August Wood carefully inserts an awl to create an opening between rows of the basket he’s been working on. He pulls a piece of willow branch shaved down to about 1/16-inch thickness from the plastic bowl half-full of water he uses to soften the woody stem.
Placing one end of the willow into the hole, Wood pulls the softened splint through, leaving a small tail behind, which he’ll work into the basket’s body later.
He works another opening close to where he started the splint, and loops the willow around and through, making a smooth stitch along the rod of cattail that anchors the stitches. After a few stitches with the creamy white willow, Wood switches to a splint of black devil’s claw, following a pattern that’s in his head.
Wood’s work, including tightly woven baskets that he thinks could hold water, medallions for necklaces, earrings and other pieces are hot commodities both in Indian Country and the Native art collecting world. He won a blue ribbon at the Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market in March 2020 for one of his baskets.
Wood, 32, who is Navajo, Tohono O’odham and Pima, grew up in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale. He has a long career ahead of him — if he can find, or grow, the natural materials he needs to continue his centuries-old art.
Native artists, cultural practitioners and artisans are experiencing more difficulty locating plants like willow, devil’s claw, arrowweed or other materials they need for artistic and cultural continuance. Even in areas where natural materials are plentiful, the challenge is sparking and retaining interest by people to put in the time to harvest, clean, prepare and make pieces.
“Over the years, I’ve seen the changes within our land here,” said Royce Manuel, an elder of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. He’s had difficulty locating materials for his traditional crafting, and when he does find plants, they increasingly have issues like brittleness and unusual growths.
Whether that change in the land resulted from drought, development, commercial agriculture or climate change, Manuel and other artists who depend on the natural world around them to continue their culture through art are having a harder time finding what they need.
Rivers were once a ‘supermarket’ of materials
When Spanish explorers first sighted what is now known as the Salt River Valley they found a land bisected by two major rivers, the Salt and the Gila.
The verdant ribbons created by riparian zones and wetlands provided not only water but a veritable supermarket of materials, as well as habitat for both plant and animal species. Lush stands of willow, cottonwood and sycamore trees, cattails, vines like Martynia annum or devil’s claw, and many other such plants thrived.
Visitors to the Huhugam Heritage Center in the Gila River Indian Community south of Chandler can see what the Gila once looked like in a looping video at the entrance to one of the museum galleries. The gallery also contains examples of Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh baskets, pottery, calendar sticks and other pieces that were once everyday household items, but are now considered art.
The four O’odham cultures — the Akimel O’odham or River People, the Ak-Chin O’odham, the Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, and Hia Ced O’odham, the Sand People — consider themselves the descendants of the Hohokam, who created more than 1,000 miles of canals to bring lifegiving water to their fields of corn, squash, beans, cotton and other crops across what is now metro Phoenix.
The Xalychidom Piipaash and their relatives, the Pee Posh, or People Who Live Toward the Water, also farmed and located the clay deposits and water sources to make the pottery for which they are acclaimed.
Baskets for gathering, food preparation and storage, ceremonies, and to protect and cherish tiny infants emerged from the hands of the women who created art incorporated into everyday items. Men crafted bows and arrows for hunting and protection, and other items. Shelters to block the searing heat of the sun’s rays, or for ceremonies like the coming out ceremony for young women, also came from the earth’s bounty.
All that changed when the Gila and Salt rivers were dammed in the early 20th century. Not only the Indigenous peoples, who depended on the once free-flowing rivers for irrigating their fields, suffered from the sudden cutoff. The plants and animals that inhabited the wetlands also felt the catastrophic impact. Trees, bushes and vines dried up. Animals and fish died off or attempted to migrate toward food and water. Invasive plants like tamarisks began to compete with the indigenous trees for water and nutrients. And finding materials to make baskets or other cultural items grew harder to find.
In 2010, Manuel said, a flood into the Salt River bed revealed how the river bottom once looked.
“When Tempe Town Lake’s bladder busted, it actually saturated that whole area full of water,” he said. “So once that water was down there, all these desert plants started coming up. That’s what the natural look used to be. Gathering materials would be right there if there was some water in there.”
Agricultural runoff also took a toll on the riparian zones still remaining in the region, including on the Salt River at the southern end of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Pesticides are one of the biggest issues basketweavers must contend with. When they work with plant material that’s been sprayed or otherwise had pesticide applied, the artists also come into contact with potentially toxic substances that can cause health problems ranging from cancer to neurological damage. Pesticides can also harm fetal development.
At least one statewide basketweavers’ group has developed programs to educate landowners and land managers about the dangers of pesticides. The California Indian Basketweavers’ Association has long advocated to end pesticide use and has presented on the subject at gatherings and conferences across the state.
Although Arizona lacks a similar intertribal organization, basketweavers from Arizona tribes have met with California weavers at conferences and gatherings to bring home information on how to avoid being poisoned by pesticides or pesticide runoff.
Native American artists struggle to find raw materials
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community elder Royce Manuel and artist August Wood carry on the tradition of using natural materials to create art.
Cheryl Evans, Arizona Republic
Fewer and inferior materials
Manuel carefully coils cordage made with agave fibers into a traditional O’odham burden basket. He sits underneath a watto, or traditional O’odham brush and pole shelter, sheltering him and others from the sun on a sultry summer morning.
Manuel, a retired firefighter and lifelong cultural artisan, is an enrolled member of the Salt River Indian Community from the Auk-Mierl Aw-Thum, or Akimel O’odham culture. He’s been making bows from willow branches and arrows from arrowweed, creating thread and cords from twining agave fibers, and building shelters since he was 12.
But while scouting for the plants he requires for his work and to teach classes, Manuel has noted changes. When making the women’s house for coming out ceremonies, he prefers to use only natural materials.
“We used to be able to go down to the river bottom and get the willow,” said Manuel. “We would use the bark off the willow or other such strips and tie the posts.”