The Thunder Bird Tootooch Legends, by W.L. Webber, , at sacred-texts.com
For ages there have been a great many Indian tribes living on the sheltered inlets and along the rivers that reach far into the heart of the mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest. All tribes make their own particular kind of baskets for their domestic needs. The use of clay was unknown to them, although it could have been obtained in many localities. Therefore, the Indians gathered and fabricated the materials that were close at hand.
The tribes of the upper Fraser regions fashioned their baskets for daily use from birch-bark and split willows. The Thompsons, who inhabit the bench lands along the Fraser Canyon, made their baskets of cedar roots, splitting them into ribbons of uniform size and winding them around splints left over from the former process. Straight strips of the same material are used for sewing, a bone needle being used for this purpose.
The basket is built up on the spiral principal. They were made in many sizes and many shapes, to suit all needs, there were burden baskets, water buckets, cooking pots, trays, and those for the storing of food and clothing. A handy one was made for the purpose that could be laid flat or carried on the back, or hung on the branch of a tree.
Cooking was done by putting water in the cooking pot and then adding hot stones. A cover, made to fit, was put on and it was allowed to stand until the food was cooked. Trays were used as plates, to fan the fire and to dry berries on, by laying them in the sun. Many of the baskets show very little wear after fifty years of use.
The handicraft of the Thompsons was in great demand among the other Indian tribes and was traded and bartered for with buckskin hides, moccasins, and other useful commodities. There are no other Indian tribes of North America who have the technique or wealth of design of the Thompsons. One is amazed that straight lines can be arranged in so many hundreds of ways to make geometrical figures. The decorations are done with cat-tail flags and the bark of the wild cherry, either dyed or in the natural color. Basket designs were inherited. When a new one was created it belonged to the family and was never copied by others.
In this generation the younger Thompsons are being torn between two paths: the white man's civilization and their own. It is doubtful if they will carry on their ancestral art. It is true that the baskets they make at present are not so well done as those of earlier times, for the soul of the weaver is not in her art, the object being compensation only. Old Thompson baskets are very difficult to secure and are quite valuable, having been made by the older women whose work is in great demand by collectors. In Germany and other European countries, many British Columbia Indian basket designs serve to decorate textiles and other articles.
The Indians living close to salt water were also stone boilers but they did not depend on baskets so much for their cooking. They
fashioned wooden boxes out of boards by an ingenious method and also hollowed out pieces of alder and other hard woods to serve their needs. Tree trunks, often ten feet in length, were used, in many cases for feast bowls. These were beautifully carved with the owner's crest and inlaid with coast abalone shells. The boxes were made by grooving a board in three places on one side, then placing it in a ground trench filled with hot rocks over which water was poured to produce steam. A covering of cedar mats was used to confine the vapor. When the board was thoroughly steamed, it was bent at the grooves to right angles, thus forming a perfect square. The ends were fastened together with wooden pegs. A grooved bottom was then pegged on, making the box water-tight. Boxes of this kind were made for many purposes. When an Indian speaks of his "box", he means an elaborately carved and painted chest containing the regalia of the clan of which he is a member. Some day it will probably be used to put his body in after the toil of life is over.
The Indians who live on Vancouver Island, the surrounding islands and in the neighboring State of Washington, make their baskets out of the same materials as their ancestors. The grasses used are gathered from the tide flats of the lagoons. They are dried and bleached in the sun and seasoned by hanging them up in the rafters of their houses. The material is then colored as desired with aniline dyes, whereas, in former times, they made their own dyes from vegetables and mineral substances.
Among the handiwork of the Nootka women it is very seldom that any two baskets can be found exactly alike. There are so many hundreds of border designs. These are attractive and, in every case, the lid matches the body of the basket.
The grass is woven around bottles of all shapes and sizes, made into shopping bags, mats and handy trinket baskets and other articles which strike the Indian's fancy. These articles are of intriguing beauty, decorated in brilliant colors with pictographs from their folk tales, some of which are told and illustrated in these pages. This basket work is eagerly sought by souvenir hunters who wish to carry away with them, as a memento of their visit, something made in British Columbia. Many, but of course not all, can buy from the Indian women themselves. If this cannot be done they can be obtained from stores specializing in such things and which usually give the printed story of the design. They are also secured by the residents of these regions to send to their friends over-seas and elsewhere.
The Haidas of the Queen Charlotte Islands, their kin in Alaska and the related Tsimshians were the most cultured tribes among the Coast Indians. Intercourse with the "Paleface" has greatly modified the trend of their genius. The baskets have suffered as well as the weaving of beautiful woolen cloth of exceptional fineness. Although slate totem poles and coin silver work have been improved considerably in the last decade or so, this art is now on the decline. The older workers of these arts are joining the spirits of their ancestral totems.
The basket work of each tribe varied, the Haidas originally made theirs in a bird-cage weave, using them for berrying, packing, crab nets and other purposes. These forms were also used by the Kwakiutls. At present they make their baskets mostly out of spruce roots, whereas, at one time, cedar bark was used more extensively. This fiber was made into cord, rope and matting, a material that all the Northwest tribes used. The spruce root baskets are very sturdy, the warp runs straight up instead of at an angle like that of the Nootka baskets. They are decorated with geometrical symbols in colors with a straw-like grass, some of them resembling the Greek Key. The designs are woven on the outside of the basket and never show through.
The Tsimshians made baskets of a similar weave to the Haidas but depended more on the cedar bark for material, though they have adopted the spruce root fiber in late years. Their older types were very rough and crude and are a great contrast, considering that the women folk of all tribes have such capable hands, doing their work with such beauty and loving care.
The Yak-utats of the Thlin-gets, who live along the Alaskan waterways, have a legend that the first basket was made in Skyland by the wife of the Sun, who had such a large family of children that she wished to place them on the Earth. One day she began to weave a basket of spruce roots with a long cord attached so that her children could be let down in to the world below. The Sun gazed proudly at his wife and her work, of which she soon became master, then teacher. Between them they wove a strong, flexible basket that was richly decorated with outstanding angular shapes of the Shining-Heavens-People.
The art and technique of basket making is gradually being improved by these simple children of nature. The materials for their weaving are collected in the early Spring when the sap begins to flow. At that time the bark is more easily removed from the root without its being injured. This requires great skill and practice. A specially shaped knife is used for the task which is generally done by the older and more experienced women. Grasses for decorating the baskets are picked in early summer before they mature. It is split and bleached in the sun, it is then dipped in boiling water and dyed in various colors. There are six different weaves as well as forty shapes. They are quite pliable and will endure hard use for years. When new the baskets are a beautiful cream that, in time, changes to a brownish shade. The Thlin-gets take great care with their patterns and handle them admirably.
The Attu women who live on the Island of Attu, one of the Aleutians, that chain of islands along the Great Circle of the Ocean's Highway to the Orient, have the reputation of making the finest woven baskets of all the Northern Indians. These are made from a grass collected at the end of summer. A thin strip is taken off the center rib with a needle and then is tested for its strength and color. The grass is seasoned by putting it in a cloth bag hung up in the house until ready for use. The baskets are made in a twining weave as fine as sewing and,
being of such texture that it is supposed by some that the Attu baskets are woven under water. One lady tourist, so it is reported, could not understand how the Indians could sit beneath the cold, cold water and weave baskets. Such is not the case, the grass is merely kept damp with water to keep it from becoming brittle while being woven.
If you are not already a collector of Indian basket work you will find it an absorbing hobby. You cannot help but think of these women sitting in their humble homes through the long rainy days and nights, telling tales to their children and other listeners, weaving the patterns and symbols that are to be passed on to strangers who will probably never know their real meanings. Some tell the stories of their legendary heroes and others the joys and sorrows of the weaver. The Indians think that their white brothers are queer people. They get a great deal of amusement out of observing the tourist while the tourist is absorbed in observing them. There is one language that all the Indians know: "Buy Basket" "Cheap, Cheap," "Some Clothes," "Some Money."