Makah Basketry: A Cultural Perspective

Makah Basketry: A Cultural Perspective

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Image 1: Base and Rim of the Makah basket from Agua Caliente Cultural Museum collections showing characteristics of Phase 2/3 design


Image 2: Two Makah women and a boy sell baskets outside a Seattle department store, c. 1912


Image 3: Map of Northwest Coast showing territories of different tribal groups including the Makah

The Makah Tribe is part of the Northwest Coast cultural group and lives near Cape Flattery at the Northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State (Image 3).  There is no tradition of ceramic making for the Makah, rather, they relied on basketry for cooking, gathering and even to hold water.  When a trading post opened in Makah territory in 1902, Makah weavers sold their baskets in exchange for food and other goods (Image 2). The most common type of basket made for sale was the small, lidded trinket basket that was commonly adorned with images of small birds, ducks, and banding.

Materials and Techniques

The baskets were typically woven from dyed and undyed bear grass twined over cedar bark warp using a wrapped twining technique found only on Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth woven baskets.  As early as the 1860s, Makah women were producing small trinket baskets. Through time, the construction of the baskets changed –the bases and the rims became plaited and the bear grass was replaced by raffia, which had become commercially available in the 1930s. Based upon the materials and techniques, scholars have divided the dating of Makah baskets into three phases.

Phase 1 - 1860s

In the first phase, the bases show a predominance of twining. The rims are also fully twined.


Phase 2 - 1870-1880s

In the second phase, the bases show greater use of plaited cedar bark elements. The rim is twined, but now also incorporates a strip of cedar bark.


Phase 3 - 1890-1930s

In the third phase, raffia is often used instead of the traditional bear grass and the base relies more and more on the use of plaiting. There is little diagnostic change to the rim.

-Cindy Lee Scott