The rise and fall of basket weaving in the Pima culture

The other day, one of our regular customers who loves extravagant costumes came in and admired a newly displayed Native American war shirt. Not so long ago he would have bought it without a second thought. This time, however, he mumbled something about “cultural appropriation” and moved on.

Having never heard of cultural appropriation, I was a bit confused. Can we no longer take our hat off to regional or historical fashion? Does that mean I now have to throw away all my Hawaiian shirts? I’m still chewing on that idea, but in the meantime, this column pays homage to a non-portable icon of Southwestern history: the Pima basket.

The Pima are a community of Native Americans who lived (and still live) just east of us in southern Arizona. Descended from the ancient Hohokum tribe, they were river dwellers and able to use their proximity to the then-flowing Salt and Gila rivers for farming.

During the drought years, the Pima survived as traditional hunter/gatherers, harvesting the hares and mesquite beans that were abundant in their desert climate. During the gold rush years of 1849 to 1851, the tribe aided western settlers by providing food and guidance through hostile territory.

Nevertheless, the second half of the 19th century proved almost ruinous for the Pima, and in the 1920s famine claimed many lives. New initiatives and federal assistance helped them recover, and today the tribe operates a number of successful businesses on more than 500,000 acres of land.

Among the many crafts practiced by the Pima, perhaps the most famous is basket weaving. Despite the tribe’s financial difficulties after the Civil War, basket weaving never ceased, and by 1900 it was an integral part of life in almost every household.

This larger basket features a typical geometric design and was probably used to transport fruit or grain from the field in the early 20th century.

Initially, baskets were made strictly for personal use and in a wide variety of shapes and styles. It wasn’t long before the beauty and workmanship inherent in such artifacts caught the attention of white admirers, and wagon dealers began paying for baskets to meet the growing demand.

Nevertheless, the prices paid were low and the weavers soon realized that it was possible to make more money in the fields than cater to the whims of collectors. By the late 1920s, basketry among the Pima had all but disappeared, eventually being replaced by pots, pans, and more lucrative pursuits.

As for the baskets themselves, they were laboriously made from thin strips of wood and grass. Willow typically makes up the majority of a Pima basket and is responsible for its overall caramel color, while the darker tones of Devil’s Claw fibers (a desert fruit plant) provide the design.

Although Pima baskets are superficially similar to those made by Apache weavers, the former use a finer, grass-like construction, while the latter were made using larger, rod-like strands . Apache baskets are also often more figurative, while Pima ones tend to be more geometric. It takes a bit of practice to interpret the stylized images, but each basket tells a story.

In terms of value, Apache baskets were made in far fewer numbers and therefore generally more valuable than the original Pima ones. Either way, the price depends on the size, condition, quality and design. Even small baskets will likely require most of a hundred dollar bill to acquire, while larger, more elaborate examples can number in the thousands.

Very few, if any, original baskets have ever been signed, so the family origins of most have been lost to history. Yet an original Pima basket is a classic handmade example of the great American Southwest. They have utility, craftsmanship, and beauty, and the only thing you’ll be guilty of is cultural appreciation.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiquities column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Email him at [email protected]

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