Sunday, April 24, 2016

Paiute Cradleboards, Basketry, and Weaving by Paty Jager

I had the pleasure of attending an event called Tradition Keepers. It was sponsored by the Harney County Arts Association on my area. There were people showing western and American Indian traditions. I navigated toward the two Paiute women who specialized in basketry and cradleboard making.

Rena Beers is an elder who makes beautiful traditional cradleboards. She is 98 years old. The tradition of making cradleboards was passed down by her parents and grandparents.

To start the process for making the cradleboard she is given or purchases a hide. The hide is soaked in water for several days. She removes the hair with a draw knife. Then rinses the hide and soaks it again, only this time in cow brain for two to three days. This is the process that softens the hide. The next step is wringing out the hide. At this stage the hide is white in color. The hide is then smoked, keeping a close eye on the hide so it doesn't burn. This process gives the hide a warm yellow tone.

During the waiting processes in the hide tanning, Rena gathers willow of uniform size for the bones of the cradle board.  After gathering the sticks, she strips the bark from the willow.  When the hide is properly tanned and the willow is cut to size she begins building the cradleboard. When the board is finished she adds a decoration of colorful bead work. While her cradleboards look like collector pieces, they are used on the reservation for newborns.

Sara Barton specializes in basketry and learned the art of making cradleboards from Rena and another elder who is no longer of this earth.

Sara's basketry projects begin with her gathering willow in the winter. This is the best time to get the sticks when the sap is down and nothing is growing on the sticks.The bark is taken off the sticks and they are split.

In the above photo it shows the stages that a willow stick goes through to become willow thread. What is used in weaving and basketry. This thread is wound and left to dry 6-10 months. Like all wood product they must dry completely before being used or they can shrink and ruin a project that took many hours to make.

The items above were made to show the different types of materials that can be used to weave and make baskets. The different colors are obtained either by the material or how the material is stored. The white circle of willow thread at the top of the photos shows one circle of the willow covered in white cloth and one uncovered. The uncovered will turn the brown you see in the two circular projects. If the willow is kept wrapped in the cloth until used, it remains white for many years before it begins to also darken. 

Sara weaving a hood on a cradleboard
You can see that as she uses the willow thread while weaving it is placed in a bowl of water to make it pliable enough to work with.
Sara was wonderful to visit with. She gave me insights into more than just her basketry, cradleboards, and regalia. She had a wonderful spirit about her. Pointing out a photo of her regalia dress that she'd made, she said, "I don't know how to sew, but I wanted to make my regalia dress myself, from the sewing to the decorations. I prayed to the Creator to show me the way and it came to me in a dream, you know, how to do it." This gave me chills because it sounds so much like my character Shandra Higheagle in my mystery series. Not the praying to the Creator, Shandra doesn't believe in her heritage that strongly yet, but the dream fits so well with what I write. She also told me that she wanted the regalia dress not to dance at powwows but to dance for herself. She'd heard that the traditional dance of not just her people but people all over the world was being lost. And it has been passed down that everyone dancing all over the world brings balance. It keeps earth from tipping off it's axis. That is why she dances and teaches her daughter and grandchildren to dance. Dance is joyful and the world needs that joyfulness.

This meeting of Rena and Sara brought joyfulness to me. Not only did I meet two wonderful women, I learned a bit more about their culture and traditions.

Award-winning author Paty Jager and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. She not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it. All Paty’s work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Her penchant for research takes her on side trips that eventually turn into yet another story.

You can learn more about Paty at:
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  1. I remember once in Girl Scouts a lifetime ago, we had a class in basket making. It seemed easy during the instruction phase, but it came down to actually doing it, well, it was harder to do than I thought. Frankly, I sucked at it. So, when I read your blog, I had to admire you for accomplishing such a wonderful art. This was such interesting reading. I enjoyed every bit of it, Paty. Loved the pictures you took of the class. So, did you make a basket?

    1. Sarah, I didn't take a class. It was an event Called Tradition Keepers where people who do traditional skills talked to us and showed us what they made and how they did it. So no, I didn't do any weaving. Thanks for commenting!

  2. A lovely post. Some are born with an innate ability to create something useful and beautiful from somwthing common.
    I liked the thought that dancing balances the world, that all people should dance so the world won't tilt on its axis. Maybe more dancing in the world would lessen the extreme violence we're experiencing. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Celia. Yes, Sara's thoughts on dancing was insightful I thought. Thanks for commenting!

  3. What an awesome experience you had with those two lovely ladies. I've always admired the Indian culture and their beliefs about the earth, sky, sun and moon. Makes sense to me that dancing more would balance the earth. Basketry is a wonderful tradition. I didn't realize that cradle board hide was cured with cow brains! Great post!

    1. Thanks for stopping in Diana! It was a wonderful afternoon. Back in the day they tanned the leather with deer brains. But the cow brains are easier to come by legally these days.


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