Chinookan baskets varied in size, form, material, and construction method, depending on their function. Lewis and Clark noted baskets ranging “from that of the smallest cup to five or six gallons.” The most common form was bowl-shaped, with a flat bottom and gradually flaring sides. Another popular design was a small cattail basketry pouch, often sold to tourists and collectors at the end of the nineteenth century.

Maple bark basket, with cedar root decoration. Made with local wild maple bark and red cedar roots. Image courtesy of Pat Courtney Gold

Basketry materials included bear grass, cattail, cedar bark, rushes, spruce root, and willow bark.  The laborious gathering and preparation of materials followed the seasons, with respect for the environment and the spiritual world. The transformation of natural materials into aesthetically-pleasing utilitarian objects balanced the human and spiritual worlds. Prior to gathering materials, basket makers asked plants for permission to be collected and crafted into baskets.

Wall hanging based on cedar mats used to provide privacy in plankhouses. Image courtesy of Pat Courtney Gold

“Large cedar plaited basket used for storage. The white fiber is beargrass. Cedar was sacred, used for plankhouses, canoes, clothing, cordage, and baskets. Beargrass did not grow locally, but was traded from upriver.” Image and text courtesy of Pat Courtney Gold

Materials required elaborate preparation. For instance, a basket maker had to steam spruce root and then split it into strips, before soaking it overnight. Basket makers gathered cattail in the summer, and then dried and stored them until fall or winter. They made dyes from alder, hemlock, mud, nettle, and Oregon grape root. Black, red, and yellow were common colors. Black was produced by burying willow bark or grass in mud, while black alder yielded red, and nettle roots provided yellow. Some baskets featured alternating colored bands or designs interwoven with different colored grasses, depicting horses, dogs, and birds.

After materials were prepared, weaving could begin. Baskets are composed of a vertical warp and a horizontal weft. Lower Chinookan baskets were primarily constructed using twined techniques. Twining features a straight, vertical warp, around which two or three wefts are intertwined, alternating over the front and back. Checker-work techniques were also employed, usually with cedar bark.

Cape twined with pounded cedar bark. Cedar bark was waterproof, ideal for the rainy Pacific Coast. Image courtesy of Pat Courtney Gold

 

Sources:

  • Mercer, Bill.  People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory. Portland, Oregon: Portland Art Museum, 2005.
  • Swan, James Gilchrist.  The Northwest Coast Or, Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1982.
  • Ross, Alexander.  Adventures of the First Settlers on the Columbia River. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, Inc., 1966.
  • Ray, Verne F. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Lower Chinook Ethnographic Notes, Volume VII, Number 2. Seattle: The University of Washington, 1938.
  • Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.