Object: Utility Basket


Modoc Tribe: Utility Basket
North America
20th Century
Materials: Cattail, Twine

This basket is from the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma. The Modoc Tribe was a small band located along what is now the California-Oregon border. They were primarily engaged in hunting, fishing, and gathering though evidence of a less nomadic lifestyle exists in the remains of subterranean houses along the coast. They are probably most recognized for the resistance efforts of Captain Jack, a Modoc warrior who, with only 60 men, held off hundreds of US Army troops for several months during the mid 1800’s. Captain Jack was eventually captured and hanged, and the Modoc were relocated to a reservation in northeastern Oklahoma in the 1870’s. Baskets such as this one were initially used for gathering and collecting food items, though by time the tribe was relocated, Modoc basketry was produced primarily for trade and sale.


This basket is an example of the kinds of containers that were made from natural materials like tule and cattail. On this basket, the plaiting forms a checkerwork pattern with strips of black- and yellow-dyed cattail. The warp and weft are woven at right angles to form the body of the basket (see figure). The rim of the basket consists of four braids, and braided cords of cattail are attached to each side for handles.

Basketry was central to the Modoc way of life. In addition to utility uses, basketry served ceremonial and religious purposes. In fact, one Modoc creation story centers on a basket used by the creator “Kumush” to carry spirit bones from the underworld and create tribes on earth. Baskets were also used ceremonially in events commemorating marriages, births, and deaths. Baskets like this one would have been used to gather food sources like huckleberries, sugar pine seeds, wild onions, and camas. The camas root was a staple food for peoples of the American northwest. The bulbs were harvested only when the plant was flowering because its blue petals distinguished it from the “Death Camas”—a similar, but poisonous, plant with white flowers. The camas root was prepared much like a yam or sweet potato and recipes are still in use today!

Learn more about Modoc basketry or check out language projects to hear soundbytes and get to know the Story Behind the Object! [Lauren  Simons]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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