New Maxwell exhibits feature Native American baskets: UNM Newsroom

Two new exhibits at the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology will highlight Native North American baskets from the museum’s collection of more than 2,700 baskets from around the world.

The two new temporary exhibitions, Conversation with the Earth: Native Baskets of North America from the Maxwell Museum Collections and We Were Basket Weavers Before We Were Pueblos: Pueblo Baskets in Context will open this Friday, November 11 and run through January 2024. The exhibit is a featured event of UNM’s Research and Discovery Week. It will begin with a round table featuring the co-creators of We were basket weavers before we were Pueblosfollowed by a reception at the Maxwell Museum.

Exhibits at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology
Conversation with the Earth: Native Baskets of North America from the Maxwell Museum Collections

We were basket weavers before we were Pueblos

Opening on Friday 11 Nov.
Panel Discussion, Room 105, Hibben Center for Archaeological Research, 6-7:15 p.m.
The reception follows at the museum from 7:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome to this public and free event. Light meals and refreshments will be served.

The roundtable will take place in Room 105 of the Hibben Archaeological Research Center, located just south of the Museum, from 6 to 7:15 p.m. The discussion will be followed by a reception at the museum, from 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome to this public and free event. Light meals and refreshments will be served.

Pueblo artists and knowledge holders—Louie García (Tiwa/Piro Pueblo), Christopher Lewis (Zuni), Jilli M. Oyenque (Ohkay Owingeh), and Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo)—will participate in the discussion on Pueblo basket weaving, moderated by an anthropologist and guest co-curator, UNM alumnus Bruce Bernstein.

Transforming and countering incorrect colonial narratives, the roundtable will discuss the importance of Indigenous knowledge systems in community and museum contexts. The roundtable is sponsored by the UNM Vice President for Research, Research and Discovery Week, and exhibits are partially funded by the Ortiz Center for Cross-Cultural Studies.

Conversation with the Earth: Native American Baskets from the Maxwell Museum is co-curated by Maxwell Curator of Ethnology Lea McChesney, Exhibits Curator and Head of Interpretation Devorah Romanek, and Maxwell Director Carla Sinopoli, in conversation with Native American Basket Weavers and Knowledge Holder Consultants Aay Aay ( Haida), Leanne Campbell (Coeur d’Alene/Colville/Nez Perce), Kelly Church (Pottawataomi/Odawa/Ojibwe), Sara Bedell Homminga (Bay Mills Indian Community), Josh Hommina (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), Sherrie Smith-Ferri, Ph.D. (Dry Creek Rancheria Pomo/Coast Miwok) and Colleen Lucero (Hopi).

The accompanying exhibit at the Maxwell Museum Alfonso Ortiz Center Gathering Space, We were basket weavers before we were Pueblos: Pueblo baskets in context, was curated by UNM alumnus Bruce Bernstein, with the help of independent curator Lillia McEnaney, and featuring Louie Garcia (Tiwa/Piro Pueblos), Christopher Lewis (Zuni), Jilli M. Oyenque (Ohkay Owingeh) , Paul Tosa (Jemez Pueblo), Madeline Tosa (Jemez Pueblo) and Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo).

“The largest exhibition based on the Maxwell collections we’ve done in years focuses on an important but overlooked collection of Native North American baskets,” Romanek said. “We wanted to bring this remarkable collection to the attention of the public and reflect on important current issues. Among these are the major issues of Indigenous sovereignty and relationships with the land, particularly in light of global issues such as climate change.

Consisting mainly of organic matter (mainly plant/vegetable), the baskets make it possible to consider all of these issues, as well as others such as the effects of colonization over the centuries, underlines Romanek.

“Our visitors can experience the exemplary creativity, skill and ingenuity of the various Native American basket weavers represented in the exhibit, which is all the more powerful in the face of the often difficult and dark stories that many of these baskets also encompass,” she added.

The Maxwell is home to more than 2,700 baskets from around the world, according to Lauren Fuka, senior collections manager, Ethnology. Most ̶ about 2,300 ̶ come from North America. This exhibition features approximately 170 objects, all from North America.

In the overall collection, more than 800 come from the Pacific Northwest and more than 500 from the United States Southwest. The rest come from California, the Arctic and Subarctic, the Great Basin, the Great Lakes, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains or are without origin.

While the exhibit includes baskets from all parts of the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada, in the exhibit, the Maxwell recognizes and honors Indigenous lands and peoples as the original sources of the items.

The baskets were acquired by the museum in various ways over almost a century: some were collected by donors; some were given by the family, friends or descendants of the collector; some were collected by professors or purchased by museum staff; and still others transferred from other UNM departments without knowing how they got to the university. In many cases, information on how and where they were collected is scarce.

The smallest basket measures 0.6 inches in diameter

Tohono O’odham’s Smallest Basket (Papago), c. 1935-1955, features four small human figures 1.6 cm (0.6 inch) in diameter.

“Miniature baskets are particularly difficult to make, requiring incredible manual dexterity. This one seems to delight and impress everyone who sees it,” Romanek said.

The largest basket is a canoe made by Den’a boat makers, Upper Yukon, Canada, circa 1900. The canoe is 6.4 meters (21 ft).

“It can be surprising to think of a canoe as a basket,” Romanek acknowledged. “But if a basket can be understood as a container for holding and carrying things, then the 6.4 meter and 21 foot long canoe, made on a cedar frame wrapped in the bark of the paper birch to hold and transporting people, meets this definition.”

Canoe Den'a, Upper Yukon, Canada

The canoe was made for trade or sale, shortly after the Klondike Gold Rush caused major environmental devastation in the area. It has never been used in water as there is no evidence that sealant was even applied to its seams. It came to the Maxwell in 1982 as part of a large collection of baskets donated by Sella Hatfield which she inherited from her father who acquired them from the Alaska Fur Company of Seattle, Washington.

Like the miniatures, this “basket” shows incredible skill and also sophisticated engineering knowledge.

“The themes we want to convey are the range of artistic talents and depth of knowledge represented, the stories they tell and how we have tried, working with our co-curators, to bring them to the fore, placing the baskets in cultural contexts and historical context as much as possible,” McChesney said. “The additional insights we gained from our six Indigenous co-curators for the main exhibit, four co-curators for the basket exhibit Pueblo and the insights of our lead general consultant, basket specialist Bruce Bernstein, with assistance from independent curator Lillia McEnaney.”

“We highlight important issues of sovereignty, climate change, social and environmental justice, and decolonization of museum practices – here, in terms of the Maxwell Museum’s recently adopted vision of reconciling injustices, restoring voices, and achieve community,” she added.

James C. Tibbs