An Apache Basket Jar

American Section

By: E.S.

Originally Published in 1910

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One ordinarily thinks of the Apache as cruel and unprincipled marauders without either time or inclination, until recent years, for the cultivation of the purely artistic impulse. Old Geronimo, the implacable foe of the United States Government, is the ideal of the lay conception of the Apache. And yet few Indian tribes, if we except certain tribes of California, do finer work than the Apache in that most characteristic of all Indian art forms, basketry. Day by day the Apache woman, with no other help than an awl and her own deft fingers, works patiently at her basket. The result is often an object of surpassing beauty of form and decoration, of such even finish of technique as to elicit wonder that unaided eye and hand could plan and execute so faultlessly. The Apache are now gathered into several reservations, the Jicarilla and Mescalero bands in New Mexico, the various bands grouped together as White Mountain and San Carlos Apache in Arizona. The New Mexico and Arizona bands differ considerably in their basketry, as in many other respects, that of the tatter being considered of finer grade.

Fig. 8- An Apache Basket-jar.

The urn or jar-shaped here illustrated (Fig. 8) is a product of the Arizona Apache. It is perhaps the most striking single piece in a hall of the Museum crowded with interesting and beautiful specimens of Indian handicraft. It attracts partly by its unwonted size (it measures very nearly 3½ feet in height, 17 inches in diameter of the mouth), but largely also because of its elaborate decoration and beauty of outline. It is doubtless one of the largest examples, if not the largest example, of Indian basketry exhibited in our ethnological museums, and is said to have consumed two years in the making. Whether or not this statement is strictly correct, it is obvious that even the most experienced basket maker would require an unusual length of time for the perfecting of such work. It is in fact an idealized form of the smaller and less profusely decorated flat-bottomed basket jar used by the Apache for storage purposes. In regard to technique, materials, method of applying and character of decoration, however, it does not present unusual features. In regard to technique, it is from beginning to end an example of the coiled variety of Indian basketry; in other words, it is built up not so much by a process of weaving as of sewing. Firmness is given the basket by an ascending spiral of two slender but stiff rods of willow, which are added as required: to employ the terminology now in vogue, we have here a coiled technique with two-rod foundation. Around this wood core is wrapped the sewing material, peeled and scraped splints of willow or similar wood for the white areas, splints of the naturally black “devil’s claw” (Marlynia Louisiana) for the black, these two materials relieving each other according to the requirements of the decoration; in Apache basketry designs are always brought out in black on a white background. Each winding of the sewing material not only includes the two rods of its own coil, but is caught under one of the two rods of the row or coil beneath, this method of “hitching” giving the fabric greater strength than if the wrapping were merely caught under the wrapped strands of the next lower coil, a technique, incidentally, which is characteristic of the Mescalero Apache. The direction of coiling, as one looks into the basket, is clockwise, the coiling continuing without variation to the last stitch of the rim. The Pima, neighbors of the Apache, on the other hand, regularly finish off with a braided rim. It will thus be seen that the nature of the coiled technique leads to a spirally corrugated surface, the surface units being narrow and relatively high stitches of varying color. Evidently all designs must consist of vertical and horizontal rows of stitches, so that the style of art here illustrated is primarily geometric in character. And, indeed, most of the characteristic motives in Apache as in other Indian basketry art, are purely geometric; this is seen particularly in the beautiful round bowl-like trays, also of coiled ware, exhibited together with the jar. Realistic or semi-realistic representations of human beings and animals are often introduced as designs into the jars of the Apache, a great deal of geometric conventionalization necessarily taking place. Thus, the wagging tails of the animals here represented are nothing but are nothing but two short rows of black stitches in a row, each being kept apart from its neighbor by a white stitch.

The main body of the basket is decorated with fifteen concentric hands, consisting in part of geometric and realistic motives. This arrangement of the decorative field into concentric bands is a more or less pronounced characteristic of Apache basket art, and will be found further illustrated in the trays already referred to. The first band, starting from the bottom, consists of a series of terraced figures with inverted bases, and is only partly visible in the photograph. The second band is composed of a series of alternating crosses and quadrupeds, presumably dogs; the third band is a simple checkered pattern bounded, above and below, by black coils. It will be observed, by a reference in the figure to the upper left hand part of this last band, that the bounding coil ends a stitch higher than it starts; in other words, true circles are impossible in the coiled technique, and must be replaced by rounds of a spiral. Alternating man and vertically disposed diamond and cross make up the fourth band, followed in the fifth by a second area of checkerwork; the sixth band is made up of a series of alternating man and dog with superimposed cross, the seventh of a third checkered field, and the eighth of a second series of inverted terraces. The ninth band is practically the center of the decorative field and has the most elaborate designs of all; man, cross, followed by a three-pronged figure (possibly a rain symbol), and deer or dog (the deer are arranged in two groups of four each, the dogs in one of three and one of two), are the design elements in the order given. A fourth area of checker work, without the lower bounding coil in black noted before, forms the tenth band; the eleventh band is another series of inverted terraces, this time in black and white instead of solid black. A series of dogs forms the twelfth, a fifth field of checkerwork the thirteenth, still another series of inverted terraces the fourteenth, and a series of alternating man and dog, the men being connected by horizontal lines, the fifteenth or neck band, followed by a finishing coil in black. The six bands of checker work may be looked upon as marking off six decorative fields.

A curious point comes out on a careful study of the ninth band, illustrating the difficulties the basket maker encounters in mapping out, in her mind’s eye, the size and recurrence of elements in a restricted field. Ordinarily the cross is followed by the three-pronged figure, yet once out of the thirteen times that the group occurs, the reverse order is followed. An examination of the actual specimen, for the photograph fails us here, will convince the visitor that this is not due to mere forgetfulness on the part of the maker. To follow the usual order would have brought the elements into conflict with the adjoining man and deer; in other words, an inaccurate mapping out, at the start, of the decorative field left too little space at the end for the proper carrying out of the initial idea.

E. S.

Cite This Article

E.S.,. "An Apache Basket Jar." The Museum Journal I, no. 1 (June, 1910): 13-15. Accessed July 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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