Several years ago I was surprised to learn that baskets are one of the only art forms that can’t be made by a machine. Even the baskets you buy in a flower shop are made by someone, somewhere.
Southwest Native American Basketry has been around since before the Cliff Dwellers occupied Mesa Verde and other Pre-Puebloan sites in the Southwest. It was one of the first crafts to be developed and there is a Basket Maker culture that preceded the later inhabitants.
Baskets were made primarily for storage, cooking, and even for sandals!
The Navajo basket is unique, as it is made for and still used in ceremonies, including the wedding of a couple. There are lots of different variations on the basic design, but they all have some things in common. They are made on a foundation of willow that is bundled and stitched together with split willow or sumac. The stitching materials are colored with both aniline and commercial dyes and woven into the basket to create designs.
At a Navajo wedding ceremony, the basket is filled with cornmeal mush and blessed by the Medicine Man. The couple each dip two fingers in the mixture and eats it before placing it on the hogan floor and inviting guests to do the same.
In other ceremonies, the basket is also filled with cornmeal, a common ingredient in most ceremonies.
The designs in the basket, commonly made in white, red, and black colored geometric bands circle around the center of the basket.
The center of the basket represents the Sipapu, the place where the Navajo emerged into the current world through a reed. The first color you encounter is white, then more and more black, and finally red. From the center of the basket is a white opening through the pattern that goes to the edge. In a ceremony, it is important that this line never points downward and that it always points to the East, where the door to the hogan is located. The door of a hogan always faces East so that it can greet the morning sun.
To make this possible in a darkened hogan while holding a basket filled with cornmeal, the weaver always ends her coils where this “Spirit Line” reaches the edge of the basket. There are many interpretations of the meaning of the designs on the basket and is not fair for me to pick one over the other, so I am including a link to the various meanings put together by the Museum of Natural History of Utah, home of one of the finest Navajo basket collections in the world.
Navajo baskets are, to my knowledge, the only baskets still being made for actual use. The main customer for most of them are Navajo people. When a ceremony is being held for them or a relative, one of the items they are required to provide to the Medicine Man is a basket. After it is used, it can be resold and even reused, except for Wedding ceremonies when they must be new.
There are also some wonderful contemporary Navajo baskets that don’t feature traditional designs. Most of these came about because of the efforts of Twin Rocks Trading in Bluff, Utah, where the Simpson family encouraged and promoted modern patterns as art forms.
Navajo baskets are made by both Navajo and Paiute weavers. They are one of the oldest continually made styles of American Indian baskets that are still used by the People.