Dennis Cassinelli: Ingenious pitch coated Paiute water baskets
I have always had an interest in American Indian artifacts since I grew up on a farm where such items could be found in the plowed fields. As a boy, I found manos, metates, projectile points and other non-perishable artifacts on many occasions.
More recently, I have become a volunteer tour guide at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. At the Museum in the Under One Sky Exhibit, I discovered many of the type of artifacts that are less durable, such as baskets, items woven of reeds and willow and of leather. Many of these specimens have been found in dry caves of the Great Basin or were donated to the museum by people in the last 100 years.
One interesting artifact that drew my attention was a collection of a particular type of basket that was made by the Paiute and Washoe Indians. It was made for the purpose of carrying water, much as a person would carry a canteen when walking through the mountains and deserts. The idea of carrying water in a basket does not seem to be such a good idea until we study the ingenuity and technology involved in this invention.
This was a twined and pitch coated water bottle also known as a kadu o’sa. The Paiute and other groups in the Great Basin and Southwest used basket water bottles. These water bottles have many different shapes, smaller vessels with a cone shaped bottom were used as canteens while the flat-bottomed baskets were used for storage.
The vessels used for canteens were cone shaped on the bottom, round in the middle, and have a small mouth. This shape allowed the basket to lie on the ground without spilling its contents. The user could set the bottle down on the ground to rest whenever he or she wanted. Most of these baskets had leather or horse hair handles and/or straps for carrying them while traveling. The water baskets kept water cool for hours and were preferred to metal canteens. They continued to be used into the 1930s.
Paiute water vessels are triple twined baskets, which produces a very strong basket that is more water tight than single or double twining. The Paiute and Washoe basket makers used a variety of plant materials to make their baskets. They were made in several different sizes. The most common basket making materials were willow, yucca and devils claw.
After the basket was woven, the canteens were covered with soil and red clay on both the inside and outside. Red ochre, a pigment made from red clay not only prevented the baskets from leaking, but also gave the baskets a warm reddish-brown hue. Pinion pitch, a resin from pine trees, was melted and poured into the basket and also spread over the outside. Hot rocks or pebbles were then placed inside the basket, which was turned to spread the pitch evenly. The resin would fill the gaps in the twinning making it water tight.
Indigenous peoples of the Great Basin used this ingenious technique in place of pottery. In addition, a well woven basket was less likely to break than a pottery bottle would be. Northern Great Basin Indians were not known for pottery making such as the southern Native Americans were. A few fragments of ceramic items from Mexico have been found in Northern Nevada.
Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.