Northwest Basketry Identification
Northwest Coast basketry is as varied as the topography and the natural materials native to the region – from the desert plateaus above the mighty Columbia to the moody Olympic peninsula beaches. From first encounter to current day, the uses and presentation of baskets have remained remarkably consistent and changed drastically with each artist’s novel interpretation of motifs and techniques. If we have baskets from our families going back generations or find one for sale in the open market, it can be tricky work to identify where an item may have come from.
The best knowledge in issues of identification is first-hand knowledge, and being able to closely examine the construction and material of items that are for sale either at auction or in a retail shop would be ideal – though not all of us have time to access the showrooms of reputable dealers and auction previews all the time. Luckily, there are manifold resources in public collections if you live in Seattle – at institutions like the University of Washington’s Burke Museum and the Seattle Art Museum. The Burke’s online resources make their extensive holdings accessible any time of day or night, and they are the repository for some truly spectacular examples of older work and contemporary baskets as well. Their excellent newer website has searchable collections and a great home page for exploration of all their NW coast baskets.
One of the most common baskets in the Seattle area are the round, flat-bottomed trinket baskets primarily made by the Makah. Their hallmark is the finely woven body with some restrained decoration in older pieces, and thicker weaving with an interwoven cedar bark bottom that sometimes covers more or less area, possibly depending upon the artistic choice of the weaver and the period in which it was woven (since it is larger on newer baskets, it is a possibility that weavers now spend less time doing difficult weaving at the bottom surface since it is normally unseen when displayed). Notice on the Burke site that the Nuu-chah-nulth weavers make a nearly identical form, and the Quileute also make baskets with linear patterns with figural motifs at the sides, and the differences are very subtle. If you are attempting to identify a basket with this degree of tiny differences, it is best to notice all these different tribal affiliations.
The Seattle Art Museum has a photo online of an older, more rare Makah basket of a different shape and a motif that highlights the whaling tradition of the Makah nation (a motif that is seen over time in many Makah baskets, even brand new baskets). Since we live so close to Makah country, a real option for research is traveling to Neah Bay for Makah Days in August and purchasing baskets from contemporary weavers who are selling in addition to looking around in thrift shops and antique stores along the way. The other type of baskets found most often in the Seattle area are generically referred to as Salish baskets from anywhere around the northwest U.S. to British Columbia; these baskets have very thick weaving and strong geometric decoration. Nearly every auction in the NW that includes Native American material has one Lillooet lidded hamper, and a quick trip to any local antique mall will yield at least one small coastal or interior Salish basket to compare to any you try to identify.
Foss Appraisal Service is available to answer questions regarding your NW basket collections.