.
Woven from plants, the baskets were designed to harvest, carry and store food and seeds to feed the family. The inner coils are of bear grass, the green and white stitches are made from the yucca plant and the black decoration comes from the devil’s claw. Reddish stitches are from the root of the banana yucca.
Reader states that half the creation of a basket originates long before the first stitches are ever made. “Weavers have to harvest materials seasonally. Green yucca is harvested in the winter; white yucca has to be bleached by the summer sun.”
According to Reader, it is getting increasingly difficult to find some of the raw materials. Much of it grows on private or public lands, now. Broom-making companies are now competing for bear grass, getting permits to cut on public lands.
Whereas a weaver will prune the plant, take maybe 10 percent of the growth and come back to the same plant, year after year, the broom company takes the whole plant which can take from 10 to 15 years to become productive, again. TOCA is trying to cultivate the plants on a farm where it is also growing traditional desert plants and food to fight diabetes, which now affects some 50 percent of the tribe’s adults.
Johnson was first exposed to weaving at a Native American summer camp and back at school, he took a weaving course as part of his Native American history requirement where he worked to learn traditional shapes and designs.
Through one teacher, he met another, then a third – Clara Havier who was older than the others and used different styles and stitches. She spoke only O’odham so my grandparents would go with me each day to translate.
Being dyslexic – and boy, can I relate to that – Johnson got As in art and Ds and Fs in everything else so he dropped out of school at the ninth grade level. He worked at a store buying and selling Native art, then struck out on his own as a weaver. He decided a collective was the answer for both the weaver and collector. The non-profit organization markets the baskets through its office and shows so the weaver no longer has to go to the shows to make sales and the organization has hundreds of baskets to show collectors.
Today, weavers like Johnson have elevated their work to a fine art, perfecting traditional forms and branching out to new decorative techniques. He incorporates carved gourds weaving open work on the top. His artistic innovation has brought him numerous awards and his baskets each sell for thousands of dollars.
Reader adds, “With the loss of traditional foods and harvest, the tribe was losing the songs, legends and ceremonies that go with tradition. It’s all related to culture, health, and economic development.”
Wisdom comes from our past creating solutions for our future. The TOCA motto.
This story, edited for content and length, is from the December 3rd issue of “The Arizona Republic”, bylined Judy Nichols.
More than 200 basket weavers gathered for THE CELEBRATION OF BASKETWEAVING AND NATIVE FOODS FESTIVAL at The Heard Museum on the weekend of December 4th and 5th where the basket weavers revealed their individual stories of why and how the tradition is necessary to their daily lives and in carrying their cultural connections to the younger generation.
Karen Antone, Tohono O’odham – “Somebody’s got to keep the tradition going. Nowadays, we hardly see the young girls making baskets”
Rose Martin. Tohono O’odham – “Behind every basket is a person because every minute of your life is going into the basket. Basket weaving is how I deal with my life and feeling in control of my life.”
Mary Pablo, Tohono O’odham – “We have five generations of basket weavers in our family. The youngest that weaves is six. I was taught that our basket is like another human. We were taught to be in our right mind when we create baskets.”
Rhonda Lomakema, Hopi – “Not everybody can learn this. We’re lucky we still have the tradition and culture. We’re lucky we can still pass this on to the younger kids.”
Irwin Rope, San Carlos Apache – “Basket weaving slowed me down quite a bit. I’m not rushing to get things done. I used to wonder what my grandmother was thinking about while she was weaving. I think I have an idea, now.”
Elfreda Holmes, Hopi –“A long time ago mothers didn’t work. They had to make these baskets and sell them at the trading post to buy food for us.”
Ramona Tewayguna, Hopi – “We learn from our godmothers, our mothers and grandmothers. I’ve been making coiled baskets for many years. Being recognized motivates me to encourage all the young ladies to get involved with their culture and learn the skills from their elders.”
By Angela Cara Pancrazio – The Arizona Republic
NATIVE UNITY - A place for Native American Peoples to solidify their tribes to make a positive impact on the cultural, social, economic and political fabric of American society and a place for non-Natives to better understand the ways of the American Indian.