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Hopi Basketry in Sacred and Social Domains

by Betty J. Duggan, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee

The Hopi people live in a dozen villages, or adobe pueblos, on northeastern Arizona’s Black Mesa. Old Oraibi, on Third Mesa, has been occupied continuously since about AD 1150. Hopis have actively resisted assimilation into Spanish, Mexican, and American culture, and today most Hopis still maintain a traditional world view.

Baskets are vital material elements in Hopi religious and social ceremonies associated with the annual corn harvest, rainmaking activities, and rites of passage. Domestic baskets are used in the preparation and serving of numerous traditional foods. From the outside perspective of art experts and collectors, Hopi baskets are among the finest such items produced by the Southwest’s native peoples.

Hopi basketry

Figure 1. Late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century coiled plaques (left) and wicker work trays (right) from the McClung Museum collections. The “spider web” design (upper right) invokes Spider Woman, who in myth, taught the Hopis to weave and also to spin rain-bearing clouds for a bountiful harvest.

For at least a hundred years, women of Second Mesa pueblos have specialized in weaving coiled baskets from a core of galleta grass, shredded yucca, or rabbitbrush. Finishing techniques for the coil end (gate) on shallow plaques (Figure 1) indicate the marital and childbearing status of the maker:

  • An unwrapped (open) gate connotes the work of an unmarried girl
  • A partially open gate indicates a married woman of child-bearing age
  • A closed gate signifies a widow or post-menopausal woman

Indigenous forms include plaques, prayer feather baskets, and, formerly, water bottles. Deep-coiled bowls and baskets are twentieth century innovations developed for sale to outside markets.

Women of Third Mesa pueblos weave wicker-work plaques, shallow ceremonial meal trays, and, formerly, burden baskets, on a warp of sumac (wild currant) or Si-wi branches with a weft of rabbit brush, and a wrapped yucca leaf rim binding (Figure 1). A third manufacturing technique, plaiting, in which yucca strips are bent over and sewed around a wooden hoop of sumac or willow, is employed universally for domestic baskets like sifters, sieves, and storage baskets. Plaited trays with wickerwork edging are used to carry piki, a paper-thin, ceremonial bread made from native cornmeal, dyed in festive colors.

Mother Kachina

Figure 2. The Crow Mother Kachina appears during the children’s initiation into a Kachina cult and on the last day of Powamu in February. Her wedding sash and blanket are decorated with rain (fertility) symbols. She carries a coiled plaque laden with corn and bean plants sprouted in a kiva, or sacred underground meeting room (From Kennard, 1971).

Wickerwork baskets are the most colorful, with combinations of black, blue, red-brown, yellow, green, brown, white, and pink being employed. Designs represent natural, geometric, human, and animal forms. Birds, butterflies, clouds, rainbows, sun, stars, whirls, antelope, snakes, and Kachinas, the spiritual beings who instruct the Hopis as they dance in human form in the village plazas during ceremonies, are common motifs (Figure 2). Hopis name a basket for a prominent design element or the basket’s current function.

Over time, a Hopi basket passes from the weaver to children, other kin, clan relations, godchildren, and neighbors. Its reciprocal exchange facilitates harmonious relations, establishment of new kinship ties, sharing of goods, and elimination of jealousies. Hopis believe completion of this cycle of generosity and gift giving ensures rain and bountiful crops.

Baskets are often distributed through ceremonial events. A bride traditionally gives her groom a wedding basket which years later will be buried with him to carry him into the afterlife. She also may spend years weaving and distributing baskets to repay all relatives and friends who assisted with wedding preparations.

Baskets are strongly identified with Hopi women’s societies and initiation rites for young girls. The Lakon Society, which every woman ideally joins before she becomes a basket weaver, conducts a daylong Basket Dance each fall. Chanting women enter the village plaza in a long line, form a swaying circle, and then each rhythmically raises and lowers a fine plaque made by her or her sponsor. Throughout the day, gifts of food, kitchen items, sifter baskets, small gift plaques, and even dance plaques are tossed to onlookers. Since no “payback” is expected on this occasion, many baskets carried or tossed during the Lakon ceremony are sold to shops or tourists.

Selected Bibliography

Breunig, Robert. 1982. Cultural Fiber: Function and Symbolism in Hopi Basketry, Plateau, 53(4): 8-13.

Colton, Mary-Russell Ferrell. 1965. Hopi Dyes. Flagstaff, Arizona: Museum of Northern Arizona Press.

Kennard, Edward A. 1971. Hopi Kachinas. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

Miller, Sheryl F. 1989. Hopi Basketry: Traditional Social Currency and Contemporary Sources of Cash, American Indian Art Magazine, 15(1): 62-71.

Page, Susanne & Jake Page. 1982. Hopi. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers.

Porter, Frank W., III. 1990. The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy. New York: Greenwood Press.

Turnbaugh, Sarah P. & William A. Turnbaugh. 1986. Indian Baskets. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.