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Hands weave local heritages
Tightly woven through the Olympic Peninsula’s history, baskets come to the forefront in a new book reviewing the culture and artistic abilities of local Native American tribes.
Anthropologist Jacilee Wray of Olympic National Park hopes readers will gain a new appreciation for basketry and the local craftsmen who have created baskets for centuries through “From the Hands of a Weaver: Olympic Basketry through Time.”
She has worked for years compiling it with help from researchers and tribal basket makers to explore the history and how-to-process of baskets within the Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Skokomish (Twana), Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Makah tribes.
“There’s something really organic about it,” Wray said of basket making. “It’s an intense and skilled art form. You have to picture with your mind how it will look and keep everything in line. It’s a lot harder than it might seem and is based on years of experience.”
The book began with the Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Cultural Advisory Committee, a collaboration of the eight tribes to investigate commonalities and the social change among them reflected through basketry while showcasing their artists to the world.
Olympic Peninsula baskets range from a few centimeters to large carrying baskets and up until 150 years ago their bright color schemes — many still intact — came from berries, burying strips of cedar in mud, moss and/or other plants.
Wray said many commonalities occur among the baskets, including images of whales and whaler boats in coastal basket makers’ work, wildlife, and wolf masks from the Quileute.
Colors derived from different sources: Wolves root or Oregon grape root were used for yellow; black came from the mud in tidal areas; red alder bark gave a red; and sunshine bleached other materials white.
Local Native Americans began using commercial dyes out of Victoria, British Columbia, when the Hudson Bay Company traded with them.
Baskets are predominately made of beargrass, cedar strips and sweetgrass mostly found in the Grays Harbor area.
Bundling up the beginning
Wray said aspirations for the book began after visiting museum collections of local baskets in Victoria in 2004.
“There was so much information available, we decided to dive into it all,” she said.
Olympic National Park has its own basket collection, with its treasured piece a large basket fragment found in Olympic National Park’s high country in 1993 by a park visitor. Researchers carbon-date it to 2,880 years old, plus or minus 70 years.
“It gave it a lot more credibility to the fact that people traveled to higher ground and weren’t just at river mouths,” Wray said.
Basketry surged in popularity from the late 1800s to the 1930s because museums sent out representatives to buy local work. However, when the Great Depression hit, people taking on the trade faded, Wray said, until a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s.
While going through ONP’s own collection, Wray said, she found the park’s baskets often are not identified.
She said it’s either because they weren’t marked and/or the identities of the artisans were concealed so as not to flood the basket market.
“A lot of baskets were quite similar because of intermarriage and using a lot of the same materials,” said Kathy Duncan, book contributor and citizen of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
“When you start looking more into it, you can start seeing who makes it. They might have done the same patterns or tied something a certain way.”
Duncan has been making baskets all her life and she wrote about the process of making baskets and helped instigate the creation of the book.
“I think it’s a positive way for people to look at tribes,” Duncan said. “There’s more to tribes than what people normally recognize. It’s part of how highly evolved the tribes were. Not only were the baskets useful, but also had a lot of beauty.”
Olympic National Park’s anthropology program, or ethnography, started in 1978, with only two other anthropologists working in other national parks in 1990 when Wray started here. She said many more exist today.
Her role is to provide park units with information from interviews, archival research, photos. and consultation, to understand the human connection to the places and resources the park service protects.
“These places and resources are often essential to the cultural survival of contemporary Native Americans and other traditionally associated communities also, so that the park can provide accurate and appropriate interpretation of these cultures to the visiting public,” she said.
In her 22 years with Olympic National Park, Wray said she thinks the cultural resources and partnership between the park and tribes has grown.
Olympic National Park’s collection, including Native American baskets, is open to the public by appointment at 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, by calling Gay Hunter, curator, at 360-565-3056.
Visit www.nps.gov/olym or call 360-565-3130 for more information.
If park visitors discover an artifact, it’s recommended they contact a park official immediately and leave the item in its place of origin.
Reach Matthew Nash at firstname.lastname@example.org.