August Wood carefully inserts an awl to create an opening between rows of the basket he’s been working on. He pulls a piece of willow branch shaved down to about 1/16-inch thickness from the plastic bowl half-full of water he uses to soften the woody stem.
Placing one end of the willow into the hole, Wood pulls the softened splint through, leaving a small tail behind, which he’ll work into the basket’s body later.
He works another opening close to where he started the splint, and loops the willow around and through, making a smooth stitch along the rod of cattail that anchors the stitches. After a few stitches with the creamy white willow, Wood switches to a splint of black devil’s claw, following a pattern that’s in his head.
Wood’s work, including tightly woven baskets that he thinks could hold water, medallions for necklaces, earrings and other pieces, are hot commodities both in Indian Country and the Native art collecting world. He won a blue ribbon at the Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market in March 2020 for one of his baskets.
Wood, 32, who is Navajo, Tohono O'odham and Pima, grew up in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale. He has a long career ahead of him — if he can find, or grow, the natural materials he needs to continue his centuries-old art.
Native artists, cultural practitioners and artisans are experiencing more difficulty locating plants like willow, devil’s claw, arrowweed or other materials they need for artistic and cultural continuance. Even in areas where natural materials are plentiful, the challenge is sparking and retaining interest by people to put in the time to harvest, clean, prepare and make pieces.
"Over the years, I've seen the changes within our land here," said Royce Manuel, an elder of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. He's had difficulty locating materials for his traditional crafting, and when he does find plants, they increasingly have issues like brittleness and unusual growths.
Whether that change in the land resulted from drought, development, commercial agriculture or climate change, Manuel and other artists who depend on the natural world around them to continue their culture through art are having a harder time finding what they need.
Rivers were once a 'supermarket' of materials
When Spanish explorers first sighted what is now known as the Salt River Valley they found a land bisected by two major rivers, the Salt and the Gila.
The verdant ribbons created by riparian zones and wetlands provided not only water but a veritable supermarket of materials, as well as habitat for both plant and animal species. Lush stands of willow, cottonwood and sycamore trees, cattails, vines like Martynia annum or devil’s claw, and many other such plants thrived.
Visitors to the Huhugam Heritage Center in the Gila River Indian Community south of Chandler can see what the Gila once looked like in a looping video at the entrance to one of the museum galleries. The gallery also contains examples of Akimel O'odham and Pee Posh baskets, pottery, calendar sticks and other pieces that were once everyday household items, but are now considered art.
The four O'odham cultures — the Akimel O’odham, or River People; the Ak-Chin O’odham; the Tohono O'odham, or Desert People; and Hia Ced O'odham, the Sand People — consider themselves the descendants of the Hohokam, who created more than 1,000 miles of canals to bring lifegiving water to their fields of corn, squash, beans, cotton and other crops across what is now metro Phoenix.
The Xalychidom Piipaash and their relatives, the Pee Posh, or People Who Live Toward the Water, also farmed and located the clay deposits and water sources to make the pottery for which they are acclaimed.
Baskets for gathering, food preparation and storage, ceremonies, and to protect and cherish tiny infants emerged from the hands of the women who created art incorporated into everyday items. Men crafted bows and arrows for hunting and protection, and other items. Shelters to block the searing heat of the sun’s rays, or for ceremonies like the coming out ceremony for young women, also came from the earth’s bounty.
All that changed when the Gila and Salt rivers were dammed in the early 20th century. Not only the Indigenous peoples, who depended on the once free-flowing rivers for irrigating their fields, suffered from the sudden cutoff. The plants and animals that inhabited the wetlands also felt the catastrophic impact. Trees, bushes and vines dried up. Animals and fish died off or attempted to migrate toward food and water. Invasive plants like tamarisks began to compete with the indigenous trees for water and nutrients. And finding materials to make baskets or other cultural items grew harder to find.
In 2010, Manuel said, a flood into the Salt River bed revealed how the river bottom once looked.
"When Tempe Town Lake's bladder busted, it actually saturated that whole area full of water," he said. "So once that water was down there, all these desert plants started coming up. That's what the natural look used to be. Gathering materials would be right there if there was some water in there."
Agricultural runoff also took a toll on the riparian zones still remaining in the region, including on the Salt River at the southern end of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Pesticides are one of the biggest issues basketweavers must contend with. When they work with plant material that's been sprayed or otherwise had pesticide applied, the artists also come into contact with potentially toxic substances that can cause health problems ranging from cancer to neurological damage. Pesticides can also harm fetal development.
At least one statewide basketweavers' group has developed programs to educate landowners and land managers about the dangers of pesticides. The California Indian Basketweavers' Association has long advocated to end pesticide use and has presented on the subject at gatherings and conferences across the state.
Although Arizona lacks a similar intertribal organization, basketweavers from Arizona tribes have met with California weavers at conferences and gatherings to bring home information on how to avoid being poisoned by pesticides or pesticide runoff.
Fewer and inferior materials
Manuel carefully coils cordage made with agave fibers into a traditional O’odham burden basket. He sits underneath a watto, or traditional O’odham brush and pole shelter, sheltering him and others from the sun on a sultry summer morning.
Manuel, a retired firefighter and lifelong cultural artisan, is an enrolled member of the Salt River Indian Community from the Auk-Mierl Aw-Thum, or Akimel O’odham culture. He’s been making bows from willow branches and arrows from arrowweed, creating thread and cords from twining agave fibers, and building shelters since he was 12.
But while scouting for the plants he requires for his work and to teach classes, Manuel has noted changes. When making the women’s house for coming out ceremonies, he prefers to use only natural materials.
“We used to be able to go down to the river bottom and get the willow,” said Manuel. “We would use the bark off the willow or other such strips and tie the posts.”
But he ran into an issue. “The river bottom where I gather material on the south side is where Mesa’s sewage plant is.”
He believes the sewage plant’s discharges affect the groundwater and makes the bark too brittle to use as post ties.
“The bark broke too easily, and I couldn’t use it to tie anything down,” he said. Manuel had to resort to wire to finish the watto.
Manuel also said that arrowweed (Pluchea sericea) doesn’t grow as abundantly as it once did. Not only is it in short supply due to the decline of riparian areas, but when he does find it, the plants have growths or other imperfections. That means he has to travel to more isolated areas to gather arrowweed that hasn’t been affected by human activity.
Along with the decrease in volume and health of the plants, Manuel and his wife, Debbie Nez Manuel, also said they see less wildlife.
“We used to have white lizards all over the desert,” he said. “I could walk down to the river bottom and could come across 10 to 15 white lizards running on their hind legs.”
They’re nowhere to be found these days. Manuel also said that the cidada population has plummeted. The insects were another food source for O’odham people. “Young people would go out and gather them, they could cook them.”
Debbie Nez Manuel, a social worker, said she felt her husband’s grief as he described what has disappeared from his desert home.
“If we go take a walk, he says, ‘I don’t hear the frogs or the cicadas that we’re supposed to be hearing right now,’” she said.
Debbie said Royce points at the ground looking for things like the spinach that should be on the ground waiting for people or animals to gather it.
“I watch him with this sense of regret as he was frustrated because he didn’t find the willows he needed with the bark that was so critical to building the structure for a ceremony,” she said.
Wood said he had a difficult time finding devil’s claw for his baskets. “We used to see this plant everywhere,” he said. It was common to visit people’s homes and find the distinctive dried vine and seed pods bundled together.
“I was buying them from my teacher down in the Ak Chin Indian Community, who was buying them from a farmer,” he said. “But I think the farmer must have passed away because the teacher said nobody had contacted her with more for sale.”
Wood solved that shortage by growing his own vines behind his home. He harvests the seed pods with their razor-sharp needled ends in the fall, strips the valuable black stems and arranges them into something resembling a globular inside-out artichoke, with the sharp ends inside. Wood saves the seeds from the biggest vines for the next year’s crop.
Wood picks his willow shoots in late spring or early summer, after they’ve hardened a bit. He prefers hiking along the Verde River but also picks along the Salt, taking a few shoots here and there. In the summer, he picks cattail along the Salt River, as cattail is in shorter supply on the Verde, although he says cattails are also in a sharp decline.
Some tribes are dealing with the cultural materials issue through cultural and interpretive gardens. The Gila River Indian Community created the Gila River Interpretive Trail at the MAR-5 aquifer recharge site on the eastern side of the tribe’s land base. The trail contains plants used for baskets and other cultural activities as well as provide habitat for local wildlife.
Salt River Indian Community also has a cultural garden along the Salt River. The Colorado River Indian Tribes’ 1,253-acre ‘Ahakhav Tribal Preserve reconstructed a wetland on the backwaters of the Colorado. The preserve serves as a revegetation area for threatened and endangered plants in animals in the lower Colorado River basin as well as a recreational area, a park and a learning center.
Basketweaving is hard work, and few take it on
Processing the raw materials to be turned into art, or into everyday items once used daily, is also a challenge.
Wood said he takes his time and carefully processes his materials to ensure they work well in the weaving process. He splits the cattails and shaves the willow down to the required splint sizes. He carefully processes the devil’s claw as well.
One large basket that’s on display in Wood’s home took more than five years to complete working intermittently, because of the time spent in gathering and processing materials. If he had devoted all his time to the project, it would have taken about six months.
Wood said the medallions he’s weaving for a Salt River Tribal Council customer will take him one to two weeks to complete each one, depending on the design and material prep time. This doesn’t include the time he spends picking material, about three hours for one bundle of willow. The cattails take about two hours to gather and process.
But finding people who can commit to the hard, hot work and long periods of time needed to gather, process and make baskets is also a challenge.
“I know maybe one or two other weavers who make baskets in the Salt River community and about three in Gila River,” said Wood. “We have many who know how to make a basket but many of them do not actually complete a basket and start on another one.”
Wood has taken many people under his wing and showed them how, where and when to gather, prep and make a basket.
“They say ‘I want to know because it's part of my culture, it's part of my heritage, or I want to do it because my mother was a basket maker and my grandmother was a basket maker,’” Wood said.
He alerts these people to when he’s going out for materials. “Sometimes they show up and sometimes they don’t show up.”
When they do, Wood says oftentimes the new weavers pick smaller bundles and then worry they don’t have enough to make a basket.
“I think they become discouraged because they spend all that time out there picking that material and just sitting there and processing it,” and then abandon the project, he said.
Nurturing artistic spark
Although some Native artists encounter shortages of the materials needed to create their art, the clay used in traditional Mojave pottery making is still plentiful. Several budding potters and beadwork artists plunged into one of the Southwest’s oldest traditions during a class at the Old Presbyterian Church in Parker, capital of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT.
Clay from a local pit and water from the Colorado are put into a bucket. Kids take their turn pounding the mixture until the clay clots are broken up. Ginger Swick-Scott, the curator at the CRIT Museum & Gift Shop, poured the mixture into another bucket through some old sheets to strain the remaining clots and stones from the liquid. Sand from upriver is added to temper the final slip.
That reddish-brown substance, which is now about the consistence of cake batter, is turned into a rectangular hole in the ground lined with several layers of more used sheets. Swick-Scott covers the filled hole with the rest of the cloth. In two days, the resultant clay will be ready to shape into whatever the kids want, and their creations will be traditionally fired in a pit on the other side of the church property. Some pieces will be glazed before firing, others painted afterward.
Pee Posh artist Yolanda Hart Stevens then gives the kids from a local home school community a lesson in making the clay beads she’s known for as well as other traditional materials like hematite.
The kids had the opportunity to work a pump drill made from arrowweed, which Hart Stevens called an earlier version of a Dremel hand-held rotary tool. The pump drill slightly resembles a tire jack and requires dedicated work to drill a small hole in some shells provided for the class.
The students, aged 5 to 12, also received lessons in regular beadwork.
The three-day class was sponsored by David Harper, a CRIT tribal member who’s served as a traditional spokesperson for the Mojave, one of the four tribal cultures who reside on the tribal lands.
“We want to sustain our culture by planting the seeds in these kids,” said Harper. He’s hoping to show the tribe the value of these types of cultural classes and said that if the CRIT Tribal Council decides to fund them, the infrastructure will be in place.
The students clearly enjoyed the class and the lessons in their local tribal culture. Twelve-year-old Hamuse Harper, a tribal member, said this was her second class, and that she was learning something new that week.
The last word, though, came from the mouth of a kindergartener. While she was carefully lining up beads for a necklace, Joy Ward, 5, said that she had been an artist for 50 million days.
Debra Krol covers issues related to Indigenous communities in Arizona and the intermountain West. Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.