Southwest Culture Area

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The Southwest covers most of Arizona and New Mexico and northern Mexico. Much of the area is desert, averaging less than 4 inches (10 cm) of precipitation a year in some parts. Prehistorically this encouraged occupation along water ways which later developed into the irrigation systems popularly associated with Southwest culture.

The Native Americans in the Southwest speak languages in several language families, including Hokan, Uto-Aztecan, Tanoan, Keresan, Kiowa-Tanoan, Penutian, and Athabaskan. This latter family originates in the western Subarctic, indicating that Southwest groups using Athabaskan languages, like the Navajo and Apache, migrated from that region.

Around 9000 BCE the Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer culture, Clovis, migrated into the area and the Cochise culture arrived around 7000 BCE. We see evidence of baskets in the region at 8000 years ago. Starting around 100 CE cultures became more dependent upon farming (which mostly consisted of maize, squash, and beans). Between 1100 CE and 1500 CE the Athabaskan-speaking groups (Navajo and Apache) migrated into the area.

The natural environment provided a plethora of resources for prehistoric basket making but not for the widespread preservation of those baskets. However, the cultural reliance on baskets is evident in their modern decedents, although we recognize some aspects have changed over time. For example, the introduction of sheep by the Spanish colonizers led the Navajo to switch from plant-based weaving to wool which, along with trade, led to dramatic cultural changes. This combination of European contact and trade led to similar large shifts across all Southwest cultures. Recently, there is a movement to preserve and revive traditions (i.e. language, cooking, and crafting techniques and resources) even though the socio-political and economic landscapes have been permanently changed.


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Navajo A

A. Navajo Bracelet – Silver and Turquoise

Navajo B

B. Navajo Blouse and Skirt – Satin, Metal Beads, and pre-1945 Dimes

Navajo C

C. Paiute “Navajo Wedding Basket” – Coiled; Dyed and Undyed Sumac

Navajo D

D. Navajo Rug – Woven; Wool

Navajo E

E. Navajo Painted Hide – Hide and Pigment

Navajo F

F. Navajo Squash Blossom Necklace – Silver and Turquoise

Unlike many other Southwest cultures, the Navajo were never prolific basket-weavers. They are more known for their textiles and turquoise adorned silver jewelry, both of which originated after the 17th century. Navajo Wedding Baskets are well known but are many times crafted by the Paiute in the Great Basin region (although not exclusively). And, despite the common name, are used for many ceremonies other than weddings.

Their textiles are not only a prized commodity, but an efficient use of their already expansive resource; sheep. In 1930, the Navajo had over 1 million mature sheep grazing on their reservation. This caused heavy erosion and deterioration of the land. The Navajo Livestock Reduction program was instituted in order to regulate how many sheep could graze on the reservation. Although the impact on the land was reduced, it also had an impact on the Navajo economy as sheep were their primary source of income and important to their culture. There is still a quota system in place on the reservation.

The Navajo have already had dramatic changes in resources due to European contact. How might it continue to evolve?



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Apache A

A. Apache Collar – Beaded; Satin, String, and Glass Beads

Apache B

B. Apache Poncho – Leather, Beads, and Paint

Apache C

C. Apache Tray – Coiled; Willow or Cottonwood, Sumac or Squawberry, and Devil’s Claw

Apache D

D. Apache Tus Basket – Twinned; Willow, Pine Pitch, and Leather

Apache E

E. Apache Jar – Coiled; Willow or Cottonwood, Sumac or Squawberry, and Devil’s Claw

Apache F

F. Apache Burden Basket – Twinned; Willow or Cottonwood, Sumac or Squawberry, Devil’s Claw, Leather, and Metal Ring

The Apache span a wide range of land from the Plains to the Southwest and have many subcultures. Collectively they are known for more beadwork than any other Southwest culture, much like the Plains cultures. The beaded collar is an example. Collars like this were often worn by girls during their puberty rite ceremony (the Sunrise Ceremony), along with Apache burden baskets.

Prior to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1978, many aspects of Native American religions were prohibited by law (including the Sunrise Ceremony). It was shortly before and heavily after the passing of the Act that many Apache traditions were being revived (including basket-weaving).

What might have happened if the Act was never passed? How many traditions do you think would have vanished?


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Oodham A

A. Akimel O’odham (formerly Pima) Basketry Plate – Coiled; Willow and Devil’s Claw

Oodham B

B. Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) Basketry Duck – Coiled; Yucca and Devil’s Claw

Oodham C

C. O’odham Rattle – Coiled; Willow or Yucca and Devil’s Claw

The O’odham’s ancestors have been in the Southwest for thousands of years, using baskets for much of that time. And, even though they are similar in culture and geographic region, changes in the socio-political and ecological climate have divided their almost identical traditions into two very separate paths.

By 2,000 BCE most baskets were made in the coiling technique in the O’odham areas, however plaiting was used in smaller amounts. Traditionally, Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham used similar basketry techniques. They were tight coils with willow and devil’s claw for the wrap. The main difference was that the Tohono O’odham would trade with the Akimel O’odham in order to acquire the willow, while the Akimel O’odham had it naturally in their area.

Around the mid-19th Century, however, things began to change. Between 1860 and 1910, there were major droughts in the Akimel O’odham region created by northern settlers building canals that diverted water away from their reservations. These droughts led the primarily agricultural people to seek other employment. This reduced the number of Akimel O’odham who focused on traditional crafts.

Unlike their neighbors, the Tohono O’odham capitalized on the introduction of settlers and their desire to trade. They began to sell their traditional baskets in order to make money. To maximize profit margins, and due to aesthetic similarities, the Tohono O’odham basket-weavers switched from the traditional willow to the local and easier to use yucca plant, thus making the baskets cheaper to make. This new set of techniques was further evolved when basket-weavers began to use open stitching, thus using less material as well as making way for the stylized “wheat-stitch” commonly seen today. 

While the Akimel O’odham did not experience the same basketry boom that their neighbors did, over the past 50 years or so there has been a great revival in the traditional crafts. Artists now face a new dilemma, the introduction of invasive species to their land has caused visibly weakened the health of their native willows used in basketry. Additionally, other plants have reproduced with invasive species to create a sterile and inedible plant, not the producing plants the Akimel O’odham have relied on for so long.

These two peoples lived adjacent to one another for centuries until the reservation system separated them by a few hundred miles.  How has this seemingly small location change impacted culture? How might climate change and the introduction of invasive species into the region further affect them?



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Hopi A

A. Hopi Sifter – Plaited; Yucca

Hopi B

B. Hopi Plaque – Coiled; Dyed and Undyed Yucca and Galleta Grass

Hopi C

C. Hopi Plaque – Wicker; Dune Broom and Rabbitbrush

Hopi D

D. Hopi Ceramic Jar – Clay and Pigment

The Hopi have continued with the same basket-making traditions of their ancestors for hundreds of years. They use three techniques, ranging in antiquity: wicker (prehistoric), plaited (prehistoric), and coiling (the modern technique is different from prehistoric in material, coil size, and finishing and was possibly brought with migration from southern locations between the 14th and 17th centuries). As in antiquity, they still gather wild plants for the materials, heavily use natural dyes, and only harvest the materials during culturally appropriate times of year (i.e. before or after certain ceremonies).

With the formation of Indian Reservation in the 1800s, the Hopi Tribe has disputed the area of land apportioned to them. Their small 2,532 square mile plot, surrounded by the Navajo Nation, does not include all the needed wild resources for their basketry traditions. In some cases, a basket-weaver may travel over 300 miles to gather materials. Artists go to great lengths because baskets are vital to the Hopi culture and are used in a plethora of ways:

  • Trade
  • Reaffirm links between families and clan members
  • “Paybacks” for bride’s wedding robes
  • Gifts to repay favors or work
  • Prizes to winners of footraces
  • Symbolic meanings for newborns, toddlers, and small girls
  • Kiva ceremonies and rituals
  • Basket dances 
  • Food storage
  • Seed sifting
  • And more

The future of Hopi basketry is dependent on access to their traditional resources and threatened by political and natural changes. In the future they may have to choose between tradition and production. What changes might take place?

Hualapai (Walapai)

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Hualapai A

A. Hualapai Chalice – Twinned; Sumac or Squawberry, Dyed Sumac, and Devil’s Claw

Hualapai B

B. Hualapai Winnowing Basket – Coiled; Sumac or Squawberry

 Hualapai C

C. Hualapai Jar – Twinned; Sumac or Squawberry and Yucca or Mahogany Root

In prehistoric to recent historic times, the Hualapai made coiled baskets like many other near-by tribes, however around the 1930’s they switched to twinning. Part of this switch came from the fact that trade was picking up and they found twining to be easier to make. The other is that even though the resources are abundant on the reservation, more and more land is falling into private hands making access to the materials more and more restricted. 

Over the last 140 years, there have been three phases of basketry decline and revival. In the 1880s, the building of the railroads through Hualapai territory encouraged the sale of baskets to tourists. In 1894, there was a shift in schools where traditions were brought back to the forefront. Post World II there was a decline in basket weaving until the 1960s.  For the next two decades basket-weaving was taught in schools and forms that had not been seen in over 50 years (parching trays, conical baskets, and waters jugs) were reintroduced. 

By the turn of the 21st century there were only about a dozen basket-weavers left. What is the likelihood of another revival? What does the constant decline and reestablishment of these traditions mean for the culture and resources?