Native American

Sea Shell Basket

Artist: Artist Once Known
Culture/People: Makah
Place: Northwest Coast, Washington, USA
Media: Cedar bark, ryegrass, shell
Dims: 3.5 x 4.25 x 3.75 in. (8.9 x 10.8 x 9.5 cm)
Date: c. 1940-60
RTC No. NA0744
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


This small basket-covered shell, woven with cedar bark and twined ryegrass, is a captivating result of a relationship with the environment that has developed through the ages. It was woven in the mid-twentieth century by a member of the Makah, a tribe of the Pacific Northwest who inhabit Neah Bay, located on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. The item features polychromatic decoration around the edges and base and has both Thunderbird and whale motifs. Red and black are two commonly used colors in Makah art, as is the portrayal of ocean life.

Before contact with Europeans, the Makah were a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived off the bounty of the forest, tidelands, and mainly the sea. They were fishers and collectors of shellfish, but most importantly, they were whalers. While the story of the Thunderbird is significant in many Native American cultures, in Makah territory, the enormous storm bird that shoots lightning snakes also hunts killer whales. Images of the Thunderbird hunting an orca are an important part of Makah iconography, and modern researchers believe that the stories of ferocious battles between the two giants may be references to cataclysmic seismic events in the past.

 Basket weaving is one of our oldest crafts, using plant fibers to make light yet sturdy utensils essential for daily activities. It involves knowledge of plants; which type to use, how to harvest, process, and store them, and all the intricacies of weaving. Traditional basketry in the Northwest Pacific uses three basic techniques: twining, plaiting, and coiling. Coiled baskets can be stitched tight enough to hold water that could be used for cooking. Flexible strips of bark from young cedar trees were also woven into cooking boxes that could be used to prepare food by dropping heated rocks into the container until the water boiled. 

“Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx” or “people who live by the rocks and seagulls” is how they refer to themselves; the name Makah was given to them by neighboring tribes and means “people who are generous with food.” They lived in an abundant ecosystem with healthy salmon populations, unpolluted rivers, and rich marine resources. A stellar example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, they managed clam gardens on the coast and, by controlled burning, maintained prairie areas where they gathered berries roots and could hunt the bear, deer, and elk that came to feed in these open meadows. 

Basketry was a part of this lifestyle, used on a daily basis for foraging and storage, but also for ceremonial purposes. Like many North Pacific tribes, the Makah held potlatch gatherings where baskets were part of the gift-giving. Woven headgear not only kept the rain and sun off the wearer’s head, but there a distinctive type of hat was also used in the rituals surrounding whale hunting.  

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, changes in the Makah lifestyle brought transitions in basket making. They began weaving small, colorful trinket baskets, including basketry-covered bottles, glass floats, and shells, to be sold to collectors interested in Indigenous art. Contemporary artists carry on the characteristic style of the Makah, intertwining legacy and innovation.

Alan D. McMillan. “Whales and Whalers in Nuu-Chah-Nulth Archaeology,” N° 187 These Outer Shores: Autumn 2015.
Tom Paulsen. “Tale of a Whale in the River and the Tide that Never Left. Ancient tribal stories may tell of quakes, tsunamis”. Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter, June 18, 2002. Accessed 27, February, 2024.
Anne Hacker. “The Makah Indians Use of Forest Materials”, Student Forestry Journals, College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Accessed 29, February 2024.
“The Ozette Prairies of Olympic National Park: Their Former Indigenous Uses and Management Final Report to Olympic National Park Port Angeles”, Washington Winter 2009. Accessed 24, February, 2024.
Dale R. Croes. “Basketry from the Ozette Village Archaeological Site: A Technological, Functional and Comparative Study.” Washington State Research Center. Washington State University. Pullman, Washington. 1977.

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