An Akimel O’odham basketweaver on how a changing climate is impacting plant materials
by Alice Manuel, as told to Kimi Eisele
I started weaving baskets when I was 19, learning from my mother-in-law, Hilda Manuel, who was at the time Salt River’s only active basket weaver. But I only got three years of learning with her before she passed away.
Hilda talked about two gathering seasons, one in early spring and another in summertime. The spring was during a short period of time, when it was cold enough to see your breath at night or early morning hours. When it was cool like that, the plants didn’t start getting leaves on them yet. Those plants were nice and strong, transitioning into the time where they were going to get bushier, with more leaves, as it warmed up.
I think that particular time is gone. We don’t tend to have a cold period like that anymore. It’s like a part of the cycle is skipped. The way I look at it is the plants are kind of confused, because it’s not the normal process that they’re used to going through. It’s like that for the willow and cattails. What we believe is that people—you, me, everybody—we go through a process, starting as children, when we start to learn different things. We believe that you’re supposed to crawl first. But when babies get their balance and start walking all of the sudden without crawling, they’re missing something. I feel the same way with a plant. It’s missing whatever little process it needs—like that season of coolness. If they don’t live through that and go straight to the next phase, they’re not as strong as they could be. They miss something.
For the summer harvest, we start in June or mid-July and go until September. If it starts getting really cool at night, it’s time to stop because the willow bark will stick to the wood and doesn’t peel off easily. You have to scrape it off. What we’re looking for are branches where the bark peels off naturally by itself or with just a little prompting.
We generally try to get out there before six in the morning. We go in a group, usually between eight and 15 women, and carpool to our favorite site along the Salt River. The basket weavers and the people who do pottery know the river really well. We know how to maneuver out there. We’ll say, “I’m by Pole Six,” referring to signage along the road, and everybody knows where that is.
We turn off the road into a sandy mesquite area and drive over small hills past rock formations to the river. It’s already light at that early hour and still a little cool, but you’ll still sweat. We tell people to make sure they’re hydrated beforehand and that means not the morning of, but two days before, you start drinking water. When you’re out there and you get heat exhaustion, it’s too late to hydrate. We park close by because we’re carrying chairs and knives and we have to be careful. Once, I was fearless. I’d go anywhere up and down hills along the river. But I’m older now and I’ve had several injuries from doing that kind of thing. So, we walk carefully.
Then it’s just us and hundreds of willow trees, cottonwood trees, mesquite trees all over in various stages of growth. When I arrive, I tell the plants, “We’re coming with these ladies. Thank you for being here.” I tell the plants what we’re going to do. Then we’ll all get in a circle and sing a morning song, which is like a prayer that blesses and protects us before we start the day. There are other songs that that our people sang a long time ago but here at Salt River those songs were lost. We just do the morning song to ask the morning spirits for protection.
It’s good to have chairs because we never know how long it will take. Sometimes someone will find a good spot where they’re just cutting, cutting, cutting. But we also have to remember that whatever we cut we have to finish preparing the same day. We put the material in buckets of water to soak and finish, a process that takes about two days. When you get back home, your life happens. Your kids might want something, or you might have to go do errands. If you don’t set aside the time, you won’t get to it, so you don’t want to pick that much. I’ve already talked to the plants and I don’t want to lie to them. So, I want people to do what they say they’re going to do. In other words, don’t get greedy and try to take everything right now. Pace yourself. You don’t want to waste any material.
When I’m looking at the plants, no matter how many years I’ve done this, I’m always in awe at how they could serve so many purposes and just still be so pristine. They’re just perfect. I can tell from afar looking at certain plants which ones I want to go with. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Come over here, I’m the one.” That one might have really good color or there’s something about it. If I’ve picked from a particular tree last time, I’ll often return to it. They say that when you when you pick from a tree, it keeps coming back—its branches, its leaves. Like they know they were put there for a reason, to help. When they know they’re being of use, they keep coming back. When you don’t use them, they’re not serving the purpose that Creator gave them.
My mother-in-law taught me to look for the branches with the fewest leaves. A branch with a lot of leaves, means it will have a lot of holes, and that makes for weak spots, and there’s a good chance that you’ll become frustrated because it’s going to break. I don’t know if I ever have the right word to describe how it feels to come across one that is just perfect. All plants are perfect, of course, but I mean the one I’m looking for. Blessed, I think. This is what I’m looking for. It’s going to work.
When I’m there at the river, I often feel a yearning, wishing I would have had more time with more experienced weavers. A lot of this we learned on our own after our teachers passed or from other weavers who have a different style. I often think about what I’ll do going forward, how I can help other people. When I was younger, I was I was very conscientious about my work. I felt like I was in the beginning stages for 15 years. I always worried that my work was not up to par, and I was leery of letting people look at it. But then I just outgrew that. I figured there’s really not a lot of people around that do this kind of weaving who can say anything about it. I had to keep it going.
Traditionally men were not weavers here, and my teacher respected that practice. In the beginning, I wouldn’t teach a man. But I’ve had to revisit that. This kind of weaving is an artform now, so, why can’t a man learn it? They might have a daughter or niece that they could teach. So I’ve had to change my tune on that one. We’re a patrilineal society, but we’ve had some strong women that had to take over their households, which is not supposed to happen, but has had to. They were forced into it. When it comes to weaving, I feel like I’ve done it long enough to say, we need to change this. Or at least I can make the decision to change that for myself. I’ve taught one man how do weave so far, and I kind of felt strange about it at first. But now I’m glad I did it. He works in the museum field, and he used a lot of that knowledge to help educate people about the weaving. There are so few weavers we have to adjust and adapt the tradition in order to keep it going.
If I was to compare a willow from now to one from a long time ago, now it seems a little on the brittle side. It doesn’t store as well as it used to. We try to keep track of where we get them to make sure that we’re not just going to the same place, to the place where they seem to be brittle. When you cut the plant, it’ll show a little sign, almost a splintering, after cutting it and splitting it in half. At this first split, you can tell if it starts to splinter. I started noticing this maybe 15 years ago. This concerns me. I’ve seen how brittle the plants can be. I’m wondering what will happen further down the line.
The cattails have changed, too. When we used to go to gather cattails, they’d be tall, six feet from the bottom of the stalk all the way to the top where the corndog is, that’s what we call it. We’ll look for the tallest ones, because they’re mature and strong, and leave the little ones alone because they’re not ready, maybe the next season. But now the cattails are stunted, their growth is stunted. I’m not sure if it’s the weather or if there’s something in the water that’s not letting them reach maturity. It could also be from not enough snow up north. Maybe they’re having drought. I know the water levels are lower in the summer, but when there’s snow up north, the river runs with a little bit more flow.
Some years ago, there was a huge chemical spill upstream. It turned the water orange and yellow. I was really leery about that. I’m not sure what kind of abatement they did. Knowing that this happened and could compromise the plants, I started thinking, what are we going to weave with? How is our work going to continue? What plants are we going to use? All kinds of fibers can be woven, of course, so are we going to have to switch to something that’s not a river plant?
It’s the same thing with the devil’s claw. Out here in Salt River, we used to find it in remote places, where no one bothered it and it could reseed and grow naturally, just from the wind or animals moving seeds around, and leaving them in fertile places. You can still find it there if you have time to venture out and look.
I’ve tried to plant devil’s claw around my house, just by throwing seeds out there and also by digging and planting. But none of them grow. A friend told me it’s because of the caliche and the soil is too salty. Devil’s claw used to grow more plentifully before the tribe started leasing out the land for agriculture. The larger businesses brought in all of the pesticides. That really affected the devil’s claw. Right now, I’ve found a small patch. But some of the other weavers in the community are also using that patch. For now, I have enough but eventually I’ll have to look for more.
I don’t have a lot of contact with other weavers. The people I’m teaching are newer. They haven’t grasped these changes because they have nothing to compare to now. But I’m trying to get more people to observe what I’m observing and sharing what I’m noticing. First you have to hook them in and get them to love it and embrace it, to make it a natural part of them.
The work is physically challenging, especially picking cattails. Moving in the water is twice as hard and burns a lot of calories. But harvesting willow, we’re usually just on the banks. After harvesting, we share drinks and refreshments and just sit and talk while we prepare the material. If there are people among us who are new to it, often my daughter and I will show them how. Your hands they’re going to feel this way, we tell them, but just keep on doing it. We encourage them the whole time.
When we’re done harvesting, we make sure we put all of the plant refuse, the parts we haven’t used, back in the water so that they go on to where they need to go to replenish the area. We clean up the area. We want it to look like we were never there.
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 a 2017 recipient of a Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance in recognition of her artistry and education. Learn more about Alice in this 2018 interview.
ClimateLore is a series of investigations and stories about the impacts of climate crisis on culture and heritage and climate resilience in folk and indigenous communities of the Greater Southwest and Northwest Mexico. It is funded, in part, by Arizona Humanities.