Not Just a Basket: A Conversation with Alice Manuel

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Alice Manuel is a basketweaver in the Onk Akimel O’odham tradition. A member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, she learned to weave at age 19. She is the recipient of a 2017 Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance in recognition of her artistry and education. The award supports her in passing on the tradition to her apprentice, her daughter Raeann Brown. BorderLore spoke with her about learning to weave, keeping the tradition alive, and patience.

Alice Manuel, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, poses with a Onk Akimel O’odham traditional weaving. She is wearing a blue blouse ad weaved earrings.
2017 Master-Apprentice Artist Alice Manuel; photo by Steven Meckler
How and when did you start making baskets?
My true love, I guess I’d call it, started when I was really young. My father’s mother, my grandmother, had baskets that were sitting on top of her fridge, about four or five of them all stacked up. I believe they’d been made by her mother or my grandfather’s family. They were so intriguing to me, even though I had never touched or handled them in any way. They were not decorations. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of baskets in the homes, because it was custom that when people died, a lot of the time they burned all their belongings and left nothing. The idea was that you took all your belongings with you when you passed. If you were a weaver and you didn’t give your baskets to anyone while you were alive, then they’d go with you. That happens less now.

We used to have an Annual Trade Fair here in Salt River and we’d walk to it across the street from our school. There were different tribes demonstrating their crafts there. I saw a basket just like the ones on the fridge. It was partially done, with an awl sticking in it. The lady who was weaving it wasn’t there at the table. She’d left the table for a moment. But I was really curious about it. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old.

When I got older, people talked about the Pima and how they were known for their basket weaving, and the Maricopa, who were known for pottery. So I thought, “Well I’m Pima or O’odham.” But I didn’t have any baskets around me but for those on top of the fridge.

Then when I got with my husband, it turned out that his mother was Hilda Manuel, the woman who was working on the basket at the Trade Fair. She was the only one in the community who did weaving at the time. I really wanted to learn more. By that time we had a young daughter. I asked Hilda, “Do you think there will ever be a time you can make her a basket?” She laughed and said, “I have so many orders. All I can say is, stand in line.” She couldn’t even make her own children baskets she had so much work.

Alice Manuel demonstrates basket weaving in a hotel lobby.
Alice Manuel demonstrates basketweaving; courtesy of Raeann Brown.

So I came to conclusion that if I wanted my daughter to learn from that lineage I would have to be the person to teach her. The tribe got a grant through Save the Children and put together a Basket Weaving class and opened it up. My mother-in-law, Hilda, taught the class. Forty people came, elder women mostly, some may have been older than my mother-in-law. My own mother signed up to take it too. Her mother was raised by her great grandmother, who was once a weaver, but by the time she was raising my mother she had stopped because she was so old. So my mother and I both took this class and we learned together.

I was 19, one of the youngest. The teacher helped all the older people and grandmas, because that’s how we do it, with respect. So I was always the last to ask questions. I kind of learned through my mother, since the teacher paid more attention to her because she was older. So my mother would ask the questions that I had, and we just grew that way.

Over time all those 40 ladies in the class, they thinned out. They’d decided that wasn’t their thing. To be brutally honest, it was more like a social club. They came together to talk. I was serious. I wanted to know. My mother always said, just be patient.

Hilda passed away in 1987, so we got three precious years of learning from her. After she passed there were questions we still had, so we would ask others weavers, like Ricky Francisco from Gila River. She’s still weaving now and we would ask questions of her.

Around the early 90s, my mother and I were the only active weavers in Salt River. Even though we had classes every year, not that many people wanted to devote that time to learning. Currently, five women wanted to know everything from beginning to end, so we’d make the time to spend weaving. They’d come over to my house, or we’d go to theirs and we’d sit and weave. We started doing that because we wanted to preserve and promote it.

A demonstration table with tools to make baskets.
Plants and materials for basketweaving; courtesy of Raeann Brown.
What plants do you use for weaving baskets?
You’re using three different materials all with different consistencies. The willow is really soft and you have to have a soft hand. It’s a fragile plant when you’re working with it. Cattails have fiber, but after is dries it has these tiny slivers on it and you have to be careful how you handle it. Devil’s claw is rough and you have to put a lot of force behind it. It was awesome. I really liked working with it. My first basket was easier for me because I’m really rough, so it was easy for me to handle the devil’s claw. My hands felt really strong, so I mastered that right away. But it took me 7 months to make it. We had to learn to process the materials and then you’d run out of materials. We’d try to go out and buy it because it wasn’t in season and we didn’t know how to gather it yet. We used what our teacher brought or we’d go and look for it or we’d buy bundles of it from others that collected it. Until we picked our own.

Our baskets differ from the Tohono O’odham baskets in material. We live by the river so we use river willow, where they would use yucca. Inside the baskets, where they use bear grass, we use cattails. We pick them in the summertime. They’re long and straight, and we have to split them in half because there’s pithy stuff in there and if you leave that there, it expands in water, so you have to take that out because otherwise your stitches will get loose. You have to be careful how you prepare the plant. Devil’s claw is used the same way.

Growing up, I didn’t have much of a connection with plants, except for the mesquites we played under and ate their pods. After learning about the weaving materials, I go out to the river every year. We would drive to bottom of riverbed and it would feel so good to be out there again. It’s almost like seeing long lost friends. I would think, “Oh, I remember this tree or hey that one is gone.” Sometimes vegetation is totally different because of the course and strength of the water.

A hand holding a basket in progress.
A basket in progress; courtesy of Raeann Brown.
A basket isn’t just a basket, is it?
What we believe is that the creator gave them to us as a tool to provide for our families. They sacrifice the most perfect limbs of the plants so that people could live and take care of each other. It was given to us as a gift that we’re to continue and teach the young ones. It doesn’t only have meaning as a vessel to carry your food or water. It has so many teachings. Not only about the season when the plants are ready to be picked and when they’re most pliable and the amount of water they need—so it’s about respecting everything in nature that helps those plants. But also when you’re weaving a basket, you’re working with your hands doing something good.

Traditionally, we lived communally in our village with neighbors or blood relatives. You had your role and knew what you were supposed to be doing. And a lot of times women would be making or mending a basket to contribute to the community, to provide for those you care for. With that comes the part that’s therapeutic. You’re talking to each other, to elders, while young ones and toddlers are witnessing this family collaboration and communication, this love and respect. That’s something we’ve lost. I think for me the part that’s so enjoyable about weaving is doing that with other women. Traditionally it was the women that wove the baskets. Men did other kind of weaving, like for sleeping mats. It gives me a little glimpse of what it must have been like for our people when they lived here pre-contact, that love, respect and hard work was necessary for survival.

So you’ve dedicated yourself to passing that on to younger generations?
For time in the late 1980s I worked at our tribal museum, the Huhugam Ki Museum, where I read a lot. In one book, written in the 1960s, I read that it was prophesized that the willow baskets made by the Pima were going to be extinct. This was because women were going to Phoenix to work and not staying home with grandmothers. Not because they’re lazy, but because our whole lifestyle has changed. To have a home and a car, you have to work. There’s no extra time in the day to go to the river and collect plants and spend hours and hours to make a basket that you then might sell for 50 bucks.

That was pretty intense for me to read as a young weaver. I thought I’m going to do the best I can to not let that happen, to turn that around. I didn’t want that prophesy to be true. I only had one daughter and she only has one daughter. I have six sons and they have wives and we can teach them. So that’s what’s been driving me these past years.

I’m not whipping out thousand dollar baskets for the market. My focus is educating those that want to learn about our weaving process. I start with the basics. We go out to the river and they’ll learn a little and then a little more. They have to commit themselves. If you have time, come out and join us. That’s my stance.

The gathering process can be pretty strenuous, after weaving for over 30 years, I’m pretty beat up. I’ve broken one of my ankles out there, broken a wrist. You’re walking on rocks; maneuvering around in mud and water; you get bitten by all kinds of insects. I do it every summer. The only thing I don’t do anymore is get in the water. I had knee surgery recently so now it’s too tricky. I make sure the young ones help out in that area.

What else have you learned through weaving?
My mother used to tell me when I was young that I was the stubborn one. When I didn’t want to do something I wouldn’t. One thing weaving has taught me is patience. I didn’t have that before. She did tell me I was hotheaded and that I needed to think about things before I say them. Sure, you can apologize but you need to think about what you’re going to say before it leaves your lips, because once you say hurtful things, the hurt has already been felt, no matter how sorry you say you are, you already caused that emotion. Weaving taught me to be more patient with myself and not to just say things without thinking. So a lot of times I wouldn’t say anything at all. If I felt a certain way—angry or frustrated—I would just stop and wait for a fresh mind.
Three women looking at the camera and holding a large weaving.
Raeann Brown, Alice Manuel, and Alice’s mother, Audrey Santo. Photo by Tasha Silverhorn
You are the recipient of SFA’s Master-Apprentice Award. What is it like to work with your daughter, Raeann Brown?
She grew up watching me. She was 11 or 12 when took her out to the river. The next summer when she was 13, she didn’t want to go, she wanted to sleep in. I thought, I don’t have time to be prodding her. I’m not going to push it on her. I’ll let her come when she’s ready. It took a long time. At 19 she met her husband and she had a baby. I was like, “Aw man, I never got her to go out there again.” Then her first son was born moderately autistic, so her life wrapped around him.

But little by little she became more curious. When her son was seven she started expressing interest and eventually joined our classes; we spend a lot of time weaving together, just her and I. Now she’s on her third basket. It gives her another focus. It’s therapeutic for her. And we have a really good time together with the other women, too. We share a lot of our personal challenges, good and bad, sometimes we laugh, and sometimes tears are shed.

Two years ago my mother got ill and gave all of her weaving tools and materials to my daughter. She was all in tears, “Look what grandma gave me.” So she’s now weaving for herself and her grandma. I’m really thrilled that she chose to weave baskets on her own and not with me pressuring her. I just waited patiently for her to come around. Yay!

2 thoughts on “Not Just a Basket: A Conversation with Alice Manuel”

  1. CONGRATULATIONS Ms Alice, you’re AWESOME! .. I hope you continue to be strong and share your talents for generations to come

  2. Oh Alice, what a wonderful article on your history of weaving with your family. You are a great asset to the traditions of the O’odham community here in Salt River and all over. I feel special to have taken a class years ago with you and your mother, with Hilda bot and Claire Bot. Thank you for sharing with us. Marie


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