The Great Basin Culture Area is the region between the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and the Cascade Mountains in Oregon on the west to the Rocky Mountains on the east. With few exceptions, the Great Basin is an area of interior drainage, meaning that most moisture in the basin drains into interior lakes rather than in rivers to the sea.
The earliest human occupation of the Great Basin occurred with the Paleo-Indians about 12,000-10,000 BCE. They hunted now extinct animals such as mammoth, bison, camel, horse and sloth, as well as animals still living today. The Archaic peoples followed the Paleo-Indians and developed diverse hunting and gathering strategies. The timing of their habitation throughout the Great Basin varies by location.
The arid climate in the Great Basin provides opportunities for the survival of perishable goods, such as baskets, in rock shelters and caves. In the northern Great Basin, the earliest basketry forms were simple twined bags, mats, burden baskets and trays (9,000-5,000 BCE). In the Western Basin, twined sandals appear between 9,300 and 5,880 BCE. These earliest baskets predate the earliest known ceramics in the Americas by 5,500 years. Coiling techniques were rare and much later, dating from about 6,500 BCE in the Eastern Basin and 4,500 BCE in the Western Basin.
A. Paiute “Navajo Wedding Basket” – Coiled; Dyed and Undyed Sumac
B. Paiute Beaded Miniature Basket – Coiled; Willow, Thread, and Glass Beads
C. Washoe Sewing Basket – Coiled; Willow and Bracken Fern
The Great Basin was home to some of the earliest peoples of North America as well as to some of the earliest known baskets. The ecology of the area is limited, restricting resources for the inhabitants. In order to survive, the Great Basin peoples would use the seasons as cues to navigate their way through the rough terrain and remain mobile. Without making permanent residency in any place for extended amounts of time the inhabitants of the Great Basin knew the importance of their tools and made baskets a focal point. Unlike many more stationary cultures, pottery was not a viable option for mobile peoples because of the weight and fragility associated with it. With so much focus on baskets, the Great Basin peoples were able to perfect basket-weaving and the tradition continues to evolve.
Although the climate is a harsh one in which to live and restricts the available resources, the region’s dryness facilitates preservation of plant materials and thus the evidence of prehistoric baskets. The Great Basin climate allows researchers to find basket remains thousands of years old while in other areas preservation of baskets a century old is uncommon.
While originally for subsistence, basket-weaving has become a commodity as well. The Paiute have arrangements with the nearby Southwestern Navajo tribe where they too make what is commonly known as the Navajo Wedding Basket (which despite the name is used in many ceremonies). They have also expanded their resources and, even though the base material is still locally grown, they have incorporated traded goods such as glass beads to create unique baskets that go beyond simple household use.
Now that these originally mobile peoples are settling down on reservations, how might that affect their basketry use? What might it mean for the traditions?
D. Paiute, Northern Hat – Twinned; Dyed and Undyed Willow
E. Paiute, Northern Jug – Twinned; Willow and Dogbane Cordage
F. Washoe/Paiute Jar – Coiled; Willow