Coast Salish Baskets
The Whatcom Museum's Collection contains more than 120 baskets identified as Coast Salish. They were gifted to the museum between 1941 and 2009 by generous donors including the Estate of Carl Cary, William D. Sells, Merville Dickinson, Henry Jukes, and Melville Jacobs. Many of these baskets are on permanent exhibit in the museum's Syre Education Center where nearly 350 Native American baskets from the Northwest Coast region, British Columbia, Alaska, and the western United States are displayed. Sampled here are some of Whatcom Museum's best examples of Coast Salish baskets.

Form & Function
Traditionally, the Coast Salish Indians wove a wide variety of baskets to serve many purposes, including gathering, storing, and preparing food; holding household goods; transporting objects; and protecting their infants. Gathering baskets were commonly used to gather roots, berries, shellfish and other foods. Some gathering baskets had leather loops or carrying straps enabling the user's hands to remain free. Berry baskets were sometimes soft and flexible, so the basket could be folded and stored when not in use.

Clam baskets and other containers used for shellfish harvesting had an open weave that allowed easy rinsing and draining. Openwork baskets were also used for steaming food items such as shellfish while more finely woven, watertight baskets were used to boil foods by adding water and heated rocks. Burden baskets were used for carrying bulky loads such as firewood. These large, sturdy baskets were intended to be worn on the back, and were often secured by a tumpline that passed over the top of the wearer's head.

Materials & Technique
Common basketry materials included beargrass, cedar bark, cedar root, spruce root, cattail leaves and tule. Elements used for decoration included maidenhair fern stems, horsetail root, red cherry bark and a variety of grasses which offered weavers a variety of colors, textures, and sheens, which they used for artistic effect. Additionally, some materials were dyed before they were used. Shades of red, yellow, blue, purple, green, brown, and black were obtainable from local plants, animals, and minerals. Coiling, plaiting and twining were the three main techniques applied by Coast Salish basket-makers. Coiled baskets were created by coiling a foundation material such as split roots, then piercing the coils with an awl and stitching them together with another material. Cooking baskets were often coiled, as it was possible to create a watertight container with the technique. Plaiting, or checker weave, is the classic alternating, over-and-under technique, where one weft (the horizontal material) crosses over and under one warp (the vertical material) at a time. Plaiting was often used to form the base of twined baskets, the weft and warp of the bottom becoming the warp of the basket sides. Twining is characterized by multiple wefts that cross between warps. Many variations exist as to the number and angle of the warps and wefts, each slightly changing the weave's appearance.

While clam baskets and cooking baskets were usually plain, other baskets were frequently decorated. Coiled baskets often displayed geometric elements created with a technique called imbrication, in which a decorative material (such as horsetail root or bear grass) was folded under each stitch. Designs were created on twined baskets through the use of false embroidery and overlay. False embroidery added a third, colored weft to the outer surface of the basket that slanted in the opposite direction of the twining. Overlay twining added a weft that was carried and twisted between the warps, weaving a design that was sometimes visible on the inside surface, and that slanted in the same direction as the rest of the twining. Designs were also painted on the outside of baskets.

Change Over Time
Euro-American settlement of Puget Sound in the 19th century led to a decrease in the creation and use of utilitarian baskets by the Coast Salish Indians, particularly as metal cooking vessels became widely available. Instead, basket-making became an increasingly important economic activity due to its popularity with tourists and collectors. As a result, basket-makers responded by creating smaller vessels, experimenting with new forms, and occasionally adding design elements such as handles, pedestal bases and decorative rims. In addition, the availability of commercial dyes made brighter colors possible, and some basket weavers incorporated imported materials like raffia into their work.

Curated and written by Kristin Converse

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