Judith Finger is a visiting researcher at TARL studying Southwestern basketry from the prehistoric and historic periods. This article is part of TARL’s December 2016 newsletter.
In October, 2016, I visited TARL to study baskets in the Paul T. Seashore Collection of Native American baskets. The baskets, most dating to the early 1900s were donated to the Texas Memorial Museum in 1950. The Collection includes baskets from many California, Southwest, and Northwest Coast tribal groups as well as other less well known groups. There are traditional, utilitarian baskets, made for the Indians’ own use in addition to fancier, made-for-market ones, those to be sold to tourists and collectors as the Native Americans became part of the dominant Anglo cash economy.
For the past ten years, Dr. Catherine Fowler, Professor Emerita of the University of Nevada, Reno, and I have been researching the baskets collected by Helen J. Stewart, a pioneer rancher in Las Vegas, Nevada. She amassed a collection of 550 baskets, focusing on baskets woven by neighboring Southern Paiute and Nevada Shoshone women. The informative TMM publication on the Seashore Collection, which we came across during our research, contained four baskets that we were able to identify as being from the Stewart Collection based on historic photographs of the Collection.
Thanks to the cooperation and assistance of Marybeth Tomka and Lauren Bussiere, I was able to spend time with the Seashore Collection and examine the four baskets, and several others I requested, with my own eyes and hands, to identify materials and get a better sense of construction techniques and design layouts. While I hoped to find detailed collection history in the accession file, beyond a typed list of the collection objects, there was not much else. However, information on this inventory did provide important historical context for some of the other baskets, such as a Hopi coiled plaque, woven on Second Mesa, and collected by Paul Seashore. The large plaque with a geometric design originally came from the collection of Heinrich (Henry) Voth, a Mennonite missionary and minister, born in Southern Russia, who lived with the Hopi in the 1890s. This basket was dated to the late 1880s.
Discussions with the TARL staff alerted me to the fact that there might well be additional files still in storage due to the move of the baskets from the Texas Memorial Museum to TARL about 10 years ago. As we continue our research and the TARL staff works through the containers still in storage, better, more detailed information may be discovered. In the meantime, Dr. Fowler and I are still looking at museum collections that include Helen Stewart’s baskets in preparation for a publication about Southern Paiute basketry and the Stewart Collection.