Royce Manuel is weaving an agave-fiber burden basket, known as a kiaha to members of Arizona’s Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community. The finished piece will measure 30 inches across and take nine months to complete, but Manuel, a retired firefighter, spent 15 years researching the craft. Traditionally woven by men and carried by women like a pack strapped to the forehead, the “burden basket fell by the wayside once the wagon and horse came to us,” says Manuel, one of the Ak-mierl Aw-awthum, or River People, because then “women didn’t have to carry things.”
Manuel first heard of the kiaha from his grandparents, who lived in “the old style.” As a child, he learned that his great-grandmother once loaded a burden basket with pottery to sell to Scottsdale stores.
He first saw one in a museum; the last of them were made 60 to 80 years ago. In reconstructing the craft, he relied on oral history and on archival research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He’d learned of baking agave leaves in earth ovens before removing the succulent’s pulp from the fiber, or leaving them in a river to rot, but has since settled on boiling them three times, then stripping them with a thumbnail. He twists the fibers into cord that he weaves, using a lace-coiling technique, around a circular willow support.
Manuel, who teaches weaving to members of his community, will use the basket as an educational tool and hopes eventually to sell it to a collector.
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