Vanishing Texana Museum

Our exhibition of antique Inuit baskets continues. We told you last week about the items made by the Tlingit tribe and this week we will focus on the items from the Haida Tribe.

As you will see in the collection, the predominant design on Haida basketry consists of bands of colored twined roots and an observable skip-stich pattern. This pattern is generally located near the top of the basket. Early Haida basket weavers used vegetables and fruits to stain the Spruce roots they harvested. More intense colors came later when brightly colors European fabrics were boiled with the Spruce Roots.

The turn of the 20th century was a time of prosperity for our country and although the native Indian population had fallen dramatically, members of the tribe would also enjoy some good fortune. Upper-middle-class Americans aspired to copy European nobility by creating exotic private collections displayed in their parlors. It became fashionable to have an “Indian museum” in a corner of their sitting room. Navajo rugs, Hopi Spirit dolls, and Haida baskets became all the rage to impress ones’ neighbors. Home decorator magazines carried mail-order ads from dealers out west that went on purchasing trips to Western Canada and Alaska. Haida baskets, with lid, sold in a range of four to ten dollars. In 1906 the Alaska Steamship Company published a pamphlet promoting vacation trips to “wander about in the quaint Indian villages which still have primitive charm.” Both the Tlingit and Haida weavers realized their new customers were interested in an attractive, inexpensive basket to admire, but not use. Even the tribe themselves no longer needed strong, well made baskets as metal pots and pans had replaced them. New basket designs and weaves were developed by the tribes to save time and materials. Both tribes financially prospered from direct sales to tourists.

Last week we told you the heartwarming story of the origins of the Tlingit basket. As promised, here’s the story of the creation of Haida baskets. This version is also a very simplified interpretation of a much richer story.

This is the story of a mother and her two beautiful daughters. As spring bloomed, they moved away from the winter camp to pick fresh vegetables and berries. They had little food as they traveled southward where the growth was ready to harvest. The younger daughter got hungry and took some food that had been set aside for the journey. The mother walked in as she was chewing the food and became very upset. The older sister, feeling sorry for her younger sibling, suggested they leave and find a different place to spend the night, away from their mother. The left and walked a long way until they came to a beautiful lake. They decided to spend the night at the lake when quite suddenly a young man appeared. He asked why they were there and the sisters explained how they were hungry and how their mother had become upset when they took some food. They did not realize the young man was the overseer of nature for the Haida.

The young man said, “Do you see that tree? Pull up the spruce root, split it, and weave it around your thumb making sure it has a strong edge.” Then he said, “There is a lot of food here. Pick one of each and put it in your small baskets.” As the girls put the food in their baskets, the baskets started to grow bigger and bigger until they could not carry them. They returned to their village and asked for help carrying the baskets. All of the village’s young men answered their call, traveled with them to the lake, and picked up the two baskets full of food. The baskets were so full that they had to stop and rest many times during the trip home. When they arrived back at the village, the food was spread evenly amongst all tribal members. When the daughters arrived at their home, they found their mother had returned and all was forgiven.

Interestingly, Haida society is based on a maternal system of heritage. Property, titles, names, crests, masks, performances, and even songs are passed from one generation to the next through the mother's side of the family. All families are also divided into one of two groups, Eagle and Raven. Every Haida is either Eagle or Raven, following from the mother. If one is born Raven, he or she must marry an Eagle.

Haida society is about 8000 years old. At its peak, there were 14,000 people living in 126 villages. With the arrival of the Europeans, sickness dwindled that population until in 1903 there were just 589 people living in two villages. Today, their population stands at about 4,000.

In addition to the baskets on display, there are also antique tribal tools and exquisite carvings made of ivory, bone, and stone. I know you will enjoy seeing the entire collection. Your Vanishing Texana Museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11-4. Admission and parking are free at our 300 South Bolton location.

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