Bonnie Bitsinnie

Bonnie Bitsinnie Bonnie Bitsinnie - Basketweaver: Bonnie Bitsinnie speaks with passion when talking about her skill in basket weaving, and about the responsibility, as she sees it, for Native Americans to preserve and pass down to future generations customs, cultural teachings, and art. "There's lots of Native American arts and crafts out there the people can do," she insists, "I feel sorry for the ones that don't know how to do something."

Bonnie has learned to weave rugs, do beadwork, and make native powwow costumes, complete with an elaborate beaded sash belt; but it is basket weaving that she has chosen to focus her attention on. She puts a lot of study and energy into her specialty, and it shows. Bonnie has won numerous awards, including a First Prize at the Gallup Ceremonials, and Best of Class at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Bonnie Burbank Bitsinnie was born in mid January of 1955, on the Navajo reservation. When she was young her father worked on the railroad, by Las Vegas, and she was raised away from extended family and traditional tribal teachings. Only after she married did she come to realize the importance of her inherent culture and family solidarity. Perhaps that is why she now so adamantly promotes these core values now.

It was also through marriage that Bonnie learned to weave baskets, having married into the infamous Douglas Mesa family of weavers. She was twenty-two years old when she wove her first basket. Since that first effort, her greatest support and encouragement has come from her father and mother-in-law, Begay and Gladys Bitsinnie, both weavers.

Weaving is a family affair for Bonnie's family, too. Her husband, Benny, gathers the sumac willows from along the Colorado River. Together they strip away the bark, split the willows and core them. Then they dry the willow strips, before dyeing them either with commercial or vegetal dyes. When it comes time to do the weaving, the whole family may be involved. Bonnie says they wet down the strips to keep them pliable, then place them inside a large plastic bag. This is put in the middle of the front room, where Bonnie, her husband, and their three children- Burmand, Byron, and Brenda- can reach into as they each work on individual projects.

"I'm proud of my kids," Bonnie explains, telling how her teenagers are just learning the art, among other pursuits, like ceremonial dancing. "I want my kids to do their own thing. Later in the future they're going to need it. (Right now) we need to depend on baskets for income."

Bonnie believes in staying traditional and keeping basket weaving in the family, but she is also supportive of teaching it to anyone else who is interested in learning. She taught college night classes in Holbrook, AZ, for two years, earning a teaching certificate in basket weaving. She has also done demonstrations and workshops for high school students. If she were not so involved in making baskets to support her family, she would like to spend more time as a teacher.

However, Bonnie does not believe in weaving pictorial Yei be che or other sacred Navajo images into her baskets, as some of her kinspeople are doing. "I make my own designs," she says. "Sometimes I put a Sioux bead design into a basket, then it is a one of a kind basket. Whenever I see something pretty I keep it in my mind and wonder, 'How would that look in a basket?'"

The family keeps a scrapbook of ideas, many of which Benny draws up. Bonnie's son even makes designs in his high school computer class and prints them out to bring home to her.

"My baskets are alive," Bonnie says. "They need to be alive, not just a design. Each basket represents something. If it is fire then we use fire color. If it is water, or rainbow, we use those colors. We don't want a dead basket!"

Bonnie usually weaves a flat basket, but she has also mastered vessels, like her favorite piece, the "Firecolor" water jug.

Bonnie works about forty hours a week, but believes in taking breaks and enjoying her family. Still, she admits, "When I stop, I begin to feel bad, then I get back into it."

"I'm proud to be a basket weaver because I can do it," Bonnie says, "and pass it on to the Native people. I don't do designs all the time. I have to help my people out. I can do traditional baskets and help them out, with whatever it is, whoever needs help. That's the most important thing."

When asked how it makes her feel to complete a basket, Bonnie answers with almost a wistful note, "It was weeds along the river. Now look at how pretty!"

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This site was last updated on September 29, 2020.

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