Technology historian George Basalla tells us that at the end of the 16th century in Japan, where there was a wide availability of rifles, the Japanese preferred traditional weapons: the sword, the spear, the bow and the arrow. The reason is that the elitist warrior class, the samurai, preferred the sword for its symbolic, aesthetic and cultural values (1988, 188).
Immediate utility (rifles in the previous example) is then not the only kind of utility that the human being considers.
During a recent summer vacation stay with my family in Katrine (Northern Ontario, Canada), we visited a special event that took place in Algonquin Park called “Research Day”. Together with the undoubted interest of the information provided on the natural life of the area, a stand in particular caught my attention.
There the visitor could find some examples of Indigenous artifacts along with additional information, and it took me a while, after listening to the explanations offered and doing some readings, to realize that the objects were not just samples of the achievements of a group of people.
I must say, in order to contextualize the previous perception, that the responsible for the stand was Christine Luckasavitch, an Algonquin Anishinaabekwe of the Crane Clan, and a lifelong resident of Withney, Ontario. And that she is the author among other contributions of a short paper untitled “A Necessary Movement: The Creation of Culturally Appropriate Summer Camp Traditions”, where controversial issues related to cultural appropriation practices are discussed.
Simplifying the ideas defended in the paper (the complete version with more evidences is available in Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 2018), the author intends to reflect her concerns about the ways certain elements of Indigenous culture are represented by non-Indigenous people, or more specifically how these elements are recreated in educational programs, in this case the ones promoted at some Canadian summer camps. In her own words:
To those camps, organizers, administrators and educators who are looking to reformat camp traditions so they do not appropriate Indigenous culture, I encourage you to seek guidance from a group of Indigenous knowledge holders living in communities closest to your camp. Better yet: hire Indigenous knowledge holders as staff members, or invite them (with pay) to visit camp share their knowledge on a regular basis…
For example, the author mentions the “stunning artwork that can be found” as a result of the activities carried out in the camps, but at the same time she regrets that they were not made by Indigenous people.
Given this premises, and going back to our stand, an adequate understanding of the exposed material demands a holistic perspective, the one that contemplates artifacts not just as examples of the skill of artisans, but as objects integrated in forms of cultural life. Decontextualizing these works, then, is the condition to give them other meanings and to turn them into stereotypes outside their original purposes.
Basket weaving provides an invaluable example of how a practice is integrated in a community. In this case particular features of the artifacts (the selection of materials, standardized sizes, designs depending on purposes, decoration…) as well as the socioeconomic structure that sustains the production (transmission system of know-how to apprentices, political and social status of women…) must be contemplated in the context of a land and environment-based culture. This includes an active resistance to changes that may alter the sustainable order already established, particularly the one that comes from a dominant culture.
Pickering (2010, 75) explains the evolution of basket design as a result of cultural changes:
Classic Period basketry among the Algonquin and Wasco/Wishram was traditional [land-based], indigenous basketry made in early post-contact time prior to acculturation with no non-native material or design influence […]. The few Algonquin and Wasco/Wishram Classic Period specimens available reveal that the materials and technique native women from these two groups used required a stable, long-term relationship within the environment from which they procured their materials and performed their basket construction. The stability of this environmental relationship centered, in large part, on the subsistence food gathering and agricultural practices native women developed over a long period prior to the introduction of European explorers and traders into their territory. European explorers and traders neglected to fully describe the intensive environmental and economic relationship native women from these two groups maintained. The sizable amounts of com, roots, and salmon explorers encountered among these native communities was stored and traded by native women in baskets constructed into standard units of measurement which suggests that the trade networks and food value systems developed prior to contact were well established and well supported by an egalitarian society which valued equally the contributions of each member of the community.
Colonial pressures altered native women’s ability to continue the same level of subsistence activity and intense land-based relationship with their traditional territory and environment. Colonial interference and cultural disruption among the Algonquin began around the mid-seventeenth century, earlier than for many other native communities. During this time, the traditional twined hemp and birch bark basket technology of the Algonquin quickly entered a Hiatus Period in which the adoption of European trade goods replaced many utilitarian basket functions and traditional basket making ceases.
As a contribution to the cohesion of the group, basketry can be identified in the sense contemplated in this entry as an Indigenous cultural symbol. But which basket model could be considered the most representative? Probably the one that comes from egalitarian interactions. Nevertheless, this is more a moral assessment than a description of what has happened in history.
References and further readings
BASALLA, George (1988), The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
LUCKASAVITCH, Christine (2018), “A Necessary Movement: The Creation of Culturally Appropriate Summer Camp Traditions”, Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 30 (3), pp.13-15.
ORMSBY, Mike (2018), “Cultural Appropriation is Never Appropriate… Even at Summer Camp”, Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 30 (3), p. 16.
PICKERING, Heidi J. (2010), “From Fishing Weirs to Fancy Baskets: How Changes in Native American Basketry Forms Reflect Changes in the Economic Independence of Native American Women during Colonization”. Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) Student Scholarship. 70. [available on line at https://creativematter.skidmore.edu/mals_stu_schol/70]
TURNBAUGH, Sarah Peabody and TURNBAUGH, William A. (2004), Indian Baskets, West Chester (Pennsylvania), Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
WILKES, Taylor (ed.), KENNEDY, Jay and SHORE, Amanda (2018), “Transitioning Traditions Take Two: The Evolution of an Ontario Camp’s “Indian” Council Ring—Eight Years in the Making”, Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 30 (3), pp. 4-12 [available on line at https://www.coeo.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Pathways_30_3.pdf].