Culture/People: Haudenosaunee (Seneca attrib.)
Place: New York State
Media: Brown ash splint, pigment
Dims: 4 x 13 x 13 in. (10 x 33 x 33 cm)
Date: Late 19th/early 20th C.
RTC No: NA0002
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011
The gentle winds soothe and sway the brown ash tree in a gentle cycle of longing and belonging to the marshlands. Its leaves arch toward the sky and grasp the rainy dew of that spring’s morning. She uses her hands to rub the bottom bark of the tree gently. Gazing upwards towards the Sky World, she slowly notices the tree’s ridges, firmness, and thickness upon each touch. With gratitude, she grasps the immense gift used for the baskets she will make with her sisters during the summer, outside in the shade while her children play with their cousins. They will be preparing for the upcoming berry-picking season when the leaves turn orange and red before the land turns to winter.
The land this basket maker belongs to is that of the Iroquois, a name imposed by French fur traders. The Iroquois name themselves Haudenosaunee or “People of the Longhouse.” They have lived in wooden longhouses as large as 150 feet long, some of which housed up to fifty people of the same clan or family. Their homelands originated in what is today Montreal, Canada, near the St. Lawrence River. Until the early 1700s, their land stretched westwards along the lower Great Lakes and south of the Allegheny mountains of what is today Virginia and Kentucky, into the Ohio Valley. As a Nation, they were mighty before the arrival of Europeans and were often involved in conflicts with neighboring tribes. However, after unsuccessful warfare, they were pushed out of their native homelands and forced to migrate southwards to today’s New York. Today, Six Nations form the Iroquois Confederacy: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and the Tuscarora. This basket is thought to have come from Seneca, the most populous of the Haudenosaunee nations. The Seneca Iroquois National Museum has over 250 baskets in its collection.
This basket is a square, measuring about twelve inches on each side. Each brown ash strip used for the basket measures approximately one inch in width and there is a thick fine border rim around the entirety of the basket. Turquoise and mauve purple are painted in a checkered pattern on both the inside and outside of the sides. The bottom three protruding spiked rows edge around all sides of the basket. This spiky effect or “porcupines” is very prominent in the design of this basket, and led Ted Coe to think it was presumably Seneca-made. However, the “porcupine” is an intertribal Northeast motif and can be seen among other Haudenosaunee Confederacy basketry.
The Haudenosaunee are masters of their basket weaving techniques. In the past, the women passed their skills from generation to generation—although now the practice is carried on by women, men, and two-spirit basket makers. The Haudenosaunee remains a matriarchal society, where family lineage traces descent through the mother. Historically, women were keepers of their knowledge and culture. The maternal line was in charge of inheritance and property. The women were in charge of leading the social, political, economic, and spiritual direction of their tribe. For thousands of years, basketry remained an essential skill girls and young women learned as they watched their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers make beautiful splint baskets out of natural vegetable fibers. “Native Basket makers believe that splint basketry has always been part of our traditions. We believe basket making is a skill that has been passed from weaver to weaver…uninterrupted for thousands of years…from the east coast of Canada, south to the MidAtlantic of the United States, and west to the Great Lakes area” (Jennifer Sapiel Neptune – Unpublished Paper 2006).
Making baskets has always been helpful for the Haudenosaunee: to collect berries and nuts, gather corn, beans, and squash, store seeds and kernels, wash corn, and for picked vegetables. The Haudenosaunee also used some baskets for ceremonies, fish traps, and gifts, which they are today working to revitalize Historically, they were essential items in trade and the household economy. Baskets in the Northeast are made from various plant materials, including sweetgrass. A typical fiber used for making baskets in the region is the Black Ash or Brown Ash tree (Fraxinus nigra), a sacred tree for the Haudenosaunee. They are one of the slenderest trees found in the United States and Canada and can live from 150 to 250 years old. There are both female and male trees where it produces samara cluster seeds.
For centuries the Haudenosaunee have been using this sacred tree for basket weaving due to its straight slender trunk and, therefore, a perfect material for the weavers. These trees grow, on average, about twenty meters tall and about sixty centimeters in diameter and are found in the cold wetlands of the Northeast. According to research, the best trees ideal for baskets are between ten to twenty years of growth with a straight upward bark. “Fancy” baskets, such as this one pictured from the Coe collection, became popular with Europeans and white Americans. Their selling flourished in the 18th century and became an essential part of the Iroquois economy as their lands began to dwindle and disappear. New technologies also emerged, where aniline dyes added more vibrant color to their fibers than natural dyes, and manufacturing technologies such as wood splitters and blocks changed their basket shapes and designs. The art form continues to evolve incorporating a variety of different materials and spectacular shapes.
Today, Ash trees are critically endangered and at risk of disappearing due to the Emerald Ash Borer brought in the 1990s from Asia on ships in wooden packing materials. There is concern that the Black Ash tree may completely disappear. The loss of Ash trees has already resulted in significant changes to their environment. Providing food for many animals, such as frogs, beavers, and birds, for whom Ash trees provide food and habitat, have been forced to adjust to the disappearance and thus have become increasingly vulnerable to other external threats. Yet, many Haudenosaunee artists and knowledge keepers, including those from the Seneca Nation, are maintaining their age-old craft of basket weaving by preserving the knowledge held by their elders.
-Alison Guzman, July 20, 2022
- “Ecology and the Cultural & Economic Im Portance of Black Ash (Fraxinus Nigra Marsh) for Native Americans for Native Americans.” Black Ash Symposium, by Michael Benedict, Bemidji State University Bemidji State University, 2010.
- Field Guide to the Ash Trees of Northeastern United States. Center for Conservation Strategy, 2017.
- Hassani, Nadia. “Black Ash Tree: Care and Growing Guide.” The Spruce, The Spruce, 13 Aug. 2020, https://www.thespruce.com/black-ash-tree-plant-profile-5074636.
- “Iroquois Confederacy – History, Relations with Non-Native Americans, Key Issues.” World Culture Encyclopedia, https://www.everyculture.com/multi/Ha-La/Iroquois-Confederacy.html. Accessed 19 July 2022.
- “Iroquois Woman.” Apache2 Ubuntu Default Page: It Works, http://web.pdx.edu/~caskeym/iroquois_web/html/iroquoiswoman.htm. Accessed 19 July 2022.
- Reporter, Deb Everts |. Press. “Seneca Artist Reflects on Cultural History of Basket Making | News | Salamancapress.Com.” The Salamanca Press, https://www.facebook.com/salamancapress, 10 Sept. 2019, https://www.salamancapress.com/news/seneca-artist-reflects-on-cultural-history-of-basket-making/article_4f0a9adc-d1b8-11e9-b6e8-bb59835f57a9.html.
- “Seneca-Iroquois National Museum – Onöhsagwë:De’ Cultural Center.” Seneca-Iroquois National Museum – Onöhsagwë:De’ Cultural Center, https://www.senecamuseum.org/. Accessed 19 July 2022.
- “The American Basket Weaving Trade and Its Effect on Basket Design | Real Archaeology.” Vassar College WordPress | A Digital Publishing Platform for the Vassar Community, https://pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2019/09/23/the-american-basket-weaving-trade-and-its-effect-on-basket-design/. Accessed 19 July 2022.
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