When seeing an Apache burden basket for the first time, we‘re not only struck by the unique quality of such an object, but by its beauty and practicality: the fresh, tangy scent of the willow strips combined with the pure, organic feel of the basket create a simple yet intriguing vessel.
A ‘burden basket’ was for many years quite simply a device used to carry everyday items such as food and firewood. The wearer slung the basket on her back; a strap across the forehead used gravity to keep it in place. ‘Jingles’ at the end of buckskin strips were meant to frighten vermin (they’ve also been likened to the sound of rushing water). Baskets were utilitarian by nature, although specialized decoration by individual weavers created works of art which are sought after by collectors and museums the world over.
The heyday of Apache burden basket weaving came to an end during the Great Depression. This was due to many factors: the availability of inexpensive pots and pans (which made baskets redundant for many uses) and the racist attitudes of white bureaucrats who thwarted the sharing of weaving techniques with Apache children by sending them off to government schools. The art of Native American weaving has begun to blossom again, and talented weavers such as Mary Jane Dudley possess the commitment and patience needed to produce baskets which are sturdy, attractive and long lasting. “These are not wind chimes,” she says, laughing.
Today, burden baskets in the Apache community are prized for ceremonial use, primarily the rite of passage of a young girl to womanhood during the Sunrise Dance. Sometimes called gift baskets or cigarette baskets, they are filled with candies and presents and distributed to participants and invitees during the ceremony. Larger baskets are filled with food and carried on the back as the girl dances. Mary Jane says, “Burden baskets are a cultural thing, and they stay within the families. It makes me feel good to see them use my baskets.”
Mary Jane Dudley was thirteen years old, one of seven children, when she made her first basket. She learned by watching both of her parents weave until midnight, and while she was proud of the one she crafted, that first piece was “… really bad, but it was in the shape of a basket. [I tell my Mom] I’ve always regretted not keeping my first basket.” She learned to cut the Arizona cottonwood sticks down by the river in San Carlos or Peridot and to harvest willow from San Carlos, Fort Thomas or the White Mountains. It takes between two and three hours to bend the cottonwood branches, cut and then gather them; smaller trees are the best because they’re younger and softer. For bigger ceremonial baskets she will use thicker sticks, as more support is needed. The willow strips are split three ways, peeled, and woven as quickly as possibly so they won’t dry out– or they can be stored in Ziploc bags for later use. She will then grade the cottonwood sticks and begin weaving the willow strips between them, much like a loom. “I start at the bottom and work up!”
Patience is a virtue which gets tested. She says, “I can’t have anybody bother me,” because sometimes the sticks fall out– a frustrating thing– and they have to be re-placed. When one looks at the bottom of a well done basket, it appears ‘punched up’, seen as an inverted cone. This is due to the tightness of the willow weave. “It’s better to have this [punched up] cone inside because it makes the basket stronger”, she adds. The top rim is wrapped twice, with wire and willow strips, and then a strip of buckskin is wrapped around that. After ‘dressing’ it by adding the strap and thin strips of buckskin which hang from the rim and the base, Dudley adds the ‘bells’ (jingles) which she has hand-cut from tin baking powder cans (in the old days, these were cut from lard cans. Tin lids from snuff cans were also used in the early days).The basket is then compete. This is the most difficult part for Dudley, as she’s relieved and tired when it’s completed. She is unstoppable, however. “I can’t just sit here and do nothing,” she exclaims. “I have to weave!”
‘Single stitch’ baskets are especially difficult– these are done with a 1X1 stitch as opposed to the more common 2X2, and it’s a much finer, tighter weave. Devil’s Claw (martynia) is blended with the willow for these striking, graphic baskets. The Devil’s Claw is soaked in hot water overnight, then split twice and woven. It’s an arduous process because the strips are so thin.
Mary Jane creates baskets on commission and she also sells to purveyors of Native American art, such as Globe, Arizona’s Pickle Barrel Trading Post. “We absolutely love her work– her attention to detail and the tightness of her weaving is incredible,” says Kelly Moss, who with her husband Jim has owned the Pickle Barrel since 2003. To Dudley, this is a far cry from that first basket she sold to Rupkey’s Trading Post in Peridot so many years ago. “I didn’t know how to sell a basket then,” she says. “I was really happy and appreciated what they did for me.” Today her biggest challenge is getting them done in time: Dudley is a very busy woman.
It wasn’t this way several years ago, after she and her husband Dennis lost their seventeen year old son David in 2005. She stopped weaving entirely for a two year period because she felt so lost. It was her son Danny who told her to resume her craft. “He said, ‘Never give up. You have to keep busy so you won’t think so much’.”
Dudley’s favorite image to use in her art is that depicting Friendship– a circle of people holding hands. Her second favorite– which has a deeper meaning– is the Eagle and the Feather. Her sister Velda was the one to create this image. “I like doing this one,” she says, adding, “The Eagle represents strength and it reminds me to stay strong, and the Feather [represents] protection. It’s God who protects me all the time and I’ve always relied on God. My parents raised us up in a Christian home.” She goes on to clarify that while the Feather offers protection, it’s truly God who does that job because He is the one who helps us through hard times, and the one who has bestowed the ability and the knowledge to weave.
“I’m glad more people are weaving,” says Mary Jane. “This will keep the tradition alive. My Grandmother Cecilia Henry was a well known weaver in Peridot. All of my sisters were weavers, and one continues.” She pauses, then adds, “Of all the baskets– I’ve done so many over my life– the one I’m most proud of is my very first basket, which I no longer have.” In closing, she continues, “I also appreciate my Mother, Evelyn Henry, for teaching me to weave, and my Grandmother, for teaching her. And also for my family, for being behind me.”
— Darin Lowery/Basket photos and graphic by Jim Lindstrom
The work of Mary Jane Dudley can be seen at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe, Arizona, along with a fine selection of Southwestern turquoise and sterling silver jewelry, Native American art and pottery, home decor items, and so much more.