Weaving Identity: Nlaka’pamux Basket-Making

Nlaka’pamux basketry on display. © Barbara Roden/Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal
Nlaka’pamux basketry on display. © Barbara Roden/Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal

For the week of September 2, 2019.

On September 4, 2018, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a bronze plaque commemorating basket-making as an integral part of the cultural identity, well-being, and economy of Nlaka’pamux people.

Nlaka’pamux are an Interior Salish speaking people whose traditional territory is located in British Columbia’s Interior Plateau, between the Coast Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The baskets made by Nlaka’pamux weavers are made from plants such as red cedar root, wild cherry bark, and various grasses, and include decorative motifs that are weaved in a technique called imbrication.  The motifs imbricated on baskets are distinct, tied to cultural traditions, inspired by local plants, and in some cases represent the family lineage of the weaver.

Women are traditionally the basket-makers in Nlaka’pamux culture. The practice of basket-making is an integral part of cultural identity and a method of strengthening and sharing that identity with younger generations through ethno-botanical knowledge and technical skills. Able to recognize, name, and use more than 350 plants from their traditional territory for basket-making, generations of women have passed down knowledge of where to find species, which trees produce the finest roots, and when to harvest them. Gathering raw materials for basket-making was one of several seasonal activities that defined Nlaka’pamux culture.

Women’s roles in the economy were shown through Nlaka’pamux basket-making, since baskets were prominent in the pre-contact trade networks that linked peoples in the Interior with each other and with the coast and plains. Baskets were used as storage, to carry food or even liquids, and for cradling babies. The arrival of Europeans provided new buyers for Nlaka’pamux basketry and led to the creation of new container shapes. Retail stores directed their sales towards Euro-Canadian tourists, and baskets often ended up in private collections or museums.

Weaved household items, such as trays and letter holders, fuelled retail markets, and an active home-based basket-making industry continued until the 1930s. Demand declined after the Second World War and knowledge of basket-making was nearly lost in the 1950s. However, the craft was continuously nurtured, passed on, and maintained by Nlaka’pamux women. By the 1970s, Nlaka’pamux baskets gained further recognition as a form of fine art, viewed as something to be admired or observed for their cultural significance, and museums and private collectors developed a renewed interest in them.

Nlaka’pamux Basket-Making, which continues today, is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada. 

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

June is National Indigenous History Month. Learn more about the diverse histories and cultures of Indigenous Peoples by exploring articles in our online archives about Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst, Francis Pegahmagabow (1889–1952), Wii Niisł Puuntk: A Matriarch of the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay, and Weaving Identity: Nlaka’pamux Basket-Making.