Avis and Arthur Dunn

Avis says they used to have an Old Ladies’ Club at Nixon, where the ladies would bring their sewing and weaving.  “I’d watch them.  I would ask questions and they’d tell me.  One old lady showed me when they were picking willows where the good ones were.”  Avis says they taught her to look for four different kinds:  one for the top, one for the sides and arms, one for the bed, and one to split to weave with.  “They showed us how to split.  You go from the tip and bite, putting one in your mouth and two in your hands, then split down.  I can’t do it, only with the straighter and taller ones.”

Avis now gets her strings from a lady in Fallon.  She peels the skin off, prepares the strings, and weaves the hood and the inside willow mat for the baby to lie on.  Arthur makes the frame for the cradleboard.

Arthur scrapes and tans the deer hide.  First he soaks the hide in water so the hair will fall off.  Then he hangs the hide over a special smooth pole- smooth because he has used it for fifty years for the same purpose.  Next Arthur scrapes the hair off and soaks the hide in brains overnight.

At this point, I wrinkle my nose and say, “ugh-I bet that smells!”   Avis laughs and says her children used to say, “Mom and her stinking hide!” to which she would retort, “The money don’t stink!”

The hide needs to be stretched so it won’t dry out too fast; Avis helps Arthur pull, squeeze, and stretch until the hide is dry.  I’m sure my mouth is wide open, thinking of all this physical exertion by two Paiute elders - Avis had to arrange our interview around twice-weekly dialysis treatments!

After the hide is completely dry, it is time to smoke it to the beautiful golden-tan color found on only the most special Paiute cradlebaskets.  This part is done by Avis, her sister, Lena Wright, taught her the process.  She uses the Dunns’ former home in Nixon for this.  When the People moved in HUD (federal Housing and Urban Development)homes years ago, all the old homes, Avis says, were mowed down.  All except theirs, for some reason, and this became their smokehouse.

First Avis makes the hide into a sort of cylinder bag, turns it inside out and hangs it.  She attaches a skirt to the bottom, fits this over a smoking fire bucket, and secures it with a pant leg wrapped around the bucket.  Now she watches it very carefully, for ten to fifteen minutes of smoking, until it’s just the right color.  The resulting hide is so strong, Avis says, that “you can hang it on a barbed wire fence and it will never hurt you.”  In fact, they make sturdy gloves and moccasins from their hide in addition to the cradlebasket covers.

To make this cover, after the basket frame is made, Arthur puts willow crossbars across the frame, then lays the willow mat on the crossbars.  The hide is pulled over it and cut down the middle so it fits across.  Then Avis cuts around where the head will go.  Avis likes to cover the sides of the shade (hood) with satin so it won’t scratch the baby.  She estimates that if all goes right it takes them about two weeks to make a baby basket (hupe), including the hood, with the help of her daughter.  Beads and fringes are added for decoration.  Sometimes people ask for certain colors and designs.

From the book, From Weavers of Tradition and Beauty:  Basketmakers of the Great Basin by Mary Lee Fulkerson, Kathleen Curtis, Catherine S. Fowler


About Shoshone Cradleboards:

The Western Shoshone babies, when born, were placed in a cradleboard called a koh'noh. There were two types of cradleboards. The boat basket was used by the newborn right after it was born. The hoop basket was used once the baby's neck muscles were strong enough to hold its heads up. The baby would spend its first year in the basket or until the baby began to walk.


The cradleboard provided a secure and safe environment for the small baby. The baby was kept in the cradleboard at all times. This helped to keep the child's backbone and legs straight, further strengthen the neck muscles, and provide an opportunity for the infant to be visually and emotionally stimulated by his environment and family. The child was able to be carried on his mother's back using a strap attached to the back of the cradleboard. This way, the mother could be free to work with her hands. Using the strap, they sometimes hung or propped the basket up, so that the mother could also be within the child's view and communicate with the child. When tired, the infant could be rocked to sleep. Then the child could be laid down without disturbing its body or sleep.


Since willows could only be collected in the winter months, it was necessary for the basketmaker to plan ahead. Once Spring arrived, the willows would have too much water in them and could easily break. The Shoshone used a river willow for the boat cradleboard, which was prepared after the child was born. It was an open-twined weave forming an elliptical head guard for the infant. A rabbit-skin lining was placed inside to cushion the baby's head and body and buckskin laces were used to tie the baby in. Wild dogwood or rosewood willows were used to make the frames for the hoop cradleboard. Once gathered, the larger willows were scraped for the cradleboard frame and backing. The smaller willows would be used for the shade. The other willows, would be split, simultaneously, in three parts to be used for weft thread. The same process was used for making other baskets. Using a warming method, the hoop frame was formed by tying the top and bottom frames together. After forming the frame, it was tied down to a flat-surface for a couple of weeks, to prevent it from twisting or bending out of shape. Willows were cut to fit the frame. The Shoshone used a horizontal willow backing. The willows were fastened together by one or two vertical willows, using buckskin strips. Once the frame was ready, the ends of the willow backing was fit against the frame and attached the willows to the frame by wrapping the willow-backing with buckskin strips. The frame would then be covered with buckskin.


The frame was placed on the buckskin. The buckskin was fitted around the frame by pulling it snugly towards the center. The center, top and bottom seam was marked. Then the buckskin was cut and sewn with their specialized bone needles and sinew-thread. The outside strings and loops were then added to the front flaps, using a bone awl to make holes and rabbit-skin batting was placed inside for a cushion.


A willow shade was added to the basket. The willow shade was made using river willows. It was woven in an open-twined weave fashion, using a decreasing procedure while weaving. First, the pattern at the top was made, using a naturally-dyed willow weft. The pattern depended on the gender of the baby. A diamond was used for a girl's shade and diagonal lines were used for a boy's shade. This shade not only provided a shade from the sun, but provided protection for the child's face and head if the cradle was knocked over and with a cover, it kept the wind out. The shade was attached to the outside of the basket. It was threaded through two holes and tied onto the backside.


The cradleboard was decorated by adding fringes to the sides and back. A strap was attached to the back of the cradleboard for carrying. A separate buckskin piece was attached to the bottom, so that it could be removed if soiled.


Today, the cradleboard is still being used. Many families have other tribal members or relatives make the cradle for them since many families have not kept up the tradition of making the cradle. Modern changes have been made in the construction of the cradleboard. Many are covered with a canvas-like material, allowing for a cooler, washable and more available cover for the cradle. Yarn is now used on the shade for the patterns and cloth around the edging, adding more color. With the influx of metal and glass beads, the Shoshone beaded around the top of the basket, on the sides, and the shade-edging, making a more colorful carrier.


Source :  University of Nevada, Reno - Native Nevada Classroom

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