Welcome to Idaho Basketry

Hopper Basket with Grinding Stone












Due to vast amount of natural resources, Idaho has for centuries contributed to the extensive array of basketry in this country.  From the Nomadic populations of the Nez Perce, Shoshone and many other Great Basin Tribes to the implantation of Rwandan refugees in the 2000’s, Idaho has produced a beautiful collection of woven artifacts.  These pieces have for centuries been created by women who worked tirelessly to supplement their communal existence.  Early Native American women fabricated massive jugs out of Idaho’s native Willow trees in order to help carry water to the tribe.  Later Shoshone women would use the same tree to make seed baskets and beaters used to harvest and grind up mill for consumption.  During the time of Lewis and Clark in the early nineteenth-century, Idaho’s native women  continued to use their ancestors weaving techniques but their newly sedentary lifestyle allowed them to create pieces that were primarily seen as art.  Nez Perce hats woven with bear grass adorned both men and women’s heads and were used in ceremonial events.  Around the same time, intricately designed baskets served as vital trade currencies between the Native populations and the advancing settlers.  Women would work in large groups to create hundreds of baskets the men would use as bargaining items with the white explorers.    Women in Idaho continue to use the resources both natural and man-made to create baskets that help them assist their families and communities.  Today women like Venantia Mukangeruka, a Rwandan refugee, who makes baskets out of grocery bags, uses age old techniques that once helped her nomadic ancestors and now helps her support her growing Idaho family.  Since before Idaho was a state, women living in this area have been an integral part of the world of basketry and it seems the state will continue to showcase the diverse talents of Idaho women for decades to come.


Photo Courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society:  1962.208.4

Natural Materials

Typical Willow Tree (1)


Willow Drying in Preparation for Basketmaking (2)


Willow was used by the Shoshone people for basket making due to its strength, durability and abundance.  The individual twigs can be used, as well as stripping the bark into thinner, finer portions for a more delicate weave.  Traditional modern day wicker products are made from whole willow twigs.  There are literally dozens of willow trees and shrubs that can be found in the Pacific Northwest and Idaho, all from the Salix genus of plants.

Salix alba L. White Willow (3)


Bear Grass

This grass is native to North America and was used extensively by the Indigenous Peoples in the art of basket weaving.  The grass  turns from an olive green to a lighter tan or white when dried.

Bear grass is also known by the names Quip-Quip, Soap Grass, Squaw Grass or Indian Basket Grass, or its official name, Xerophyllum.

Being related to the lily, it too has a fragrant flower that grows from the base of the plant on a long stalk.

Bear grass was commonly found in the states of Montana and Idaho.  More specifically, it can be found on the LoLo trail and the Lewis and Clark trail.

Bear Grass at Glacier National Park (4)

Photos Courtesy of :

1. Our Enchanted Garden. flickr, “Willow Trees and a little breeze!.” Last modified June 24, 2006 http://www.flickr.com/photos/enchantedgarden/176310253/ (Accessed April 24, 2012).

2. M. Kat Anderson@USDA-NRCS Plants database

3.USDA, NRCS. 2012. The PLANTS Database National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. http://plants.usda.gov (Accessed May 1, 2012).

4. Weber, Drew. flickr, “Bear Grass.” Last modified July 12, 2005             http://www.flickr.com/photos/drewweber/205394308/ (Accessed April 24, 2012).




Havasupai Water Bottles

Havasupai Water Bottle

Havasupai Water Bottle

These woven jugs originated in Arizona through the necessity of carrying water to support a nomadic life style. The shape of this woven bottle is derived from gourds which were originally used as water containers. Gourds were fragile and were eventually encased with yucca leaves or flexible willow. The weaves went from a rudimentary case to a strong protective cover with the use of the simple weave. With a round coiled start and a self-coiled rim finish, these coarse water jugs were firm and durable and the simple weave produced a symmetrical shape.(1) Gourds were discontinued with the use of pinion gum, or pitch, for water proofing. Pitch was also used for repairs.

The Havasupai Water Bottle reached the Nez Perce women in the Great Basin through trade. This style of woven water jugs were widely used by the South West and Great Basin culture areas. The jugs were used by Nez Perce women in transitions from 1877 to 1990 for gathering water to support their family. The Great Basin tribes used bear grass for their version of the Havasupai Water bottle. It was common practice for women to decorate these woven water bottles for trade, providing a source of sustenance, or gifts, aiding in intercultural relations. If there were no designs, the use was strictly utilitarian.(2)


1. Turnbaugh, Sarah P., and William A. Turnbaugh. Indian Baskets. Atglen, PA: Schifter       Publishing, 2004.

2. James, George Wharton. Indian Basketry. New York: Doves Publications, Inc., 1972.

Photos provided by Idaho State Historical Society:

Water Jug (804.55)



Seed Beater

Seed Beater

Seed Beater

Seed Beater

Shoshoni women used seed beater basketry as a utilitarian basket. This seed beater was used  in the harvesting of different seeds; which was the practice and responsibility of the women in this culture. “The woman would beat the grass panicles over the rim of the basket causing the seeds to fall inside” (1) This basket is made with split osiers, rhus stems.  There were also young shoots of other plants involved in the making of seed baskets, some of which weren’t classified.

The seed basket resembled the form and structure of a tennis racket. The Shoshoni used a twined weave with a self-coiled rim finish to assemble this durable makeup.(2)  Although the basket appears to have a degree of complexity; the twine method was believed to be the simplest manner of weaving. The twined weave process was described as “ Strands of the woof series being arranged in two’s and in weaving are twisted half around at each intersection, inclosing the opposing fillets. The resulting open work has much the appearance of ordinary netting.” (3)

1.  James, Carolyn. Nez Perce Women In Transition. Moscow, ID: U of I Press, 1996. 157.

2. Turnbaugh, Sarah P., and William A. Turnbaugh. Indian Baskets. Atglen, PA: Schifter Publishing, 2004.

3 .James, Carolyn. Nez Perce Women In Transition. Moscow, ID: U of I Press, 1996. 123.

Photos Provided by Idaho State Historical Society:

– Seed Beater (344.72/1914.3.72): Berry drier, found circa 1880 by donor.

– Bannock seed gathering basket (804.34).




Shoshone Basketry

Shoshone Burden Basket

Shoshone Burden Basket

Lidded Storage Basket

Lidded Storage Basket

These examples are traditional bundle and storage baskets from the Shoshone people of Idaho and the Fort Hall Reservation.  They utilize a quick loose weave style, a round coiled start and a self coiled rim finish. (1)

Due to differences in environment, the Shoshone used willow as a material rather than bear grass,  as it was more prevalent. This is unlike the baskets from the Nez Perce whom used bear grass as a main source material.

Aside from the decoration and pattern of the storage basket, these were left the natural color and not dyed.

The Shoshone also used their basketry as a utilitarian object, rather than selling them or using them for barter. (2)   This particular shallow gathering basket was made by Mrs. Soldier Boy, a resident of the Fort Hall Reservation.














1. Turnbaugh, Sarah P., and William A. Turnbaugh. Indian Baskets. Atglen, PA: Schifter       Publishing, 2004.

2. A Gallery of Shoshone-Bannock Basketry.  Wind River History.org  http://windriverhistory.org/exhibits/shoshoneart/baskets/index.html (accessed 1 May, 2012)

Photos Provided by Idaho State Historical Society:
-Shoshone baskets (547.B/1922.20.1, 1922.20.2,): Made by Mrs. Soldier Boy at Fort Hall Reservation

Lewis and Clark Trading Baskets

Lewis and Clark Trading Basket

Lewis and Clark Trading Basket

Lewis and Clark Trading Basket

This traditional trading basket dates back to the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early nineteenth century.  It is a round coiled basket with a self-coiled rim finish and was presumably traded between the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the pioneers.(1)  Most of these baskets were made from willow and bear grass which are still abundant in this part of the country and the patterns differ by region and individual taste.  Native American women would weave these containers to be used in bartering with the passing explorers and later the Western settlers.  In post-contact years, baskets like this one were a valued commodity for both the Native Americans who exchanged them for foreign materials and the new Americans who used them for decoration in their homes.(2)


1. James, George Wharton. Indian Basketry. New York: Doves Publications, Inc., 1972.

2. Turnbaugh, Sarah P., and William A. Turnbaugh. Indian Baskets.      Atglen, PA: Schifter Publishing, 2004.

Pictures provided by Idaho State Historical Society:

-Basket in Lewis and Clark exhibit (1926.6.149)

Nez Perce Basket Hat


Nex Perce Hat

Nez Perce Hat

As the name suggest; Nez Perce natives created the Nez Perce hat. It’s origin dates back between 1870-1880’s. The women wore these, some as utilitarian hats blocking the sun, as these women worked in the sun harvesting seeds and gathering wood and water.  They were also worn as ornamental accessories. While both types of hats were almost always coned shaped with a flat top, the utilitarian and ornamental hats could be distinguished as the colors and weaving patterns were quite different in comparison. More intricate detailing and a greater deal of  complexity and creativity was displayed when these hats were worn as an accessory.(1)

1. James, Carolyn. Nez Perce Women In Transition. Moscow, ID: U of I Press, 1996

Photos Provided by Idaho State Historical Society:

– Nez Perce woman’s hat (1963.110.6)


Burundi Shopping Baskets

Burundi Basket

Burundi Basket

Burundi Basket


The Burundi Baskets are a blend of Native American and traditional Tanzanian weaving styles both using a single-rod coil with a self-coiled rim finish that has been primarily employed to make serving and storage containers in both cultures for centuries.(1)  These unique specimens are the artistic endeavor of Venantia Mukangeruka a Rwandan born women who spent twenty-three years in a refugee camp in Tanzania before being relocated to Boise where she and most of her family live currently.  Mukangeruka belonged to a cooperative association of Burundi women who worked full-time making baskets to support their families and she now supplements her income in Idaho selling her unique integrated style, using plastic shopping bags as her medium.  These baskets, while artistic, are at their core a means of survival for Mukangeruka and her family here in Idaho as well as back in Africa.(2)

1. Turnbaugh, Sarah P., and William A. Turnbaugh. Indian Baskets. Atglen, PA: Schifter Publishing, 2004.

2.”Congo Refugee Weaves New Life.” Idaho Statesman, , sec. A9, March 04, 2012.

Photos Provided by Idaho State Historical Society:

-Burundi style baskets (2010.19.17, .20, .32): Made by Venantia Mukangeruka in 2010, plastic woven over wicker

  •   Traditions in Transition: A Recipe for Change
  • Venantia Mukangeruka: Burundi Basketry



A Final Thought

For many centuries, basketry has been an artistic staple in the lives of Native American women in Idaho. With their mastery of several weaving techniques, Native American women of the Great Basin have been able to provide this art form for a multitude of uses – for trade, storage, décor, and accessory. This craft form is not a lost art either; the importance and utilitarian purposes remain today, as made evident by the Burundi baskets. With it’s multitude of uses, basketry is a craft that will likely continue and remain important to both the women and communities of  Idaho.