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Ask MOA: What Are These Baskets?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case answers two different inquiries about woven baskets.

Question from inquirer #1:

“This beautiful basket belonged to my grandparents, who were born and lived in Vancouver from early 1900s onward. During their lifetime I never saw it, so I don’t know its story. It is so intricately woven, and very delicate and fragile… I think it may be quite old, perhaps 50 to 100 years old. I am wondering if it is a Musqueam basket.”

Basket #1, exterior
Basket #1, interior

Question from inquirer #2:

“I found this small woven basket when I was helping to clear my late aunt’s apartment in 2017. She lived to the age of 98. I have wondered if the basket might have been made by a Haida weaver. My aunt had travelled with my late uncle who worked in many locations around BC and I think she may have acquired it during one of those trips.”

Basket #2 (top view)
Basket #2 (side view)

Answer from Karen Duffek:

“I’m combining these two queries because they both feature baskets made by Nuu-chah-nulth basket makers, or by their relatives, the Makah. The Nuu-chah-nulth traditional territories are the west coast of Vancouver Island and inland to Port Alberni, while the Makah’s homeland is in Washington State, on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah baskets are made of sea or swamp grasses, using a wrapped-twining technique. These are called pika-uu in the Nuu-chah-nulth language, which means “trinket basket.” Skilled women started making these kinds of items for sale in the 1800s, and still do today. These were always a kind of “non-functional” basketry that became an important part of the economy, sold to tourists and collectors. Many are small lidded containers, like yours; others are called shopping baskets (rectangular with handles), and there are basketry-covered bottles of all shapes and sizes, glass floats, and abalone shells. Making baskets like these for sale to outsiders was an extension of the ancient practice of weaving whalers’ hats and more utilitarian objects. You can see some of the wide range of Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah basketry on MOA’s Collections Online.

Looking at the inside of these little baskets is always informative. Often the colours are much more vibrant, since the aniline dyes fade quickly in the light. Here we can see that on Basket #1, the base and the warp (vertical) elements are made of the inner bark of a cedar tree, split into thin strips; the base is finely plaited cedar bark at the centre. The sides of Basket #1 are finely woven of thin strands of sea grass applied as the weft element, with dyed strands used for the decorative motifs. The grasses are usually swamp grass (Carex obnupta), also known as sharp grass or chi’tapt; most weavers today use the stems of locally picked three-corner grass (Scirpus americanus) or toq-toq as the warp for smaller baskets. On both baskets a strip of cedar bark encircles the top edge, and the lid fits over it. Basket #2 is a newer example (perhaps from the 1970s), but also expertly made—look at how well the base is done, beginning not with plaited cedar bark but instead with wrapped-twined grasses. On Basket #1 the motifs are geometric, which is also typical of some earlier baskets; on Basket #2, the classic motif of two whalers in a canoe is woven into the side, along with a zigzag line and a star-like shape on the lid.

Basket #1 has obviously been well loved and much handled, and as a result is quite damaged. This basket could be as old as the early 1900s. The grasses do break easily when they become brittle. You might want to provide the basket with some support by placing a lightly crumpled or folded piece of acid-free tissue inside, setting the lid on top, and keeping it in a place where it can be admired (but not handled) and out of direct light. Both are baskets to be treasured!”

Response from inquirer #1:

“Thanks so much for your thoughtful research into my basket.  This means ever so much to me! It is wonderful to know the provenance of it, and I do also appreciate the tip to help it keep its shape, and treasure the delicateness. The MOA collection of early 1900s trinket baskets are indeed so similar, it is amazing to see. Feeling grateful for your work and response.”

Response from inquirer #2:

“Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. I’m delighted to know more about the provenance of my little basket. Of course, I treasure it because it was owned by my late aunt; sadly, her story of how she acquired it will likely have to remain a mystery to me (though I may now consult with my 94-year-old father to see if he knows anything!).”