INTANGIBLES WOVEN IN TWINE

About the significance of Indian basketweaving, the Burke Museum intoned,“While it is an ancient art, basketry is a tradition which continues to thrive today.  In the past, basket making was the domain of women.  Today, both men and women practice basketry, although it remains a predominantly female art.  Contemporary weavers, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, often achieve positions of great respect in their communities. …No longer viewed solely as ethnographic specimens or souvenir art, Native-made basketry has entered the realm of fine art.”

One such weaver of the Northwest Coast was the late Bruce (subiyay) Miller of the Skokomish Indian Reservation.   “Subiyay used the metaphors or concepts of the umbilical cord, the living breath, and tree rings to describe the process …. The ‘umbilical’ metaphor stands for the intimate connections … creat[ed] through the weaving – connection to the cedar, to the creative process, to the other participants, and to the teacher. The ‘living breath’ is the spirit or the essence of each person, which is left behind in their work and their interactions with others. As tree rings tell the natural history of the environment (rainfall, drought, sunlight, chronological age) and of the tree itself, the practice of Native traditions from one generation to the next creates a human history. If humans are in synch with their environment, their histories (or their ‘tree rings’) overlap and are integrated.” (Seattle Art Museum, Tree People film documentary)

The following account, entitled Creation of the Yakima World, was related to Major J.W. MacMurray in 1884 or 1885 by Coteeakun, son of Kamiakin. Coteeaukun was a friend and assistant of Smohalla, the prophet of the dreamers.

“In the beginning of the world, all was water.  Whee-me-me-ow-ah, the Great Chief above, lived in the sky, above the water, all alone. When he decided to make the world, he went down to the shallow places and began to throw up great handfuls of mud. Thus he made the land.

He piled some of the mud up so high that it froze hard and made the mountains. The rain when it came was turned into ice and snow on top of the high mountains….

The Great Chief above made trees grow on the earth, and also roots and berries. He made a man out of a ball of mud and told him what he should do.  He should get fish from the waters, and deer and other game in the forests.  When the man became lonely the Great Chief above made a woman to be a companion to him and told her what she should do.  He taught her how to dress skins, and how to make baskets out of bark and roots which he showed her how to find.  He taught her which berries to gather for food and how to pick them and dry them. He showed her how to cook the salmon and the game which the man brought.

One time when she was asleep, she had a dream. In her dream she wondered what more she could do to please the man. She prayed to the Great Chief above for help. He answered her prayer by blowing his breath on her and giving her something which she could not see or hear, smell or touch. This invisible something was preserved in a basket.  Through it, the first woman taught her daughters and granddaughters the designs sand skills which had been taught her.”

(Excerpted from T.E. Sanders, W.W. Peek, Eds., Literature of the American Indian,  Encino:  Glencoe Publishing, Inc.,1973.)

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