Tribal Expressions Basket Information

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Basketry appears to be the first craft and one of the earliest means of artistic expression. Basket making seems to be instinctual, as evidenced by the work of all manner of creatures, from spider webs and bird's nests to beaver dams. The earliest evidence of basketry exists in ceramics, which were created by pressing wet clay into basket forms. Because of the quality of baskets and fiber sandal finds at sites in the American Southwest, the societies that made them are identified as Basketmaker 1 (AD 100-400) and Basketmaker 11 (AD 400-700).

From the earliest of times, baskets allowed people to come together to eat. In this way, baskets promoted gathering of food, social exchange, communication and language. Basketry itself is learned as it has been for centuries, by gathering and sharing.

Navajo Ceremonial baskets

Because of the "Drawing Power" of the earth, baskets are used to hold sacred objects to prevent their touching the ground. Ceremonial baskets hold ritual objects such as prayer sticks, medicine bundles, yucca suds for hair washing; and cornmeal for weddings and coming of age puberty rights.

Navajo Ceremonial basket construction traditionally consists of a triple` sumac rod foundation with fiber overlay, and finished by a false braid or herring bone weave. The center star may consist of a knot or a round coil. The center is said to represent the beginning of life, moving outwards while the outer white part represents an increase of the People. Inner white to designate the sacred mountains, outer white represents the dawn, and is tied with the outside rim which represents a persons thoughts, prayers and values.

Traditional Navajo basket makers use black pyramid shapes, facing the basket center, to symbolize the darkness (night). Black pyramids facing the basket rim symbolize clouds that bring rain. The red part within the black represents the life giving rays of the sun.

The gap or break in the design, that reaches from the center of the basket to the outer coil is known as the "shipapu". The shipapu corresponds to the end of the final coil of the basket and is aligned with the final stitches of the rim finish. During ceremonies the shipapu is always oriented toward the east. By some accounts the shipapu is the path of communication between the lower or ancestral worlds of the Navajo and the present world. The shipapu is woven into the basket as a pathway to let the people emerge, and allowing the spirit to come and go.

In the Navajo wedding ceremony, the man and woman meet at sundown in a specially prepared shelter. The wedding basket is placed in front of them, filled with blue corn meal. They eat, taking alternate bites, beginning at the east edge and moving clockwise. The guests then dip their fingers into the remaining meal and say a prayer. The basket is then taken away by the groom's mother, and is not seen for the rest of the night. The practice remains a vital part of the continuing traditions of Navajo life and culture.

Hopi sifter baskets
Plaited (woven) sifter baskets are used daily by the Hopi for preparing and sorting food, or sorting any number of household items. Hopi basket weaving is a continuation of the prehistoric plaited technique used in the Southwest since approximately 500 B.C. In particular, the Hopi sifter basket is part of a Pueblo tradition of uninterrupted basket making fifteen centuries old. Yucca is a plant that grows wild at elevations of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Abundant sword shaped leaves have long fibers make them ideal for making baskets. The old style sifters have hoops of desert willow and cattail. Metal hoops, generally round, are now more prevalent in the sifter rims.

Hopi wicker Plaques
Wicker plaques or yungyapy as they are called at Hopi are the most common form of basketry on the Third Mesa. Although a large number are made for sale, even a larger number never leave the reservation. They are used in payment for the Hopi bride's wedding robes, as gifts to repay favors for work performed, or as prizes in foot races. They are also part of the trappings in women's dances and gifts to newborn babies.

The wrap material in wicker baskets is usually a single stem of a ringed nature. The weft is material, usually stems from rabbit brush, which is more flexible. The basket is started in a cross-warp fashion and the weft is woven around the warps in a circular pattern. Generally the weft material is dyed with vegetal dyes to produce a large pallet of color for designs.

Cherokee baskets
Cherokee baskets are made from pliable parts of plants such as root runners and tree bark strips. These stick like baskets are made from Honeysuckle reed. A basket maker's tools include: skillful fingers, finger nails, teeth, a knife, and bone awl. In recent times scissors and steel tools are also used. Nails function as a gauge, and the mouth often serves as third hand. All Cherokee basket dyes are made from natural materials such as vegetables, berries and bark. These natural dies retain their color indefinitely.

IITOI The Man In The Maze

The legend behind the man in the maze has many variations. The following version is most often repeated by the Tohono O’Odham of Arizona.

In the beginning a power creator brought about a race of people in the desert. These people lived for several generations, and as time went on they became sinful . . . all except for one, Iitoi, also known as Elder Brother. The Creator saw that Iitoi was true and told him that a flood would soon kill all the people in the desert. The creator placed Iitoi high up on Baboquivari Peak, the sacred mountain of the Tohono O’Odham (Papago), and let him witness the disaster. Afterward Iitoi helped create the Hohokam people from whom the Tohono O’Odham and Pima descended. He helped teach the people the right way of life, and they lived in harmony for many years.

Eventually some of the people turned on Iitoi and killed him; his spirit fled back atop Baboquivari Peak, where it remains today. From time to time Iitoi’s spirit, in the form of a very small man would cunningly sneak into the villages and take things from the people. In their attempt to catch him they would get confused at all the deceiving turns he made going back to his home atop the peak. Thus in the maze one can see Elder Brother at the top and trace his mysterious and bewildering turns on the journey to his mountain home.

To the Tohono O’Odham the man at the top of the maze symbolizes birth - of the individual, of the family, and of the tribe. As the figure goes through the maze he encounters many turns, many changes.

Reference “The Papago Indians and Their Basketry,© 1979, by Terry DeWald, Tucson, Arizona 


One of four medicinal plants American Indians use for ceremony and healing, sweet grass is a hardy aromatic perennial which is found growing in rich moist soil from Alaska to Newfoundland in full sun. The roots spread horizontally and then grow upward to make more shoots. In addition to tobacco, cedar, and sage, sweet grass has long been considered sacred. It has a sweet fragrance of its own that stays with the grass forever.

Smoke from burning sweet grass is used as incense for purification. When burned or dampened, the sweet scent of the grass is released into the air.  Burning of the grass purifies the air, the mind, and thoughts. It is medicine used to bring good luck and health. Prayers imparted into the sweet grass smoke rise toward the clouds and are scattered by the winds to the Great Spirit.

A blade of sweet grass has a smooth and a rough side, symbolic of opposite forces such as day and night, male and female. These forces are unified by the braid. The 3 sections represent the sun, water, and earth, and when attached, roots reveal an actual and symbolic connection to the earth.

An individual blade of grass is not as strong as the strands are when braided together. It is given as a reminder of the strength we derive from our common interests.


Much power comes from the plants. Among them, there are several kinds of sage all of which are considered sacred. It is a “first aid” plant and is used in many ceremonies and represents the powers of nature. Sage symbolizes green living things, the spirits of trees and plants.

When burned, Sage is used to drive out evil spirits; sweet grass attracts the good ones.

Anyone who has studied the leaves of one plant can see that no two leaves are exactly alike. The Great Spirit likes it that way.

A sage stem warn in the hair is used to attract the spirits and aid in understanding of them. During the yuwipi ceremony participants wear sage behind the ear so they will understand the spirit when they come to them.

Bundles of soft sage leaves are used during the Sun Dance to clense wounds and to wipe away cold sweat. Plants used in this way make a powerful love charm and are prized by women.

Incense made of aromatic botanicals are blended to produce a light but powerful smudge.  They are used in traditional Native American sweat lodges, ceremonies and rituals, and doctors, therapists and body workers are increasingly discovering the beneficial aspects of their use.

Smoke from sage (artemesia tridentada) is considered by many native people to be a cleanser and a purifier.  The added cedar is used to attract positive and beneficial energies. 


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