MADE OF BIRCHBARK, THE CANOE STRETCHES 21 feet from stern to bow. A Dene (Northern Athabaskan) maker, likely from the Upper Yukon in British Columbia, Canada, crafted it around 1900—but not for skimming along a river. By then, the Klondike Gold Rush had devastated the region’s forests, polluted waterways, and left scant opportunities for hunting and fishing. To survive, the Dene people began translating traditional practices—like making canoes—into arts and crafts to sell.
That a canoe fits the definition of a basket is just one of the surprises delivered by an exhibition opening November 11 at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, on the University of New Mexico’s Albuquerque campus. Conversing with the Land: Native North American Baskets of the Maxwell Museum Collections delves into the various types of baskets and basketmaking techniques found among North American tribes, including their use as vessels. (Hence, a canoe.) The museum’s extensive collection of basketry, an estimated 2,000 pieces, yielded the exhibition’s 120 stellar examples.
“Basketry is a very ancient craft,” says Carla Sinopoli, the museum’s director. “Neanderthals had baskets. But the pieces very rarely survive archaeologically. Here in New Mexico, the climate helps preserve them.”
That explains the exhibition’s large representation of Ancestral Pueblo basketry, made by people for whom woven baskets, sandals, and mats define an early coalescence of their culture in the Southwest: the Basketmaker II and III eras, from bc 1500 to about ad 750.
As they gather in the museum’s collections vault during the exhibition’s development, curators Lea McChesney and Devorah Romanek join Sinopoli in listing tasks that became easier when Ancestral Puebloans mastered the technology. Baskets could carry food, children, even water. “You can cook in baskets, preserve food in baskets,” Sinopoli says. “You can winnow grain,” McChesney says. “And you can adorn yourself,” Romanek says. “Hats are made of baskets.”
You needed baskets to carry out ceremonies throughout North America. And, if a certain Dene maker had sealed the canoe’s seams, you became mobile.
With the 19th-century influx of Anglo settlers, lifeways suffered. Access to basketry materials—reeds, river willows, sweetgrass, feathers, shells, and more—became difficult. “So many factors come together at the time when Indigenous people are under pressure to join this cash economy,” Romanek says. “Certain groups became more associated with baskets among collectors. That has to do with who the collectors are and what they’re collecting.”
Arrayed on tables and shelves in the maze of collections rooms, the baskets range from heavily patched functional vessels to woven teapots made for the tourist market. An intricate Hopi wedding plaque far larger than usual was likely made for an art collector.
Today, climate change deepens the challenges facing makers. In the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, invasive beetles have decimated 90 percent of black ash trees. Basketry now requires seed-saving and sustainable harvesting, too.
The curators worked closely with tribal makers to identify important pieces and hope to add their talks and demonstrations to the exhibition schedule, which tentatively runs through 2023. Those makers have helped sharpen the stories each basket tells.
“They placed the pieces in the land and in the life experiences,” Romanek says. “They talked about the little buttons they have to start the coiling process. They talked about listening to music while they weave. It’s not just that it’s a beautiful object, but there’s the life that it lived.”