Object Lesson: Klamath baskets

Woven together

Stephen Floyd

  • December, 2016

The winter is traditionally a time to slow down and work on long-awaited projects.

After the frenetic pace of harvesting slows down and daylight comes at a premium, the season can become a time for handicrafts and projects suitable for a slower pace.

For members of the Klamath Tribes, including the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin peoples, basket weaving is a time-honored winter tradition, producing storage vessels, cookware, clothes and toys.

Kelli Campagne, a case worker for the Tribes’ social services department, said weaving is something she learned from her grandmother, and a skill she is more than happy to share with others. Pictured above with her handmade doll and traditional basket hats.

“I picked it up right away,” she said. “This is my connection back.”

Guided by the seasons

Campagne said the traditional methods for basket weaving still hold true today, from the need to start harvesting materials in the spring to the types of fiber utilized.

She said, given how important and lengthy the process is to cure weaving materials, it is not uncommon for harvesting to begin in April to be ready for weaving by the winter. She said materials like cattails (pōpas), willow (yaas), tule (may), cedar (wolwans) and pine (goos) are collected for making baskets and other items. If they do not dry for a long enough time, said Campagne, then the finished product may become warped and full of holes.

“The better you prepare your materials, the better your baskets are going to be,” she said.

Once collected and cured, weavers start to turn their raw materials into threads, twisting them by hand as their ancestors would have done for time immemorial. Once creating a spider-like base of sturdy threads, weavers start shaping baskets for fishing, storing medicine, carrying children, wearing as hats and other uses the weaver sees fit to serve.

And though useful tools, traditional baskets are not without their aesthetic charm. Campagne said patterns can be created using materials with natural variants in shade, while substances like cedar darken the longer they soak in water.

Unique Klamath weave

Campagne said Klamath baskets also have a unique weave because of the way artisans twist the thread. She said she can tell if an ancient basket was made by a Klamath weaver by how the threads interlock, and said she is aware of only one other native American group in Alaska with a similar style.

While oral traditions have kept basket weaving alive for thousands of years, it has found use in less conventional ways as a therapy tool for those who have endured trauma. In her role as a case worker, Campagne said she uses weaving to help assess the mental and spiritual condition of a client and can observe their progress through their craftsmanship.

Campagne said the act of weaving itself can be soothing and empowering, and helped her personally turn away from two decades of substance abuse, from which she has remained sober for 23 years.

“I truly believe if we take us back to our roots it will make our women stronger,” said Campagne.

Finding their talents

And basket weaving is not strictly reserved for women any more than hunting, fishing or dancing belong to specific genders. Taylor Tupper, spokeswoman for the tribes, said they encourage tribal members to find what they are good at and what stimulates them without regard for presumed gender roles.

She said young people especially are encouraged to try their hands at traditional arts and the tribes are bolstering their youth initiative program to include skills like weaving.

“The kids always have talents, culture and heritage,” said Tupper.

Campagne said those interested in learning how to weave only need to ask as community members regularly come to her for help. She said they also host potlucks where weavers get together and gather materials, craft baskets and enjoy each other’s fellowship.


For more information you can contact Kelli at the Klamath Tribes Social Services Department: 541-783-2219 ext.196