I’ve always had interest in native cultures, particularly those in North America,where I now live. Indigenous populations demonstrated much wisdom and awareness of the natural world and its cyclical rhythms. This wisdom was – and is – shown through ceremony and lifestyle, craft and technique. Modern artisans of native descent no longer practice their craft by necessity; society no longer requires us to produce our own vessels, clothing, tools, and even art. However, in the pre-Columbian era, natural materials were manipulated to their fullest extent to meet the needs of a family or tribe. All parts of an animal or plant had a use and a meaning.
My chosen example of a traditional technique was to create a miniature pine needle coil basket. I say miniature because the original baskets made and used by the people of the Seminole tribe were constructed using the giant needles of the Longleaf Pine that grows in former Seminole territory, what is now known as Florida and the southeastern corner of the United States. Here in Vermont, I have access only to Eastern White Pine needles, meaning that a large project would require many more woman-hours than I felt ready to invest. As it was, I spent around five hours coiling and stitching pine needles in place to make a basket about 3” deep and 4” wide. The process was incredibly simple and meditative. It felt natural to follow a spiral pattern, one that all peoples of the world have been quite familiar with over the course of our history. The use of pine needles dates back further than the use of clay, a 9000 year old method. Truly, this could be done with nearly any material, and probably was. Unfortunately for historical records, almost all of the materials used by native craftspeople were biodegradable and have disappeared over time, back to the land from which they came. The spiral basket is an incredibly simple example of knowledge easily passed down and retained through generations of people. Other native tribes used similar techniques, but with variation in materials and details such as stitches. Where there were no Longleaf Pines, sweetgrass was a common basket material, but and sturdy plant material such as corn husks could be used. Before Europeans introduced cotton thread to the natives, the long roots of marsh plants functioned well enough to hold together a watertight basket. “Needles” were sharp pieces of shell or bone. In working and living in such unity with the land, it’s easy to imagine how truly aware people were of the abundance of natural materials all around them. That they treated nature as sacred and her gifts as blessings was a simple part of life.
The process of wrapping and stitching this small basket was empowering on a small scale, it made me wonder a lot about how we use resources and what we think of as valuable resources. I wonder also about the carrying capacity of a given place and the semi-nomadic lifestyles of tribal groups that allowed for the land to recuperate from human habitation and harvest. It seems that with population growth, sustainable harvest would become more difficult and require careful planning and/or land management. In short, I realize that my idealistic view of indigenous lifestyles in the past may not have been sustainable in the long term. A population can thrive in codependence with nature only up to a certain size. You cannot have infinite resources on a finite planet.
Much of my research was done online; in particular a website called nativetech.org was used for historical context. There is no shortage of do-it-yourself guides on native art forms, and I looked at several blog sites and forums for examples of the different ways people have learned to weave baskets. I looked through some books on Native American culture for more insight into the daily life and crafts of different tribes.