Of Botany and Baskets

Date December 21, 2007 at 11:00 PM

Categories Performing Arts


Everett Pikyavit reweaves the art of Southern Paiute basketry

What fascinated me about Southern Paiute baskets from southern Utah and Nevada, when I began to research Native American baskets, was the ingenuity of the weavers for whom the ancient tradition-7,000 years of basketmaking in the Great Basin-was truly an art form. But by the 1950s, that art form was in freefall. Between the 1950s and the 1990s, only San Juan Paiute in Arizona-one of 14 Paiute groups-were still weaving baskets regularly, and they were making primarily one type of basket: a Navajo ceremonial basket used by Navajo medicine men in curing and wedding ceremonies. (In 1868 when the Navajo were given their reservation in northern Arizona, it included the traditional lands of a small group of Southern Paiute; these San Juan Paiute adopted new basketry traditions that served Navajo cultural needs.) In the other Paiute groups living in southern Utah, Nevada, and California, the early-20th-century traditions of making coiled "fancy"€ baskets for collectors, as well as prototypes of utilitarian baskets whose styles dated from before 1850, had been completely abandoned. I first met Everett Pikyavit in 2000 when I was judging the basket entries at the Tohono O'odham Basketweavers Association competition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Upon seeing a woman's twined cap on Pikyavit's table, I was completely overwhelmed. His new cap, woven entirely of sumac, was of a style unmade by the Southern Paiute since 1900. His table also held prototypes of early work baskets of the Southern Paiute-winnowing and parching trays, carrying baskets, water jars, and seed beaters. Immediately I asked Pikyavit, a Southern Paiute who had grown up in Nevada, about the plants he was using to weave, as I could see how finely made his baskets were. Pikyavit explained that he grew up on a ranch. He only learned to weave and make baskets in the late 1990s, after he had encountered historic basket collections at several museums, including the Lost City Museum in Overton, Nevada. Pikyavit explained to me that he had grown up aware of the Paiute cultural tradition of basketweaving, but there were no active weavers in the community of Moapa, Nevada, where he lived, to help him when he started. While many of the older women showed him baskets that their grandmothers had made, and relayed rudimentary information on processing and gathering materials, Pikyavit is truly self-taught.

Over the seven years I have followed his work, I've seen his art evolve into a marriage of intellectual curiosity and incredible technical craftsmanship. His curiosity takes many forms, from weaving old fish traps and replicating water jars to even twining a whiskey bottle. Few contemporary weavers from other tribes have the virtuosity to make such a variety of forms while simultaneously focusing as closely as Pikyavit has on recreating coiled Paiute fancy baskets ( "fancy"€ refers to those finely coiled pieces made as gifts or for sale to non-Indians) that in the early 1900s were a hallmark of Southern Paiute artistry. He has perfected his technical expertise and expanded the way he uses materials in stunning ways.

Pikyavit called me in February 2004 to say the willow he requires would be ready to harvest in mid-March, so a few weeks later I drove from Santa Fe to the Moapa Reservation to meet him. He, like basket-weavers of the past,must rely wholly on the environment. Rainfall, temperature fluctuations, the presence of grazing cattle, humans, and cutting of plant material all affect the material's quality from year to year. Such conditions make it essential for Pikyavit to have several places for harvesting each material, where he returns at least once a year to monitor plant growth and to prune.

We set out early in the morning. Moving toward its zenith, the sun cast shadows over the desert landscape on the rugged Virgin Mountains. Even in mid-March, temperatures were in the high 90s. Here, in arroyos near seeps, along roadsides, hidden in vast creosote expanses, or among large willow stands near irrigated fields, we found the raw materials of Southern Paiute baskets-willow, sumac, juncus. For me this trip was charged by the recognition that, as a researcher, I was experiencing the laborintensive task of selecting and harvesting that confronts basketmakers. I first became interested in historical Paiute baskets for their beauty. On deeper immersion, the materials, processing, and techniques of the basketry stood out. To love baskets is to become a botanist!

Our first stop was in search of juncus (Juncus balticus). A marshy depression near the highway that held runoff from rain and nearby farms showed signs of a healthy growth from last year and sprouts that would be ready to harvest in late summer. The use of juncus for designs in coiled baskets is historically associated with the Mission and Panamint Shoshone tribes of Southern California, and the Southern Paiute probably adopted it from them. Juncus colors range from dark rust at the base of the stem to soft gold at the tip; Pikyavit uses the tonal quality to create softly colored background designs. Coming upon a willow stand, Pikyavit used a sharp pocketknife that he carried on his belt to sever a healthy-looking branch near the ground. He cut off several inches of the top of the branch, and then made two cuts dividing the sample into three sections. Placing one section between his teeth and the two others in each hand, he pulled down with equal force on each strand until the entire length of the willow split into three parts. He then removed the pith from each splint to test for strength and structural density. If the material didn't split evenly or had too much pith, it was not ready for harvest.

Pikyavit's intimacy with botany owes to growing up on a ranch and learning from tribal elders, then his own research for an associate of science degree at Riverside Community College in California, where he studied botany.A prehistoric carrying bag that the weaver saw in the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology collection in Santa Fe in 2003-and whose fiber the museum collection had not identified-inspired one of the most interesting pieces Pikyavit has created. Carrying bags have been used for thousands of years in the Southwest but had not been made by the Southern Paiute since the early19th century. But Pikyavit recognized its material on first sight as the bark of the cliff rose (Cowania stansburiana). Now, in search of bark and fibers for Pikyavit to use for other carrying bags, we headed to the mountains where groves of cliff rose and piñon thrive. Reaching heights of 15 feet, cliff rose grows best on the northern side of the mountain at these latitudes. Traditionally the Southern Paiute made cordage, sandals, blankets, sleeping mats, and clothing from cliff rose.

The bark hangs in loose shreds from the trunk of the cliff rose. To strip it requires getting down on hands and knees and pulling upward on it from the base of the plant. This is dirty, dusty work, requiring considerable strength. Pikyavit extracts only a small amount from one side of the trunk to prevent damaging the plant. The dull gray color on the outside bark hides the beautiful rust-reds on the underside, which will create the outside surface of the piece.We were successful in collecting enough cliff rose for several carrying bags and pieces of cordage, but I was saddened to hear that fire swept through the area a year later.

While my desert expedition with Pikyavit was unique to me, it was one that had been conducted many thousands of times over centuries by indigenous people of the Great Basin. The Southern Paiute were masters of their environment before contact with Mormons in the 1850s. Without the use of the horse, baskets of all kinds were necessary for their survival in a harsh environment that demanded exploitation of resources over a wide geographical area. Baskets carried camp goods, children, and water; baskets were used for collecting pine nuts, larvae, seeds, and berries; they were also needed for cooking, parching, and winnowing foods. Pikyavit has not only restored the basketry arts of the Southern Paiute for all to appreciate, but he has also reinterpreted his people's history as he accomplishes his personal goal of producing fancy basketswith the fine stitchwork begun by basketmakers a century ago.