The Indian Weaver

By Sheila Reddy
Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
Regions 1 and 4
Heritage Program
August 1996

Anthropologist Sven Liljeblad said of Idaho Indians, "Basket making was their main industry. Thus, their most indispensable equipment was products of weaving: clothing, house covers, gathering utensils, and containers for cooking." Living as a part of the natural system, the American Indian was intimate with every resource, weaving it into their physical and spiritual needs.

O.T. Mason (1902) noted after meeting a basket weaver:

"As you gaze on the Indian basket maker at work, herself frequently unkempt, her garments the coarsest, her house and surroundings suggestive of anything but beauty, you are amaze. You look about you as in a cabinet shop or (an artist's shop) for models, drawings, patterns, pretty bits of color effect. There are none. Her patterns are in her soul, in her memory and imagination, in the mountains, water courses, lakes, and forests, and in those tribal tales and myths which dominate the actions of every hour. She hears suggestions from another world. Her tools are more disappointing still, for those are few - a rude knife, a pointed bone, that is all. Her modeling block is herself. Her plastic body is the repository of forms. Over her knee she molds depressions in her ware, her lap is equal to all emergencies for convex effects."

The relationship between the basket maker (most of whom were women), her environment, her craft and her people was undoubtedly an important element in tribal life. Her home, shaped, twined and woven like her baskets mush have been filled with fragrant bundles of dry branches, roots, stems and vines gathered at just the right season. Some plants were dried in the shade to keep their natural color, others in the sun to dry quickly.

The variety of materials used included: ferns, sweet grass, bear grass, sedges, cattails, rabbitbrush, mosses, larkspur, rushes, chokecherry bark, spruce, pine needles, ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, willow, dogbane, sagebrush, serviceberry, red-twig dogwood, clematis, milkweed, tule, elder, mountain maple, blueberry, and more. Other weaving materials included goose down, feathers, horsehair, strands of twisted rabbit fur and leather.

The Indian wickiup was the ultimate basket. Using poles or branches for strong inner supporting walls, plant fibers, leaves, grass, tree boughs and branches, or mats were woven between or laid over and covered with dirt to create a winter shelter. In summer when only shade was needed plants were lightly interwoven between or laid over supporting branches as an airy cover.

A few early journals describe these basket-like houses and their contents. In 1844, John Minto arriving at a Shoshone fishing village noted:

"The canyon was so deep that the dome-like wickiups below looked like meadow mouse nests rather than human habitations… we descended a very steep and rough trail… and found ourselves near three of those nest-like houses. We could see people busy along the river on both sides above us, but found only one very old woman housekeeper. She quickly understood that we wanted food, and led us into the lodge. A large uneven molded earthenware pot stood near some live coals of burning sagebrush. She filled for each of us bowls of fish soup, which our hunger made taste good to us. The bowls, woven of plaited grass, seemed to be made soup proof by a fish glue."

The Shoshone were listed by mason as basket makers:

"By far the largest part of the Interior Basin is Shoshonean. The tribes also spread out far to the north in the drainage of the Snake River… The basket making tribes (include) the Shoshoni in Idaho… This great stock of Indians employ both structures, the woven and the coiled (styles of weaving)…. The twined weave of all kinds is used in the conoidal basket hats, the baskets, jars and bottle, the roasting trays and wands. The coiled and whipped structure is used in pitched water bottles, trays and bowls… Roasting trays are shaped like a scoop rimmed with a large twig. The warp is made of parallel twigs laid close together and held in place by diagonal twining. The Shoshonean tribes on the other had belong to the coiled and whipped structure… All of them are quite heavy, having been dipped in pitch."

Patrick Gass noted in 1805, "These people (Lemhi Shoshone) make willow baskets so close, and to such perfection, as to hold water, for which purpose they make use of them."

The tools of the ancient weaver, as Mason noted, were simple: a stone knife, the river bank or a clay pot for soaking fibers in water, an awl made of stone or bone for pressing fibers into place, fingers as a gage, and teeth for pulling fibers tight. In design the warp of a basket is the strong inner part, like the spokes of a wheel. Soft inner materials called the weft is woven to fill in areas between the warp in a process not unlike that of a bird building a nest in the branches of a leafless tree.


Wilderness Archaeologists are currently working to preserve, protect and understand the prehistory of the ancient people who lived in the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness. As this prehistory is discovered and understood, they will share it with the public through educational monographs ad other publications. You can help in this effort by leaving artifacts where they lie, and informing Forest Service Wilderness managers of your discovery. Take pride in our American heritage. Take nothing but photographs.