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Native American Twilled Basket

Cherokee twilled basket, probably traded to Wisconsin, mid 19th century.
(Museum object #1955.1021)

Basketry is found across the world in different cultures and throughout much of human history. Pre-dating ceramics, it is one of the oldest known crafts, with its earliest evidence dating to approximately 6,000 B.C. Native Americans have and continue to produce highly varied, technically advanced, and aesthetically significant baskets. Baskets range from utilitarian objects, like the Cherokee basket featured here that dates to the mid-1800s, to objects of art, which can include objects of religious significance.

This basket is believed to have belonged to the Ho-Chunk war chief Yellow Thunder (1774-1884), who led the Ho-Chunk Nation during the mid-1800s. During this tumultuous time, American expansion into Native American territory resulted in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans westward. In 1837, Yellow Thunder accompanied a selected group of Ho-Chunk leaders who traveled to Washington to challenge the annexation of Ho-Chunk land by the United States government. Yellow Thunder most likely received this basket either via trade or possibly as a gift.

Basket technology, the weaving of various materials, provided essential equipment to the early peoples of Wisconsin. Baskets were used for storage of both food and non-food items. They were used during food preparation and serving, the equivalent of pots, pans, and dinnerware. Basket or weaving technology was also used in the construction of items such as cradleboards, rugs, mats, game rackets, roofing, fences, fishing nets, shields, clothing, and animal traps.

Basketry materials were usually harvested and woven locally. Basket production required great technical skill and an impressive knowledge of the environment. Women, those usually responsible for basket making, knew where to gather, when to harvest, and what types of plants and plant parts would yield the best materials for a strong, durable, and beautiful finished basket.

The basket-making process began with the gathering of raw materials. Prior to the 1820s, birch bark containers were the predominant style of "basketry" in the northern Great Lakes region. After the 1820s, the production of wood-splint baskets in Wisconsin increased with the arrival of the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown tribes to the area. Popular basketry materials of the Great Lakes region included sweet grass, wicker, birch bark, and cedar. Nearly all parts of a plant could be used in the construction of baskets including the roots, stems, bark, leaves, fruits, seeds, gums, and even resin. Individual baskets were often made using multiple materials.

The basket maker had to prepare the raw materials before the weaving process could commence. Preparation included processes such as peeling, splitting, yarning, twisting, twining, braiding, soaking, gauging, and coloring. Minerals, berries and other fruits, flowers, seeds, roots, and grasses were used to dye the raw materials various colors. Moss, algae, and juniper berries yielded green colors. Walnut shell and birch bark created browns. Purple hues were made from blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and rotten maple wood. Sumac berries, dogwood bark and beets produced reds. Yellow coloring was manufactured from onion skins, goldenrod stems and flowers, birch leaves, and sagebrush.

Woven baskets are usually constructed by using two basic directional components – the "warp" elements (the strands or fibers that run lengthwise or vertically in basketry) provide the core of support for the finished basket, while the "weft" (the fibers or strands that run cross-wise at right angles to the structural warp elements) are woven between the warp elements to create various patterns and designs. The basket featured here is an example of what is known as "twilled work." This process involves passing each element of the weft over two or more warp elements, creating a "diagonal" style look in the finished product.

[Sources: James, George Wharton. Indian Basketry (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972); Mason, Otis Tufton. American Indian Basketry (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988); Diedrich, Mark. Ho-Chunk Chiefs: Winnebago Leadership in an Era of Crisis (Rochester, MN: Coyote Books, 2001); Indian Country: Material Culture and the Arts website online at (Milwaukee Public Museum); Native American Basketry: Weaving Life website online at (Native Tech: Native American Technology and Art);]


Posted on July 31, 2008

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