on-line book icon

table of contents

Field Division of Education
Material Culture of the Pima, Papago, and Western Apache
NPS logo


Basketry is one of the most alive of the old arts of the Pima-Papago and Apache. Certain modifications have crept in due to the nature of tourist demands and Apache basketry in particular has been largely adapted to this. A part of the distinction between the basketry of the three tribes is caused by the environmental influence of the materials available.

Environmental conditions have ruled out wicker and the common forms of twinning for the Pima and Papago. The techniques used are plain and lattice wrapped weaving, lace coiling, crude, coarse, and fine foundation coiling, and plaiting.

Materials for wrapped weaving are the saguaro (Cereus giganteus), the ribs being used as rods and slats for foundation elements, arrow bush or arrowweed (Plucea borealis and Plucea servicea), used for foundations also. The simplest type is used to make doors and sieves. Hair brushes were made by the Papago of Agave fiber (Agave sp.), the Pima of tripled awn (Aristida Californica), Sacaton grass (Sporobolus wrightii), or other grass roots, yucca fiber, or Agave lecheguea. Stirrers are also made in this technique. Technique and articles are illustrated by Kissell (140; 142-143; 145; 147; fig. 1.)

Lattice wrapped weaving of a crude sort is more used. The warp elements is saguaro and arrowweed, the binding elements thongs of rawhide or sinew from the back and legs of the deer. Cradles are made partially by this technique with a mesquite root bent from the frame, saguaro ribs for the cross pieces, and cats claw (Acacia gregii) and willow (in the hood?). The hood is twilled with willow and other splints in the warp and willow bark for the weft (or sinew or rawhide thongs) and cats claw for ornament. Fine green mesquite roots are sometimes used in the weft. (Kissell, 141; 146; 149; figs. 9, 10.)

Plaiting or twilling is always diagonal. It is used for sleeping mats, eating mats, (also used for drying food), headrings, backmats for the carrying basket, cylindrical baskets for trinkets, clothing, and food, and rectangular baskets for medicines and magical objects. The materials are: Papago, palmea (Dasylirion Wheelerii), the leaves being cut off with a stick, the thorns trimmed off, the leaves split down the middle and dried; Pima, cane (Phragmetis communis), now no longer available since the streams have dried up due to excessive irrigation. The stems were cut, dried, and stored. When used, they were moistened, split lengthwise with the thumbnail, and flattened out. The rythms are usually three over three, i.e., each element is carried over three and then under three of the transverse elements but many variations occur. (Kissell, 150-172; for headband see, 158; 164; head ring, 158-163; baskets, 164-172.)

The above mentioned articles and techniques are rarely to be found offered for sale and are generally unornamented. They are entirely articles of common everyday use. Some of the coiled baskets are also purely useful but all the ornamented sale baskets are in coiling technique.

Crude coiling is done left to right (all other coiling being right to left.) It is used only for the large storage baskets found out-of-doors on roofs or platforms. It consists of a spiral foundation element of brushy twigs and is unique in that the twigs also serve as binder, the butts being worked into the previous spiral to hold it in place. Arrowweed (Plucea borealis) is the material.

Pima granaries are built without a base, the roof or platform on which it stands serving for this purpose. The average size is 40 to 50 cms. height, 1 m. diameter. They flare out somewhat at the top and are covered with a slightly conical lid made of arrowbrush and dirt arranged on top of old coiled grain basket, sloping slightly to overhang the edge of the basket.

The Papago granary is shaped like a hive or barrel with incurving top. It never stands on the house roof but is slightly raised from the ground by sticks or stones. The coiled base is of finer material, usually bear grass (Nolina erumpems), or willow, or cottonwood. It has no cover but a piece of old basket. It sometimes reaches the height of a man's shoulder. (Kissell, 172-179.)

Coarse coiling differs from the preceding in having a completely passive foundation and an independent active warp. It (and all other baskets of coiled technique) is worked from the right to left, but inasmuch as baskets are often made from the inside, the direction of work appears reversed to one standing outside. The binder or wrapping element punctures the top of the preceding spiral of the foundation and binds the new spiral firmly in place. There is no looping, interlacing, or twisting as in some other forms of coiling. A multiple foundation of a number of splints is used and the binder elements are widely spaced, allowing the foundation to show. It is used for making storage baskets of a different type from the outdoor granaries, being placed in the house or storage shed. It holds finer materials than the crude coil type.

The largest storage bins of coarse coiling are globular in form among both tribes. The smaller Pima bins are bell-shaped with a flat base, the Papago, barrel-shaped with a more rounded wall and smaller base. They range in size from 1/2 to 1-1/2 m. in height but sometimes reach dimensions of 2 by 2 meters.

For materials the Pima use wheat straw foundation and willow bark (Salix nigra), mesquite bark (Prosopis veluntina), Acacia is bear grass (Nolina erumpems), the binder sotol (Yucca elata), and mesquite bark. Barks are gathered in small strips from the trees so as not to injure them. It is used green or else must be thoroughly soaked.

All basketry work except cradle making is done by the women. The tools used are a knife with a strong blade and an awl of hard wood, either Sarcobatus vermicularis or Acacia constricta. (Kissell, 179-190.)

Close coiling differs from coarse coiling only in the class of workmanship, the binder elements covering and concealing the foundation completely. Native forms are bowls and trays. The olla and wastebasket forms of the present day are designed for tourists and are not aboriginal. Pima bowl and tray shapes have narrow bottoms and ovoid rather than round contours. They are never water tight while Papago baskets are usually so. Papago bowls and trays are flat based with full, well-rounded curves. A tabulation of shapes is given by Kissell (196).

Papago materials are bear grass or Yucca baccata as a makeshift substitute for the foundation. The Pima foundation is of cat-tail (Typha angustifolio), or the poorer parts of old cottonwood twigs (Populus fremontii). Bear grass is gathered from the centers of the clusters and dried four or five days. It is worked without moistening. Pima and Papago use the same binding materials except that the Papago sometimes make baskets for sale of the inferior sotol (Yucca elata) which they would never use in their own baskets. The normal materials are willow bark (Salix nigra), cottonwood, and, for decoration, splints from the seedpods of Martynia probosidea. Willow is peeled and split while green and used after soaking. The size of the splints made determines the size and firmness of the binder. Cottonwood is employed in the same way, the young spring twigs of both being used. Martynia supplies the black designs. Two short black splints are stripped from the front and back of each hook of the pod. The pods are gathered in the fall before frost (which injures the color) and stored. When desired they are soaked a day in a damp hole in the ground and the splints stripped off. For fine work the splints are pushed through with an awl, formerly of cactus thorn, bone, or mesquite wood. Now umbrella ribs are made into awls.

Designs of old type are variations of geometric, frequently fret, patterns, most of which started from a black center or base. Modern baskets, particularly of the Papago, generally lack the black base or center and the designs usually ray out toward the edges. They are simpler and often introduce realistic figures of plants, animals, or humans.

Many of these designs have names but it is extremely dubious if there are many of ancient usage. It is certain, despite the well-intentioned maunderings on the subject by amateur investigators, that there is no symbolism attached to the names. Both Russell and Kissell note that design names are often coined to satisfy the curiosity of visitors. (Russell, 1908, 139; Kissell, 190-225.)

Lace coiling is a technique confined to the carrying frame or kiaha. It is essentially coiling without foundation, or pointlace. Papago materials are the fiber of Agave heteracantha and Yucca elata. The Pima (who no longer make them) used Tasylirioni Wheeleri. The leaves are roasted at night in a crude pit oven, the pulp and skin scraped from the fibers with a deer scapula, and the fibers washed and dried. They are spun into two strand cord by rolling on the leg (formerly the thigh). Some sort of a needle appears to be almost obligatory, although the old form is not known. However, the fingers or a sharpened stick will serve after a fashion. The early Pima type has gone out of use and only Papago types of kiaha are now seen. The early Pima type was cone shaped, taller, more tapering, and the four poles did not extend below the basket and only a short distance above. (Kissell, 225-244.) (2)

Apache basketry is simpler and more easily presented. Like much Pima-Papago basketry, modern designs and shapes are frequently for sale purposes.

Tools consist simply of a knife and an awl, formerly of stone and bone respectively, and brushes and strainers made of bunches of stiff yucca fiber.

Materials for twining water jars are a variety of sumac (probably Rhus trilobata) or, more often, shoots of the squawberry (Vaccineum stamineum). Sumac is gathered in about one meter lengths and cleared of twigs, but the bark is left on. Squawberry yields slightly shorter osiers. If used for the warp, they are left as gathered, merely being moistened while working. If they are used for weft, they are split in three pieces and the pith scraped out. The bark side of the splints is always turned inwards. For twining burden baskets, sumac, cottonwood, and willow or mulberry (Morus sp.) are used in the same way. Mulberry was formerly used almost exclusively for weft purposes but has been largely supplanted, except in the finer work, by cottonwood and willow.

For coiled ware sumac is used rarely. More commonly cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and willow (Salix lasiandra or Salix nigra) are employed. For foundations, shoots of as uniform diameter as possible are selected and peeled, when they are about 2 mm. thick and a meter or so long. For storage they are bunched together in bundles of thirty or so and wound spirally from end to end with a piece of grass. If they are to be used as sewing splints, the end nearest the tree is divided in three parts with a knife and the osier torn in three, holding one piece in the teeth, the other two being held in the two hands. The sap wood is removed by scraping, the inner surface smoothed, and the splints wound in coils for storing. For decoration Martynia louisiana or proboscidea is highly prized and the pods are stored in bunches. Yucca root (Yucca elata or baccata) is used to give a red note in some modern baskets. Pitch of the pinon (Pinus edulis) is used to waterproof twined jars. Juniper is mentioned but there is no account of its use.

(2) For further notes see the following:

Kissell (complete study of basketry).
Russell, 1908, 131-148; plates 22-34 (see explanation in text to distinguish old and new types.)
Breazeale, (plenty of illustrations and some sense mixed up with much nonsense about symbolism and the origins of Indian inspiration. No effort to discriminate between old and new styles of design.)
Holmes, 1888, 220. (Two coiled basketry illustrations.)
Hrdlicka, 1906, 43.
Densmore, 1929, plates 7, 10.
Dorsey, 1903, 201-3.
Goddard, 1913, 148-151.

Two varieties of twined weaving are used, plain, in which a rigid warp element is used with two pliable weft elements, one passing before and one behind each warp and twisting about each other between each warp, and twilled twine. This resembles the first except that a second rigid warp element runs at right angles to the first and is caught in by the weft elements each time it crosses an upright warp. Various modifications of this latter technique are used, the most common being a diagonal twilled twine. Three ply twining also occurs.

Burden baskets are made in twilled twine. All are more or less conical in shape with rounded or reflexed bases. Notable are reinforcing ribs, which run from the bottom to the top, and a reinforcing pin at the edge. Water jars are more coarsely made in plain twine in bottle shape. They are coated with pitch. Handles for introducing a carrying strap are set in with sewing fibers or leather.

Baby carrier hoods are sometimes made in wicker technique but more commonly are twined.

Close coiling is used to make all bowls and flat dishes, elaborate jars, and eccentric shapes. Practically all coiling is in anti-clockwise direction, although sometimes apparently reversed because of the position in which the basket is made. Coiled work differs from that of the Pima-Papago in having three definite foundation splints instead of a vague multiple splint of grass. The sewing passes under or through the upper of the three rods.

Old style basket shapes were sharp pointed at the base or were small enough at the base to be unstable. Bases and walls merged almost imperceptibly and there was usually a sharp outflare at the rim. Modern shapes have better bases, a gentle curve from base to side-wall, and a slight bulge or incurve before rim is reached.

The ornamentation of coiled and twined ware is quite different. Paints and dyes are employed only on twined work, while the application of rawhide, beads and silver buttons is almost entirely confined to this same technique. Ornamentation of twined baskets is limited to horizontal bands with few exceptions, there being from one to four on the average burden basket. There is a much wider use of design in coiled work, involving various elements as horizontal bands, radiating effects, either vertical or diagonal, and whorls (in lightning designs). Realistic designs of men, animals, birds, and flowers appear formerly to have been rarely if ever used, but are now increasing common because of the demands of tourists.

In general Apache basketry appears to have had three historic periods. The first is little known but is marked by chaste geometric designs. The middle period, indicated by collections made about 1890, was marked by florid and completely typical designs. The modern period characterized by a return towards the earlier designs but with the introduction of new elements and shapes.

The baby carrier is an elliptical willow frame within which were fastened transverse ribs of soft wood and with a hood of reeds, sometimes woven in wicker technique, but more commonly bound with sinew. (3)


Pima-Papago weaving has long since been discarded. Native cotton was grown. Seeds were separated from the fiber by spreading the cotton on the ground and beating it with a switch. The spindle was a piece of arrowweed about 730 mm. in length, diameter 7 mm., with a cross bar of cactus rib 175 mm. by 31 mm. Formerly a block of wood was placed on the shaft, at least part of the time. Women spun, sitting on the ground, the left leg under them with the sole turned upward (a very typical Indian posture). One end of the spindle as held between the toes or rested in a wooden cup held between the toes. The spindle was twisted with the right hand, the left feeding in loose cotton held on the arm.

Blankets and belts were woven. Men did the weaving on a primitive horizontal loom. This appears identical with that used by the Opata, Maricopa, and the Yaqui-Mayo of Sonora. A heald or heddle and a spreader were used. There is some doubt about the heald being aboriginal but it appears in early descriptions of the Opata. A detail description of the loom would take too much space here. (For further details see Russell, 1908, 148-153; Spier, 1933, 110-122 (an excellent account of the Maricopa loom with drawings and photographs). There are notes also in Bartlett, 2:225; 229; Emory, 85.)

There is no evidence the Apache ever wove.

(3) The above is based largely on Roberts, 1929, which see for further details. Also see (particularly for illustrations):

Hrdlicka, 1905, 484-6.
Dodge, 1900, 193-4.
Holmes, 1888, 198; 213; 223.
Roberts, 1916, 602.
Bourke, 1891, 49.
Dorsey, 1903, 182.
Goddard, 1913, 144-149.

Other Textiles

Russell describes a net of two-ply maguey fiber thread. There is no description of the technique.

Ropes of maguey fiber are made by the Papago and traded to the Pima. The technique if European. (Russell, 1908, 113-115.)

Museum Display

The rather limited basketry materials used by Pima-Papago and Apache can be shown and the steps in preparation illustrated. Pictures will show processes where necessary. It should not be difficult to secure baskets in various stages of manufacture. The number of baskets in this part of the display should be limited to the definite purpose of illustrating techniques, shapes and perhaps typical patterns. Here or elsewhere in the exhibit the contrast between the old and new in shapes and designs might be brought out profitably and should assist tourists who usually buy baskets when in this region. It would not only be educational but would stimulate the preservation of the better class of basketry techniques and styles among the Indians.

Weaving may be included here owing to its relationship to basketry techniques. A model loom may be constructed and materials, preparation, and techniques illustrated compactly and simply. The weaving products are so simple as to require very few examples (if they can be secured.)

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Dec 24 2001 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home