Native American

Lidded Basket

Artist: D. P. H.
Culture/People: Haudenosaunee Confederacy
Place: Glen Falls, NY
Media: Black ash splints natural undyed and vegetal and aniline dyes
Dims: 14 (w/loop) x 11.5 (w/handles) in. (35.56 x 29.21 cm)
Date:  1917
RTC No: NA0022
Gift of Ralph T. Coe


The Fancy Basket The Oneida people are one of the Nations that make up the Haudenosaunee or “People of the Longhouse.” They held the historical territory of today’s New York State long before the arrival of European settlers. As an Iroquoian-speaking people, they form a part of the Five Nations that formed the Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Several Nations, or kinship groups called clans, make up the Haudenosaunee people. Although immediate families such as parents and siblings connect members, their lineages also include the extended family of fellow clan members. They are considered a matrilineal society since each member is born into their mother’s clan, whether it be the turtle, wolf, or bear. 

The members consider each clan animal to have specific positive characteristics or attributes. The turtle, for instance, teaches patience and the importance of perseverance and intelligence. Turtles symbolize strength and unity, where wisdom is valued. Meanwhile, the wolf enlightens the importance of using one’s ears, listening, and being vigilant. They embody the symbol of family and ancestry. Finally, the bear is both gentle and indestructible. Bears have power in knowing it takes more strength not to strike than to give in to the impulse to attack.

Where did these clans originate from? Their stories differ among the Haudenosaunee. The Oneida, for example, tell that clans originated, along with the matrilineal kinship system, as a response to issues during the Haudenosaunee mourning process. Since women have the Creator’s gift to create life, they also determined that a village member’s lineage would stem from the mother’s line from generation to generation. 

The Haudenosaunee is still a matrilineal society. After the establishment of the clans, the people developed new ceremonial protocols. For example, when an Oneida member of the village passed away, the clan members of that person would mourn, the second clan would console them, and the third would carry on village business as usual. This way of mourning became the new way for the Oneida Nation.

The Haudenosaunee people are known to be skillful and excellent craftsmen. They made valuable objects from vegetable fibers, barks of trees, or beaver hides, indicating their ability to harness nature, passing traditional knowledge down through many generations. Their basket makers used their relationship with the environment to create baskets to carry, store, prepare, and gather food products. 

Fur was the main form of trade with European settlers before baskets. During the Great North American Fur Trade in the early to mid-1600s, the Onedia traded their furs with European settlers. Furs were taken to the coast, where trading would take place. Montreal was a primary place for trade. This began to change as furs were depleted in the area and traders ventured further inland and westwards, mostly on Native-made bark canoes.

As an economic principle, the Haudenosaunee economy was based on gift exchange and social relationships. Trading furs became a way for the Haudenosaunee families to gain prestige and honor and acquire utensils, axes, and clothing, to list a few. Kettles were one of the many valuable items traded for furs.  

Once the fur trade was over in the mid-19th century, the Haudenosaunee needed to find new ways of subsisting; basket-making became one of them. Basket-making is one of the Five Nations’ best-preserved crafts, a practice among the Iroquois that dates back centuries. In older times, families spent time together to practice the momentum involved in basket making. In later years, it became a primary source of income to support many Haudenosaunee families. Thus, basket-making became an integral part of the Haudenosaunee economy when the settler society noted their basketry work in the 1800s. 

Making baskets required teamwork in the household. Women designed and dyed the fibers to make fancy baskets, while the men cut and chopped the trees. The styles of baskets became more elaborate after the Civil War during the Victorian period. The Haudenosaunee baskets reflected this Victorian fashion with curlicues, ribbons, and other intricate detailing.

The Northeastern Algonquin also influenced Haudenosaunee basket-making. The Algonquin had a rich basket-making tradition. Each group shared its unique style and created a new form of basket making. Fancy baskets were unique because the artists adorned them with distinctive fiber turns and cuts, which were a signature of each artist. No basket was the same. Baskets were decorated with either hand-painting or patterns created with a potato stamp: the artist would carve a design into the potato and then dip it into paint or dye. The Haudenosaunee employed the painting method more often. Chrome yellow, Spanish brown, indigo, opaque green, and peach pink were the colors most used. 

There were many kinds of baskets made. The hulling basket is the most common and was used for washing corn mixed with wood ash. Another type of basket made was the pack basket, such as the one pictured here in the Coe Center’s collection. The pack basket is similar to the hulling basket but made with loopholes at the top to make a carrying strap. There were also the popular berry-picking baskets. Other kinds of baskets were market baskets, newspaper baskets, wet clothes baskets, sewing baskets, unique baskets used for making hull corn soup, and Easter baskets. More recently, makers have been making baskets for other uses, such as rectangular baskets with handles. Families use these baskets as picnic baskets, sewing baskets, and clothes hampers. 

The basket timber is Black Ash. The yellowish-looking bark is preferred for making baskets; the splints don’t break easily. A basket can easily last fifty years if a basket is well cared for. Artists paint some baskets with pigments made from blood roots, cherry bark, slippery elm bark, butternut bark, and sumac.

Sometimes women would hire a man and his team to travel far away to trade baskets. If they went to farmers to trade, they would receive potatoes, meat, sugar, beans, and sometimes canned goods in exchange. There was always robust trading for baskets because they were well-made with a useful purpose. 

Since the burden of economic support through the trading of baskets is no longer an issue, each generation of basket makers has grown in individual style and creativity. They have been able to innovate in design while still using traditional materials, methods, and types of baskets. Baskets were once created out of necessity for practical use and trade. Today, most baskets are made exclusively for collectors and display; the focus has become more on the decorative and aesthetic

The basket pictured would be considered a fancy basket made in the early 1900s. With its designed lid and container, the artist colored the basket fibers with rich orange, black, brown, and yellow dyes. Its maker split the curlicues along the midsection of the basket exterior. Who owned this basket? What was carried in it?

Today, the Haudenosaunee culture unites the Indigenous community. This can be seen in a recent article on how Haudenosaunee Syracuse University students revitalized their cultural practices on Indigenous Peoples Day.  Artwork noting Haudenosaunee history is also displayed at the Syracuse University campus, recognizing the University’s presence on ancestral land.

—ALISON GUZMAN, October 2022


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