Distinctive Northwest Twined Baskets
First Used To Gather Roots
|This elegant example of a Plateau bag-basket was included in a display at the High Desert Museum near Bend, Oregon.
Twined bags are a distinctive type of basketry made by the Indians of the plateau region of the Pacific Northwest. This particular basket, sometimes called a “Nez Perce cornhusk bag,” is a soft and flexible bag. It was unique to this part of the United States.
The Plateau region covers a huge area. Its east and west boundaries are formed by the Rockies and the Cascade Mountains, respectively. A narrow portion of it extends into southern Oregon around Klamath Falls, and actually dips into California a little ways. To the north, it extends into the Fraser and Thompson River system in Canada. Dominating the whole, however, is the Columbia River and all its tributaries, providing a water world for this otherwise desert-like region.
The twined baskets, or bags, were used as everyday containers for the people of the Plateau. Roots were a basic food source, and the bags were used both for the gathering and the storing of roots for winter use.
These early bags, used for root storage, were two to three feet in depth and closed with a drawstring. Archaeologists believe they have been in use for thousands of years.
The older bags were made of heavy materials, with large stitches. Indian hemp was used originally. After corn was introduced as a crop in this area, in the 1820s, cornhusks began to replace hemp as a weaving material. Still later, commercially produced cotton twine was also utilized for the internal hidden-by-the-design structure of the bag.
The use of root food declined in the late 1800s, and the twined bags began to acquire new uses. Since the bags had traditionally been used by the women, who were the root gatherers and bag weavers, it was natural for women to continue to use them to store and carry other things and they began to serve much the same purpose as a handbag does today.
As the bags began to be used primarily as handbags, appearance became more important. They became smaller, the shape became more square and the weaving was finer. Loop handles and ties replaced the drawstring closures. Fabric linings were sometime added. So was beaded or leather fringe.
Initially, designs were simple geometric motifs. Later bags had complex combinations of flowers, animals and people, as well as more complicated geometric shapes.
Bags of the early to mid-1800s frequently used cornhusks as the design material, against a background of hemp. By 1870, commercially dyed wool yarns became available, in a variety of bright colors, and these were used as the design material against a background of cornhusks. The materials used can be helpful in dating one of these bag-baskets.
For additional information and examples of the baskets made by the Plateau Indians, see Indian Baskets, by Sarah P. Turnbaugh and William A. Turnbaugh (Schiffer Publishing.)
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