West Coast Native American Basketry and Textiles

The variety of arts and crafts produced by west coast Native American tribes never ceases to astonish me. Pacific Galleries sells a few quality weavings and baskets during each auction, and it is always a pleasure to learn about the people who made these objects.

Much of what is available for purchase on the secondary market (shops, auctions and private collections) are tourist wares, and prices reflect that the items were more recently made; good quality items are rarely signed by the artist, so pitfalls about in the marketplace. Recent items made by a well-trained weaver or potter may not be signed and must be identified by an expert, which makes early 20th century items in good condition a good investment. A good rule of thumb is to always buy what you love, but do also try to buy the best you can afford to maximize your investment.

A common type of basket seen in the Northwestern United States consists of a simple imbricated design (meaning woven in overlapping or layered manner like roofing shingles), which was a design used by Lillooet (Interior Salish) people living in a wide geographical area in eastern Washington, British Columbia, northern Idaho and western Montana, all bound by their common language, Salishan.

A lot of folks have textiles around the house that they have been told are of Navajo origin, but this is not always the case. The best indicators of Navajo artistry are the colors, (which should be made from vegetable dyes), the overall design (look in the Internet to compare your textile with examples from museum collections and from expert dealers), and evidence of a diagonal weaving line somewhere in the piece. Expert weavers with incorporate multiple diagonals in a piece. A recent consignment I had the pleasure to evaluate has a dynamic geometric design and earthy colors of deep red, dark brown and beige coupled with many diagonal lines. This piece dates from the Pound Period (1890-1920) and will likely sell at auction in the $500 to $900 range.

I occasionally see pieces by the Makah people of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. These pieces differentiate themselves by having a woven cedar bark base, and whaling boat scenes are nearly always depicted on the sides. A large modern Makah basket with an unusual domed lid made during the 1970s or 1980s makes a fair investment piece, with an auction estimate of $50 to $100. The Makah tribe is very active today, and has an annual Makah Days event every August, which is well worth the trip to tribal lands at the northwestern corner of the contiguous United States, where you may view examples of traditional Makah art at the large tribe-run museum or pick up a modern piece by a current artisan.

Cleaning and preserving baskets in easy, and common sense prevailskeep baskets dry and out of sunlight. Dusting them is simple with canned air, which is a product made for dusting computer keyboards and components and which can be found in office supply stores. Because of the natural vegetable dyes used in Navajo rugs, cleaning should be only be conducted by a qualified restorer or cleaner with experience in Native American textiles. Because of the issues unique to Navajo rugs, professional cleaning may be more expensive for other types of hand-made rugs.