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Kamloops History: Exploring the art of Secwépemc basketry

Baskets of various shapes and sizes were used for gathering and storing food, cooking and transporting

Baskets have been an essential part of everyday life and survival among the Secwépemc people. Making baskets was a woman’s art taught from a very young age.

Referred to as “mim’c,” baskets of various shapes and sizes were used for gathering and storing food, cooking and transporting. The largest, called burden baskets, were for carrying clothing and blankets.

There were various specialized baskets: round baskets (including basins, pails, bowls, and kettles for liquids), nut and pot-shaped baskets (for storing small articles), trays and storage baskets (for large amounts of food). The tightly woven coiled root basket was used for cooking by placing hot rocks into the basket full of water.

Some large baskets made of balsam, poplar and spruce bark were frequently used by the Secwépemc for cooking berries or soaking skins. They were barrel- or funnel-shaped and stitched with spruce root.

All of the Interior Salish peoples of southern British Columbia once made coiled basketry of cedar or spruce root.

The “stínestn,” or cedar roots, are gathered in early spring by digging around the base of a cedar tree. The choicest cedar roots are ones from red cedar trees — roots with a thickness of anywhere from the width of an adult finger to an inch or two thick.

Anything larger would likely be too thick and hard to split. The root is pulled out of the ground — the longer the better. Basket-makers like to work with long roots of sometimes five or six feet.

When enough roots have been gathered, they are cleaned and cut into thin strips and tied into bundles until ready to be used. They are soaked to make them pliable.

Coiled baskets were formerly made by nearly all the Secwépemc bands. Cedar roots were used where good quality could be found, used frequently by the Styétemc (Lakes) people, who gathered it in the mountains northeast of Canim Lake.

In his monograph The Shuswap (1909), ethnologist James Teit describes the Secwépemc methods of making baskets.

Ornamentation, such as beading and imbrication, was added to the baskets. Beading is a form of decoration in which the outside of a coil is faced with a thin strip of brightly coloured bark or grass by sewing. Secwépemc basketry was often decorated by imbrication, or overlapping edges, and beading using willow bark, wild cherry bark and dyed horsehair. Imbrication required strips of coloured grass and bark to be set along the coil and hooked by a passing stitch.

The difference between the two techniques is that imbrication is woven into the basket, whereas beading is an applied or sewn decoration. However, the beading technique was going out of style by 1900. Some baskets were created with elaborate and colourful pictographic and geometric designs using different roots and berries for dyes.

In an 1890 report, anthropologist Franz Boas stated, “The roots are dyed black with an extract of fern root and red with an extract of alder bark or with oxide of iron. Very beautiful patterns are made in these colours.”

The Secwépemc baskets tended to have squareness, that is, corners. The old baskets were sewn with needles and awls made of elk-antler.

Birch bark baskets were common among the Secwépemc. The Esk’etemc, or Alkali Lake, people were reputed to make the best birch bark baskets among the Secwépemc. They were more fragile and not as long-lasting as the coiled baskets, but birch bark conveyances were light. They were even used to carry babies.

Small baskets were used for picking berries and tied to the waist, leaving both hands free.

Birch bark was gathered in the spring, just as the sap was starting to rise, allowing easy removal of the bark without killing the trees. The bark was usually removed from the north face of the tree, rolled up and then cut into the desired shapes.

The Fraser River Secwépemc, especially the southern bands, and the Styétemc people were the greatest basket makers. The Tk’emlúpsemc (Kamloops) and St’uxwtews (Bonaparte) people made fewer baskets. Instead, they relied on trade, buying baskets from the St’át’imc (Lillooet), Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) and Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) peoples.

About 1860, after wooden, pottery and metal containers were introduced by white people, the making of woven baskets declined so that it became a lost art in most bands by the 1900s. Baskets were sold for the tourist trade by the early 1900s.

Today, basket-making is still being revived as a commercial and marketable commodity. Birch bark baskets and pine needle baskets are popular items. Women are still the mainstay behind the art of basket-making.

Ken Favrholdt is archivist for the Secwépemc Museum and Heritage Park.