About Baskets

Tohono O'odham baskets are made with a core of Beargrass which is native to the Sonoran desert in Sonaran Arizona. The outer stitch is a usualy made with Yucca Plant. It is the wide white material. If a black material is present it is Devil's Claw, another plant native to the region. The stitch from Devil's Claw is actualy the seed pod stripped layer by layer giving it the inconsistant color variation. Devil's Claw is a rare plant, and almost all of the basket weavers harvest a domestic crop now. Still, any basket with devil's claw is more costly. Some Tohono O'odham baskets have a brown weave which is Yucca Root. The root is stripped layer by layer also. Any basket with a bright green is woven with a Yucca leaf that is green. All green Stitches will fade to a golden patina over years. In fact, since the baskets are natural material, all of the colors wiil change through the years.

Material Used to Make Baskets
These are the materials used to create a Tohono O'odham work of art. The large claw is the Devil's Claw seed pod. The redish strip is the Banana Yucca root, and the white is the bleached Yucca leaf. It Takes hours of preparation time before the weaver can even begin the work!

Tohono O'odham basket quality (in my opinion) is based on the tightness of the weave. The tighter the weave, the more experienced the weaver. Other factors are the design and material. Closed weave baskets are worth more because of the number of stitches required to cover the core. Uniform patterns are pleasing and oftentime difficult to make. One of the most difficult patterns is the " Man in the Maze" which symbolizes the human struggle.

Man In The Maze It should be noted that Tohono O'odham (Papago) basketry is NOT the same as Pima Basketry. In addition to stitch and other differences, the most obvious is that Papago use a core of Beargrass and the Pima use Willow. When looking at a closed weave basket, Papago almost always use a four pattern geometric design in the center. Be weary of any basket advertised as a Pima Basket. Older Pima baskets are very valuable, and many 50's and 60's Papago baskets are sold as Pima bakets to unsuspecting buyers. Almost all old Pima Baskets are utilatarian and will show signs of wear.

Notice the Pattern at the centerNotice the center of this basket. The pattern is typical of nearly all Tohono O'odham baskets. The basket shown at the left is from the late 1960's. Notice the beautiful golden patina that has come with age.

History of the Tohono O'odham

The Tohono O’odham, formally know as Papago have lived in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico for centuries. It is known that people who have made a prosperous life out of what seems like an inhospitable land have inhabited this area for thousands of years. The Tohono O’odham are part of the family of Pima, Sand Papago, and Ak-chin - all share the same language with different dialects.

Tohono O’odham, which means “Desert People” in their language officially changed their name from Papago in the mid 1980’s with the ratification of a new constitution. Papago which loosely translated means “bean eater”, was a name given to the O’odham by the Spaniards in the 1600. It is assumed that the Spanish observed many O’odham chewing on the gum of Mesquite trees which produce bean like seeds when the name was given. The name change reflects a desire to retain identity and culture by telling the world who they really are.

The first known inhabitants of the region, the Hohokam (O’odham for “the people who vanished”) lived a prosperous life thousands of years ago. The Hohokam left evidence of advanced farming techniques that made use of collecting seasonal rainfall, and extensive irrigation channels from the local rivers. The Tohono O’odham practiced the same type of farming until the 20th century when modern growth in the Tucson area caused the Santa Cruz River to flow underground. The Santa Cruz River is one of only two rivers in the United States to flow north. The Hohokam also left behind dramatic ruins, evidence of a large civilization.

There is no agreement among scholars that the Tohono O’odham are descendents of the Hohokam. Most O’odham do believe that they are. The Hohokam are often mentioned in the O’odham folklore, and are respected for their spiritual and earthly qualities.

In the 1600’s the Spaniards came to the region then known as the Pimeria Alta and Papagueria that stretched form what is now northern Sonora well into southern Arizona. They found a large population of O’odham numbering in the thousands, and began establishing missions. In the 1690’s Father Kino arrived and began converting the O’odham to Christianity. Today most Tohono O’odham are Catholics practicing a parallel belief based on Judeo-Christian concepts coupled with a strong appreciation for the earth and nature. They tell stories of the creator, I’toi, whom they believe still lives in the Babaquirvari Mountains southwest of Tucson.

Prior to western influence, the Tohono O’odham were semi-nomadic, spending their time between a summer village where thy irrigated their fields with summer monsoon flood water, and a winter village higher in the mountains where natural springs attracted wildlife. Although the Sonoran Desert brings unrelenting, harsh, conditions, it also supplied the O’odham with everything they needed. They cultivated wild Saguaro and Cholla cactus fruit, gathered Mesquite bean pods, and hunted wild Javelina. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Tohono O’odham had established lucrative trade routes with the Pima and other inhabitants of the region.

O’odham homes were built with Mesquite tree wood for the structure, Saguaro and Ocotillo ribs for the roof and sides, and covered with mud. Ramadas without walls were built for everyday living and activities in good weather.

By the 1750’s, the Tohono O’odham began to feel the strain of western influence and began a short-lived rebellion against the Spaniards. They attacked missions and settlements hoping to drive the Spanish south into Mexico. The O’odham rebellion failed and the Spanish reclaimed Papquira leaving their everlasting influence on the region.

During the same period as the O’odham rebellion, the Apaches, who lived to the east, were expanding their territory through bloody conquest. The Tohono O’odham eventually found the need to fight as allies with the Spaniards against the Apache. This dependence led to the O’odham settling near Spanish presidios and missions, such as San Xavier.

To be continued...

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