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People Love Tiny Baskets

When wearing my curator hat, I have seen how ubiquitous love of tiny baskets seems to be, at least among fans of hand made objects. While I am sure that some engineer is doing nano-scale weaving already, tiny-scale seems good enough for fans of Native American basketry. The best known heroes in this area are the basket weavers of California, particularly the Pomo with their amazing feather covered baskets, but the art of the tiny basket has also been pursued in the native South. This impulse is reflected in this Choctaw basket by “Sweeny Willis” that was collected by John Mann Goggin among the Choctaw residing near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Ms. Willis’s name is spelled “Sweenie” elsewhere, such as in the records associated with pottery that she made that is in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

This single weave river cane basket is currently referred to as #494 in the William C. Sturtevant Collection, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

For a bit of theorizing, look below the fold.

Listening to Native perspectives on the significance of such miniature baskets should be a priority, but sitting at a distance from Indian country as I write this post, it occurred to me to revisit the work of an influential thinker in folklore studies, Susan Stewart, to (re-)discover whether baskets show up in her well known book on things gigantic and things miniature. Here is what she had to say on tiny baskets.

Yet once the miniature becomes souvenir, it speaks not so much to the time of production as to the time of consumption. For example, a traditional basket-maker might make miniatures of his goods to sell as toys just as he makes full sized baskets for carrying wood or eggs. But as the market for his full-sized baskets decreases because of change in the economic system, such miniature baskets increase in demand. They are no longer models; rather, they are souvenirs of a mode of consumption which is now extinct. They have moved from the domain of use value to the domain of gift, where exchange is abstracted to the level of social relations and away from the level of materials and processes.

Susan Stewart, On Longing, p. 144).

This is not exactly the specific situation of native basket weavers, but it is also a relevant reading of the transformation so common to basketry and other arts that have moved from the realm of practical work to the domain of cultural heritage. There is also something here (and in Stewart’s book more broadly) on the appeal of things small.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. We’ve noticed this at the Native center when I worked. The miniatures were cheaper, so people would buy those – because who spends $200 on a basket except a collector these days? We don’t value craft and the process it takes from collection of materials to creation of basket. But at the same time, folks never thougt about how much harder it could be to weave those miniatures – they were just ‘cute’ and they fit on your desk at work.

    May 24, 2012

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