Conversation Pieces: Native American Basketry

By Lauren Diener

This week’s object is a basket, fashioned by a Native American tribe located in the Adirondack region. The area in question boasts a tumultuous history between the European settlers and the native New York tribes. The Adirondacks were never permanently settled by the natives, but were instead used by the Algonquin people and Mohawk nation as a means for hunting and travel. This system worked well for the natives, as they had a reliable source for food and passage. However, the harmonious relationship between the mountains and the natives came to a standstill with the arrival of European settlers. Thus began a struggle over the ownership of the land and all of the resources it possessed. The first European settlers to grace the Adirondack region were completely entranced by the amount of resources available. Due to the mass amount of deforestation and sheer population size, Europe had been stripped bare of its useful resources. To these Europeans, the Adirondacks represented a way to amass an enormous wealth. It wasn’t until the settlers encountered the natives that they realized that extracting the objects in question was not going to be a simple task. Frankly, the native’s “barbarous” behavior frightened the Europeans. A Jesuit recounts the Huron practice of burning oneself “for the pleasure of it,” although this act probably served a ritual purpose. As any first grader can tell you, the relationship that ensued was not amiable.

The end of the American Revolution left the native population decimated. Between the war and the diseases brought by the Europeans, the tribes had lost most of their livelihood. The land that they once cultivated was now inhabited by a new kind of people entirely. The natives quickly found that survival now meant doing business with the settlers. Exchanges between the two were always one-sided, as the colonists held all of the power. Europeans regarded the native made goods as a sort of novelty, and the demand for these “conversation pieces” grew.

Native American baskets became popular amongst European settlers. These baskets varied in size and design depending on what tribe they originated from. This article’s featured basket, most closely resembles the baskets fashioned by the Algonquin tribe. The Algonquin employed a technique utilizing splints to construct these baskets. It is under much scrutiny as to whether these peoples created this technique, or if it was borrowed from the colonists. According to experts, most of the splints are made of Ash, either black or brown, and White Oak. If grass was integrated into the infrastructure of said baskets, it would most likely be a type of sweet grass. What truly made the baskets special were the stamps that often adorned them. Natives would create these embellishments by carving shapes into potatoes that would later be dipped in dye and pressed onto the baskets.

It is remarkable that these baskets were able to convey two completely different feelings. To the natives who created it, the basket was the product of desperation. It was a reminder that they were stripped of their humanity, and forced to comply with the terms imposed on them. To the colonists, the basket was a statement piece that was to be envied by neighbors.


Burdick, Neal , and Stephan Sulavik. “Adirondack: Of Indians and Mountains.” Adirondack Explorer. July 2005. Accessed February 25, 2017.

Early Historic Accounts of Basket and Bag Weaving in the Northeast.” NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art. Accessed February 25, 2017.

Bruchac, Margaret , and Elizabeth Peng. “Potato Stamps and Ash Splints.” Penn Museum. May 5, 2015. Accessed February 25, 2017.


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