Book Review:
From the Hands of a Weaver: Olympic Peninsula Basketry Through Time

  • Posted 4/05/2013
  • Essay 10368

Edited by Jacilee Wray
Foreword by Jonathan B. Jarvis
Hardback, 245 pages
Photographs, line drawings, appendices, bibliography, and index
University of Oklahoma Press
ISBN 978-0-80614245-6

Ten chapters written by many authors, including tribal artisans and academics, tell the history of traditional basket-making primarily by the Makah, Quileute, Klallam, Lummi, Hoh, and Quinault, who for thousands of years have lived on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Their coiled and woven baskets were made from grasses, bark, tree roots, and plant stems, and originally were used to carry and store food. Basket-making evolved into a recognized art, one primarily done by women, although there are some fine male artisans like Chris Morganroth III of the Makah Tribe whose work is represented in this book. From the Hands of a Weaver traces Olympic Peninsula basket-making through time, showing distinct weaving patterns, styles, and techniques that, as the authors note, reflect social changes.  

Editor Jacilee Wray provides background history in her introduction. Olympic Peninsula tribes represent three language groups and, following treaties in 1855 and 1856, most relocated to tribal reservations set up at Neah Bay, Skokomish, and Quinault. Eventually a reservation was established for each tribe.  

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, museums collected Indian baskets, the artistry of what they considered to be a vanishing culture. The Jessup North Pacific Expedition in 1897 was specifically sent out to gather Northwest Coast items for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and other museums such as Chicago's Field Museum also have large collections from the Northwest. From the Hands of a Weaver includes studies by anthropologists from this time period, including Franz Boas, James Teit, Herman Haeberlin, and Helen Roberts. Teit's work is especially interesting because he carefully included the names of the weavers; most did not record those names, to the frustration of later scholars who have carefully tried to match design and style with known artists. 

Through the book's photographs and drawings, we can quickly see that not all designs are alike and not all basket makers were artisans. While weavers from different tribes shared designs, there were also distinct motifs used by tribes. For instance, at Neah Bay Makah weavers often incorporated whale designs and were presumably the first to do so. Mats were woven using the same materials as baskets so they are also discussed in the book. After contact with non-Indian cultures, it was common for mat makers to utilize weaving looms and, later, sewing machines.  

Construction techniques differed according to the basket's function. Coiled baskets were woven watertight for food, water, berry picking, and cooking, while twined and plaited ones were often open-weave and used to store of clothing and valuable personal items.  

Editor Jacilee Wray is assisted by these authors: Jamie Valadez, Kathy Duncan, Marie Hebert, Karen James, Elaine Grinnell, Nile R. Thompson, Carolyn Marr, Joan Megan Jones, Jay V. Powell, Dale R. Croce, Daniela Shebitz, Caren Crandall, Janine Bowechop, Vicki Charles-Trudeau, Charlotte Kalama, Chris Morganroth III, Theresa Parker, Viola Riebe, and Leta Shale. Appendix A illustrates basket-construction techniques and Appendix B lists pre-1960s basket weavers, making the book a valuable reference.  

There is so much good material here, including dyes used, various materials and how they were gathered, marketing of these baskets worldwide, the art in the present day, and more, that it is hard to know where to begin or end. From the Hands of a Weaver is itself an excellent weave of personal and tribal narrative, a study of the art and craft of Olympic Peninsula baskets, and a look at the people who made and still make them. Highly recommended.

By Margaret Riddle, April 5, 2013

Submitted: 4/05/2013

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