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Abe Sanchez Shares Knowledge with IAIA Students

Jan 10, 2024

Abe Sanchez (Purépecha) holds a basket at the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research (SAR)

Over the past semester, a small group of students, Davidsarah Kaplan (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), Feather Candelaria (San Felipe Pueblo), Whisper Crowdog (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), and Nicole Lawe (Karuk) ’16, have been taking Integrated Coil Basketry, a team-taught Indigenous Liberal Studies (ILS) traditional arts colloquia and lab course. Four instructors have led the class—artist-in-residence Abe Sanchez (Purépecha), who specializes in basket revitalization and Indigenous foodways, taught coil basketry three days a week for part of the Fall 2023 semester; Assistant Professor of Mathematics Andrea Otero connected geometry to creating designs; Professor of Ethnobotany Dr. Thomas Antonio explained relevant plant science; and artist Leah Mata-Fragua (Northern Chumash) discussed associated environmental concerns.

On November 13, the Integrated Coil Basketry class visited baskets at the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research (SAR). Sanchez, Mata-Fragua, and the students met in one of the vaults, joined by IAIA Museum Studies student Jamie T. Herrell, SAR Education Manager Paloma Lopez, and SAR Ann Ray Interns Maie Thomas (Kanien’keha:ka from Akwesasne) and Rachel Morris (Oglala Lakota Nation). An assortment of materials, basket starts, and eleven baskets were arranged on tables in the vault, ready for analysis.

In just an hour, Sanchez communicated an incredible depth of information about basketry, cementing the importance of observation towards revitalization efforts. The materials used in a basket provide clues about its origins. One basket in SAR’s collection featured a Navajo design but was made from palm, revealing it was made in another country—this is a crucial detail to observe to identify Native-made basketry and avoid falsely represented, imitative work. When examining basket starts, Sanchez analyzed techniques and identified materials—variously sumac, willow, and yucca—and pointed out the “belly button” of a particular basket start. Sanchez picked up a damaged Akimel O’odham basket and discussed how the break in the basket revealed further information about materials—this basket was made with devil’s claw and willow. The rim of a basket shows the weaving direction, whether clockwise or counterclockwise. When examining one basket, Sanchez pointed to where the pattern began. A coiled Pueblo basket used peeled and unpeeled willow to create a pattern. One basket used willow and devil’s claw. The outside of a basket showed that an awl was used. At one point, Sanchez and the class directed their attention to unfinished baskets hanging near the vault entrance. Three rods of willow will create a round coil; one unfinished basket surprised Sanchez because it had four rods instead of the more typical three rods. He noted that the bigger the bundle, the faster the basket grows.

While the uninitiated can take an expertly made basket for granted, a basket with an uneven pattern demonstrates the importance of math and formulas for creating a cohesive pattern—basket-making can involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. One can potentially identify the age and experience level of a maker through careful examination of a basket; as Sanchez pointed out, the basket with an uneven pattern was nonetheless skillfully woven, perhaps indicating that an older, experienced weaver with diminishing eyesight had made it.

“We have to remember, these are our teachers.”

Abe Sanchez (Purépecha)

Master Weaver

Forms, designs, and materials—from dyes to plants used—indicate historical contexts. An Apache-made basket in the shape of a hat could be tied to the history of the railway system in the 1900s and its accompanying tourists, meaning that the hat was specifically made to sell to incoming visitors. The aniline dyes used also connected to the flow of commerce. Another basket could be identified as using aniline dye due to the purple tint of the colored sumac. Additionally, the pictorial design indicated it was made to sell to external buyers—“collectors of baskets love stories,” Sanchez quipped. One basket was shellacked, which Sanchez deduced from the deeper coloration of the black design, a practice that some collectors historically engaged in. At one point, Sanchez grabbed a flat basket from a shelf—the “hot plate” design had likely been made for tourists. Another basket with a vase shape and a flared base would have been made after European contact. Sanchez emphasized the importance of understanding history and context when researching basketry and images in books. He gave the example of one man wearing the clothes of another tribe for monetary purposes, which could be interpreted as being original. “When you’re researching things, you have to be very careful…” he said.

The foundation of Sanchez’s discussion was situating basketmaking within a greater context of cultural revitalization, which extends far beyond a weekend workshop. “You really need about a year to understand the whole process,” he shared. Noting how baskets were mostly made by women, he pointed to a larger relationship between women and the plants that they cared for through harvest time. Sanchez shared that the Tohono Oʼodham hybridized devil’s claw, an annual with edible seeds, to grow longer so that there would be more material to create designs. The smooth, peeled willow used in one basket indicated that the willow was harvested in spring due to the bark being easily peeled at that time. Alternatively, willow with small, shaved hairs indicated that it had been picked at another time and scraped.

Creating a basket is itself a time-intensive process. Sanchez noted that just one row of a particular basket would potentially take him four hours to do, and he estimated that the braid on top of the basket would take him eight hours spread over two days. He explained that the Great Depression reduced the market for baskets, and it hasn’t recovered since. Many people no longer invest the time it takes to make baskets. “The enemy we have today is that we live in a very fast-paced society,” he stated.

Sanchez said of the baskets, “We have to remember, these are our teachers.” He emphasized the value of studying materials directly, even if knowledgeable makers have passed on. “I always call a cemetery a library you can never access,” he said. Experimentation is a part of the process, especially since written records may include incomplete or erroneous information. For example, a publication suggested soaking Juncus for a long time, and until Sanchez tried it himself, he didn’t know the information was wrong. For another example, to create a successful twined water basket, one must get the pitch recipe just right, with a proper tar-to-pine pitch ratio. Too much one way or the other leads to leeching or stickiness. Learning this relies on “trial and error.” Sanchez urged the class to document living artists and to freely share information when they figured something out.

After the talk concluded, students had free time to visit with baskets in the vault. “Look at the math on that one!” a group member exclaimed.

Abe Sanchez participated in the Integrated Coil Basketry course for four weeks. The Integrated Coil Basketry course was partially funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Higher Learning grant.