Baskets in Miniature: An Interview with Collector Jan Duggan
Although Native American tribes throughout North America were hand-crafters of baskets for a variety of utilitarian purposes, it is the Akimel O’odham River People (Pima) of southern and central Arizona that are known for their superior basket weaving techniques.
In the late 19th century, basket weaving was practiced in every Pima home to create a range of items for personal use but by the 1920s the craft had all but disappeared with the passing of skilled tribe elders and the adoption of European objects used for the same purposes. It was the tourism trade of the early 20th century that resurrected this tribal skill and turned it into a commercial enterprise for the Pima people. To meet the demand for Native American souvenirs, the Pima began producing miniature versions of traditional forms and native designs of their baskets for tourist consumption. By 1960, the Pimas were only making baskets for commercial trade. Today, these miniature Pima baskets are considered works of art and highly collectible. Just ask Jan Duggan, whose collection consists of about 160 miniature Pima-crafted baskets and objects.
Please explain the unique craftsmanship behind Pima baskets:
The two groups of most well-known Arizona basketmakers-Pima and Apache-both make coiled baskets which begin with what is called a start. The difference between their baskets is that the Apaches use rods wrapped with willow and the Pima use a wrapped bundle instead. The bundle can be smaller and flatter which allows the Pima to make much smaller baskets more easily.
They collect their own materials and work them down to the size they need. Baskets are typically made with willow (white) and devil’s claw (brown to black.) To add color, Red Yucca or sun-tanned willow are sometimes used to make polychrome baskets. Willow is used for the main material usually because it is easier to work with, but sometimes devil’s claw is used primarily (those baskets are called Negatives). Some baskets were designed with beads woven in, but they probably represent 15% of the total at best.
How long have you been a collector of Pima Baskets?
About 30 years. I’ve always been a basket person. When I started collecting Pimas, they were less expensive than the more popular, larger Apache baskets. That’s not the case today. When I started collecting the small ones were around $300. Today, small nice ones can be in the $770-$1000 range, but I have paid more than $4000 if it’s really fantastic (usually polychrome and partially beaded), but those are few and far between.
What about them interests you?
They’re beautiful, have their own unique design, and they are made almost exclusively by women. The “Man in the Maze” (an image based on an important myth) is a classic Pima design. These patterns are in their head – not drawn. Navajo weaving is the same, but I think baskets are harder because of the change in diameter. That requires the basket weaver to add or subtract coils and still maintain the design. I think the Pima have made this an art form.
How can you identify a Pima basket compared to other Native American baskets?
Baskets were originally utilitarian. You could carry water or food in them; you could cook in them. A lot of these baskets had no design. When tourists came to the Southwest on the trains, a trade in tourist items created a market for selling baskets. Quality and designs became important. Pima baskets have a vocabulary of design that is unique. Their shapes and weaving style are very recognizable to the trained eye.
Tell us about your collection:
It has grown over time. I have about 160 now, with the oldest pre-dating 1900. My biggest basket is 7″ across but my favorite range is between 3″ to 5″ – big enough to see the design. Shapes are important – I have one that is a purse, there is a cup and saucer: pictorials are important, featuring human figures and animals, but most are traditional bowl shapes with geometric designs. I collect to fill in the collection with different pattern and shapes. It is harder to find those than it once was.
Where do you typically find items for your collection?
I’m an antique dealer and I know other dealers who know of my interest and they let me know when something comes available. I’ve bought a few at auction – but not many because I need to have hands-on to see the quality of the weave. And shows – I do shows as a dealer and shop shows. But I’m not buying as much anymore. I’m much pickier now because I don’t need as many.
What do you look for when adding a basket to your collection?
Quality is the defining issue. First, it should be symmetrical and well woven. A tight weave and an attractive design are important. Second, it should speak to you. The number of basket weavers dropped off in the 1930’s and has remained small. As in any craft, what you can earn is not commensurate with the amount of work. Beautiful baskets are still being made, but the newer baskets show more difference in the A and B sides than the older ones.
I would have to say the pictorial ones because there is so much variety – snakes, bats, dogs and cats, butterflies, humans. And I cherish the finest weaves that are a tribute to the weavers.