For the native people of the Great Basin, weaving carries both historical and contemporary significance. In their past, the Shoshone, Paiute, and Washoe people practiced a way of life based in part on the seasonal harvest of wild plant resources, and weaving provided most of their tools used to harvest, prepare, and store these foods. As Euro-American people moved west into the lands of the Great Basin Indian people, ways of life were forced to change. Although native people adopted many Euro-American goods, weaving baskets endured as a symbol of native identity and artistic expression.
Native women and men continue this cultural legacy. Although baskets were and are traditionally made by women, some men have joined the ranks of basketmakers. The skills of basketmaking are handed down through families, thus artists produce works within a distinctive familial or tribal style. Some of the weavers work to preserve traditional methods and designs, while others create new traditions with innovations in style and technique. For all of the basketmakers, regardless of style, consistency is found in a connection with one's history. Baskets are a symbol of timeless native identity as well as an expression of skill and artistry.
Many basketmakers were never actually taught to weave, but learned by watching their elders and imitating what they observed. This time-honored method is now supplemented with active teaching. Many native communities offer classes for young people. Traditional opportunities to observe their elders are difficult for young native people of the twenty-first century. School and work take them away from their grandparents and rob them of the necessary hours and days spent with elders to learn how to harvest and prepare materials as well as to weave. The Great Basin Native Basketweavers Association, the Nevada Arts Council's Folklife Apprenticeship Program, and the many cultural festivals and art celebrations hosted by tribal people provide other occasions to learn basketmaking. Native basketmakers work tirelessly to document, teach, preserve, and continue this art form.
Some of the many contemporary, award-winning basketmakers include: Florine Conway, Washoe; Lilly Sanchez, Shoshone; Norman Delorme, Paiute/Washoe; Rebecca and Sandra Eagle, Paiute/Shoshone sisters; Sue Coleman, cousin of Florine Conway, Washoe; Evelyn Pete, Shoshone; Bernadine Delorme, Shoshone; Larena Burns, Washoe/Paiute; and Everett Pikyavit, Paiute. Others not profiled here include Rosemary DeSoto and her sister Elaine Smokey, Paiute; Celia Delorme, Paiute/Shoshone/Washoe; Linda Johnson Comas, Paiute; and Jenny Dick, Paiute/Shoshone.
Florine Conway, a Washoe weaver, is known for her beautiful coiled round baskets, a style that derives from the Washoe fancy basketry period. She learned to make baskets by watching her mother and grandmothers. She works in the traditional style of Washoe weavers, using willow as the base, and redbud and bracken fern to create floating patterns on the surface. Her signature is a turquoise bead placed in the bottom of her baskets. Conway has participated in the Nevada Arts Council Folklife Apprentice Program as a master/teacher to her apprentice Tammy Crawford. Her baskets are eagerly sought by collectors and often take home top prizes in competitions.
Florine's cousin is Sue Coleman, daughter of Theresa Smokey Jackson (sister to Florine's mother Freida). Sue Coleman learned weaving from her mother in the master/apprentice program. She has also worked actively with the Great Basin Native Basketweavers Association. She creates twined baskets, such as artistically interpreted burden baskets. It is important to her to carry on the traditions of her mother, a well-known and respected Washoe weaver and spiritual elder. Coleman's aunt, JoAnn Smokey Martinez, was also a respected weaver and elder. The Smokey sisters, Theresa and JoAnn, worked with tremendous dedication and perseverance to protect and preserve their heritage. Weaving was a passion for these sisters and they taught many classes to young people, young adults, and apprentices.
Lilly Sanchez, a Western Shoshone weaver, also learned to weave the traditional way: she watched her mother and grandmother weave and then took it up herself. She creates baskets traditionally used by Shoshone people to gather resources. The twined burden basket is used to gather pine nut cones as people prepare for the important pine nut harvest. Sanchez also makes twined seed beaters that were traditionally used to beat plants to gather ripe seeds. As the seed beater strikes the plant, ripe seeds fall into the scoop-shaped winnowing basket, also a twined product. Sanchez works ardently to preserve and teach many aspects of her traditional culture, as well as weaving.
Bernadine Delorme, daughter of Lilly Sanchez, is also devoted to the traditional methods of the Shoshone people. She produces round coiled baskets, which she then covers with glass beads. She also produces less traditional items such as beaded bottles. She is a strong advocate of traditional native culture and is working to expand her knowledge of traditional forms and techniques of weaving. Linda Comas was her apprentice under the Nevada Arts Council program, and she continues to craft fine coiled and beaded baskets.
Sandra Eagle and Rebecca Eagle are sisters of Paiute and Shoshone descent who were both taught by their grandmother Adele Sampson and mother Jeanette Mitchell. Their cousin Norman Delorme, a basketmaker as well, was also taught by Sampson and helped the sisters with their beadwork. Although taught in the traditional manner, these sisters incorporate innovation and contemporary application of old ideas in their work. Both sisters create tiny round baskets, although Rebecca has beaded some very large baskets with elaborate and complicated pictorial scenes that are true art pieces. Sandra intersperses beads within the coiled stitches, and decorates the rims with shells and feathers. Rebecca fashions vivid contemporary bead patterns to decorate her tiny baskets, and literally "paints with beads" on her larger creations. Norman Delorme also creates medium and large coiled beaded baskets using his own innovative as well as traditional designs. He is a very productive and accomplished weaver and bead worker.
Evelyn Pete, a Shoshone weaver, works in the traditional style. She is one of the few weavers left who has the traditional knowledge and skill to produce not only twined utility baskets, but also twined water jug/baskets and rabbit-skin blankets. The twined water basket is a tightly twined flat-bottomed jar-shaped basket with a tiny mouth that has been coated on the inside with the pitch from pine nut trees. This creates a waterproof basket. Rabbit-skin blankets are woven with the hides of rabbits to create a warm cloak/blanket. Like many of these weavers, Pete works tirelessly to teach and preserve traditional knowledge for her grandchildren.
Larena Burns, of Washoe and Paiute ancestry, creates pine needle baskets, a nontraditional form of weaving that Burns has embraced with a passion. Although she remembers watching her grandmothers weave, she learned the beginnings of weaving at the Gatekeepers Museum in Tahoe City, California. From that start, she has incorporated traditional Washoe stitches into the pine needle baskets. Combining traditional stitches, California pine needles, and modern raffia thread, Burns produces small round pine needle baskets of beautiful design.
Everett Pikyavit is a young but very accomplished Southern Paiute weaver from Moapa, Nevada. He is very skilled in creating the old twined forms such as hats, winnowing trays, and burden baskets, and also in designing and making the coiled bowls and plaques that were signature pieces of several Southern Paiute weavers beginning about 1900.
Several well known contemporary weavers have passed away since 1997, including Theresa Smokey Jackson, Washoe; JoAnn Smokey Martinez, Washoe; and Robert Baker, Jr., Paiute. The loss of these artists is staggering, but the persistence of basketry continues; new generations of weavers appear, as mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and even fathers teach this ancient tradition to young people. There are countless weavers who are harvesting and processing materials, producing beautiful baskets, and encouraging and teaching others about all aspects of their traditional culture. The weavers mentioned here represent just a sample of the wealth of artistry our region hosts.