Interwoven Stories

Tim Vanderpool, Jacob Chinn photo

Timeless stories, woven into the daily trappings of Native American life, are beautifully depicted in basket weavings and rugged sandals that protected ancient feet. They are part of a collection of indigenous fiber arts to be showcased at the Arizona State Museum.

The ambitious new exhibit, tentatively titled “Woven from the Center,” requires careful preparation and is set to open in early 2017. It will present revolving elements from an inventory that surpasses 20,000 pieces, from brawny burden baskets — once strapped across the foreheads of women — to yucca-fiber plaques.  

“The story we want to tell is that weaving is not a lost technology,” says Suzanne Eckert, the museum’s head of collections. “The tribes are still out there, the weavers are still out there, and they’re still making it an art form.”  

The challenge in creating the exhibit lies in preserving the baskets for posterity while sharing the precious antiquities with the public, says Eckert. Woven arts are notoriously vulnerable to changes in humidity and light — so much so that many museums won’t even display them. A $484,672 matching grant from the federal Save America’s Treasures program helped fund a cutting-edge storage area for the collection, which will be visible through a protective glass wall. 

The project reflects ongoing consultations with more than a dozen Native American tribes whose heirlooms are part of the collection. The Arizona State Museum is known for cultivating exceptional relationships with tribal nations across the Southwest. That commitment was recognized recently when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior appointed ASM Director Patrick Lyons to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee. The group oversees the identification of Native American artifacts and, in some cases, returns them to tribes.  

The basket shown in the photo above is by Rose Ann Whiskers, San Juan Southern Paiute.