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From the Hands of a Weaver: Olympic Peninsula Basketry through Time

By Jacilee Wray, editor

Review By Nancy J. Turner

December 16, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 157-58

This book tells the story of the many roles of basketry in the lives of the First Peoples of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and of the diverse styles and materials used by the weavers, mainly women. Basketry is key to an entire way of life by Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast. Plant-based woven and coiled containers were, for millennia, fundamental to the harvesting, transport, cooking and storage of foodstuffs. Indigenous baskets transformed in their roles after the European newcomers arrived with their iron cookware, copper kettles, and gunnysacks and buckets. Although baskets have been employed in some households right up into the twenty first century, they have largely shifted from utilitarian service, to roles as curios and novelty items, to their current status as exquisite and desirable objects of art. Their ceremonial, cultural and spiritual roles persist to this day.

An edited volume, the book consists of ten chapters, each providing a different perspective on basketry. The editor, Jacilee Wray, will already be known to many BC Studies readers for editing Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are (2002). Wray’s Introduction first describes the tribes and affiliations of the peoples whose basketry is featured. One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the archaeological history of basketry, dating back some 3,000 years or more. Equally captivating is the evidence embodied in oral history and in the baskets themselves of the borrowing of weaving techniques and trade and exchange of basket materials and finished baskets that was occurring over countless generations.

Wray herself authored the first two chapters: “The Weaver as Artist,” and “Marketing Olympic Peninsula Basketry…”. The other chapters follow in a logical order, with five chapters focusing on the basketry traditions of particular cultural groups (Klallam, Twana, Quinault, Quileute and Hoh, and Makah), a sixth on basketry in the archaeological record (a chapter authored by “wet site” archaeobotanist Dale Croes, famous for his role in excavating and identifying the thousands of plant-based objects from the Ozette and Hoko River sites), and a seventh on two key basketry plants and their management through burning and harvesting protocols: beargrass, Xerophyllum tenax (Melianthaceae; not a true grass at all) and “sweetgrass,” Schoenoplectus pungens (Cyperaceae; also not a true grass). The final chapter, and perhaps the most compelling, is about contemporary basketry, which still flourishing today. This last chapter (along with two of the previous ones) is co-authored by a number of tribal weavers and artisans, who contribute their own perspectives and sources of inspiration for their weaving. A particularly helpful addition to the book, just before the substantive Bibliography and Index, is a 23-page listing of well-known and skilled Olympic Peninsula basket weavers of the past, pre-1960s, with their names, dates of birth and death, tribal affiliations, and any known relatives. Finally, British Columbia scholars will find occasional references to the Scia’new First Nation (Becher Bay Indian Band), a partially Klallam group whose territory is on Juan de Fuca Strait, west of Victoria.

From the Hands of a Weaver is informative and well written, and also beautifully illustrated with technical drawings, historical photographs, various types of baskets, and — most pleasing of all — photographs of many of the skilled weavers, shown with their own diverse and exquisite basketry. This book will be captivating to many readers of BC Studies interested in the anthropology and archaeology of Northwest Coast First Peoples.

From the Hands of a Weaver: Olympic Peninsula Basketry through Time
Jacilee Wray, editor
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 304 pp. $24.95 paper