The Art of Native American Basketry Today

What springs to mind when you imagine a Native American basket? I think of cattails, finely trimmed strips of ash, and dried reeds. I picture bowls with brown and tan designs. How about you?

Native American (Tingit) basket
Native American (Tingit) basket of cedar and merino wool, by Lily Hope, in honor of her mother.

In addition to earth tones, many Native American weavers today use bright colors, modern materials and designs inspired by science. The Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC recently invited artists from tribes in North America to join in a show of their latest work. They named the showcase, Sharing Honors and Burdens: The Renwick Invitational 2023.

Basket with cover by Geo Neptune, made with black ash, sweetgrass and commercial dye

I was excited to see 55 pieces by six artists, and to share some of my photos with you.

Apikilu Binds the Sun, a basket with sweet grass, black ash and gold-plated beads

This show shattered my old notions about Native American basketry. While today’s makers still use traditional techniques and fibers, they also embrace new resources such as glass, commercial dyes, and DNA patterns to work into new forms. 

Master basket weaver Geo Neptune, (or Geo Soctomah Neptune of the Passamaquoddy) uses dazzling colors to weave familiar shapes. The show featured Neptune’s giant strawberry, ears of corn, and birds woven from brown ash. Neptune harvests and prepares ash reeds by hand, following Wabanaki traditions his grandmother taught. 

Basket weaving styled as ears of corn
Black ash baskets styled as ears of corn

These artists also expand on tradition, using modern fabric dye to give the reeds brilliant colors.

“As Indigenous people, we’ve always  adapted based on what we have access to,  

and Wabanaki people, very early on, used  commercial dyes because it was a faster process,” Neptune offers in this video interview.

Creativity takes courage. Breaking with old ways invites judgment. Some visitors seem let down, Neptune says, to learn the dye comes from a box. 

“So, when we take that risk, like, it weighs on us even more, to make something that we want to make,” Neptune explains in this video. 

By honoring both ancestral traditions and the creative desire to adapt them, Neptune builds courage and strength.

“The more I am able to step into myself more fully in my everyday life, the more I feel I am coming more into balance with my mental health, and my spiritual health, and my emotional  health, as well as my physical health,” Neptune says about pursuing new methods.

Alaska born artist Erica Lord (Athabaskan/Inupiat) finds inspiration in scientific knowledge. She depicts strands of DNA as the basis for patterns for sled dogs blankets, or tuppies. Sparkling glass beads and eye-catching colors, represent the DNA of diseases afflicting higher proportions of Native Americans. 

Sled dog style blankets, beaded with DNA codes for diseases for which Native Americans need vaccines, sometimes provided by sled dogs

The work highlights the burden of limited access to healthcare. Lord chose sled dog blankets to commemorate the 1925 dog-sled relay to deliver medicine to treat diphtheria to Nome, Alaska. It’s the same relay led by Balto, the Siberian Husky, who is celebrated in a series of animated films.

On another piece, bold black and white wool and fringe dangles from head to waist from a modern pair of headphones. Weaver Lily Hope (Tlingit) spins the wool using a traditional method called thigh or finger spinning. The artist makes fine wool strands by rolling lengths of prepared wool down one leg. 

Hope demonstrates her adaptation using a pad to twist the wool. 

This exhibition marks the first time the Renwick extended invitations to Native Americans and Alaska Natives to showcase their work. 

I am so glad to have seen these pieces in person, and learned more about the views and experiences the artists offered.

The baskets, weavings and other works are on exhibit from May 26, 2023 through March 31, 2024. Take a look if you’re in town. Admission to the Renewick is free.

Grateful to these publications where I found many of the details for this post:

New Work by Native American and Alaska Native Artists on Display at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, May 9, 2023

The Renwick Invitational showcases contemporary Native craft, Washington Post, by Mark Jenkins June 7, 2023 

Balto (film), Wikipedia, retrieved October 13, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *