The Art of Basketry
New styles merge with old traditions
The fancy basket style lives today and has become a medium for expressing traditional values. To create a basket is to exercise the virtues of patience and concentration while harmonizing body and mind. Each Oneida basket is a small victory of spiritually informed process over commercial product.
By the 1790s New York State had taken 95 percent of Oneidas’ national territory. With the land base gone the Oneidas’ way of living was dramatically disrupted and the tribe needed to develop new ways to subsist. Members began making woodsplint baskets to sell to non-natives.
Other nations, such as the Seneca, also crafted baskets even though Seneca orator Red Jacket boasted that the Senecas had no desire to become ignoble basket-makers like the landless Oneidas (Wallace 1972:181). However, the loss of land led the Senecas down the same path.
By 1800 a new style of basketry emerged attributed to the Oneidas taking in two refugee groups of Eastern Indians after the Revolutionary War – the Brothertons and the Stockbridges who had been creating and selling baskets for a long time. The result:
When the season allowed the Oneidas would work their land and travel around Central New York to sell their baskets.
Late 1800s – Early 1900s: Technology of Oneida Basketry
Traditionally, men did the heavy preparatory work in basketry
They selected and felled a suitable tree then pounded the log until the annual rings began to separate.
Thick splints were then peeled off.
These thick splints were thinned in a splitter. A seated person applied knee pressure to the two slanted boards while pulling the splint through, manually separating the splint into smaller slices. Or, the thick splints were rived – worked with a drawknife on a shavehorse.
Splints of proper thickness were then sliced into uniform widths using one of these basket gauges. Each has metal teeth set at measured intervals.
In the late 1800s, men as well as women made baskets. Often the men specialized in the larger work containers.
Saratoga: Fancy Basket Style
Basketry changed again after the Civil War as well-to-do families vacationed at several New York resort hot-spots, such as Saratoga.
Appraising the tastes of Victorian-era tourists, Oneidas and other Native Americans began to make "fancy baskets" after 1870 and sell other craftwork. This basket style featured:
new shapes (smaller and more intricately worked)
new materials (such as the fragrant sweet grass), and
new decorative techniques (including curly work)
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