Weaving a Legacy

Glorious baskets, handmade by native artists, grace the Tohono Chul gallery, courtesy of a longtime collector

click to enlarge Tohono O’odham basket weaver, Roy J. Kurtz Collection. - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Tohono O’odham basket weaver, Roy J. Kurtz Collection.

This may be the first time that the art on view inside the Tohono Chul gallery is made entirely with the same kind of grasses and plants that grace the gardens outside.

On display are 85 stunning woven baskets handmade by native artists. Visitors can look out the big gallery window and see yucca, devil’s claw, willow and beargrass baking in the Arizona sun.

For centuries, native people used these exact plants to make bowls, jars and even ollas, jugs weaved so tight that they could carry the life-giving water essential in the desert.

The works come from a trio of Arizona tribes: Western Apache, Akimel O’odham and Tohono O’odham. Once upon a time these objects were necessary and practical, but the makers also made them beautiful.

One of the Tohono O’odham pieces, an exquisite round-shape, is adorned with two slithering rattlesnakes and curving coyote tracks. The stitching of the designs is black, and the base is a pale sandy shade of beargrass.

The Western Apache pieces are generally on the dark side, but their designs are charming. Stitched antelopes gallop across a large olla jar. And in another piece, women in dresses and men in pants stand on a curvy bowl. An Akimel O’odham coiled platter is covered with checkerboard in blue and red.

These beautiful works were recently given to Tohono Chul by Roy Kurtz, a longtime collector in Tucson. As a social worker at the VA hospital, he spent years comforting and helping G.I.s in distress. And during his own stint in the army overseas, he learned to appreciate other cultures. When he moved to Tucson from the east 50 years ago, he was enchanted by Native art of all kinds. Kurtz wasn’t a wealthy man, but during those years he carefully collected some 1000 objects created by Native artists from all over the desert Southwest, including ceramics. But he bought more baskets than anything else, 600 strong.

When he decided it was time to find a permanent home for his treasures, he wanted them to stay in Tucson. Tohono Chul, a combination of museum and desert plants, with a long-term interest in Native life seems a perfect fit. And don’t forget the museum’s name, Tohono Chul means Desert Elbow or Corner in the language of the O’odham. The works are arriving in small batches, under the care of curator James Schaub. The current exhibition of 85 baskets is only a small sampling of the Kurtz collection. Their beauty pulls us into the rich history of the Arizona tribal nations.

The O’odham’s forebears lived for thousands of years in the Santa Cruz Valley and southwestern Arizona and northern Sonora. Archaeologists have found that these early peoples hunted, farmed—and created baskets, primarily of willow and devil’s claw. In historical times, the Tohono O’odham still benefited from the region’s rivers and streams.

But when the settlers arrived in the 1800s, they introduced cattle and canals that diverted water into their own properties. The O’odham were left with less water for their own agriculture and the new livestock eroded desert landscapes. Traditional materials for basketry became scarcer.

As a result, O’odham artisans made fewer traditional baskets; they substituted them with tin buckets and other cheap manufactured goods.

But the industry did not disappear altogether. Eventually, the basket weavers, most of them women, figured out new ways to make their cherished baskets. By the 1930s, they largely stopped making household goods for their families and switched to selling their wares to tourists and collectors. They made a number of changes for this new market: they traded yucca for the traditional willow; added lids on certain styles; tried out tiny baskets for size (a bunch of these are in the show); and turned to a new kind of stitching that used less material.

In two photos in the show, two proud O’odham women stand in front of an elaborate basket they have just finished, circa 1930. And no wonder: they are saving one of their people’s the art forms. Nowadays, the O’odham baskets are still in demand and still being made.

In contrast, the history of basketry among the Western Apache and the Akimel O’odham is a story of loss.

The Akimel O’odham—the River People—lived along the Gila and Salt Rivers. The bountiful waters gave them excellent fields, and by the 18th century they made good money selling wheat to the calvary stationed in Arizona. They made baskets for their own households.

Tragically, when settlers arrived later in the century, they diverted the river to their own fields. The Akimel’s streams dried out and the disaster pushed the people into poverty. In the 20th century, while some weavers jumped into the new commercial markets, many families could not. There are still some Akimel making baskets, according to the curator, but not nearly many as in the late 19th century.

The Western Apache wove prized baskets that they used for hunting and gathering, and were especially known for burden baskets, super-sized to carry big loads. But like the Akimel, they did not adapt readily to the new markets. The fine samples of their art in the show are poignant reminders of what has been lost. 

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