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american indian basket Denver museum

Joyce Herold of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science holds a basket whose design incorporates the Jicarilla Apache origin myth. For ceremonial reasons, the base and rim - the start and finish - had to be created in full sunlight and done in a single day. (Post / RJ Sangosti)

Basketful of life 
A curator's love of native cultures is 

Denver Museum of Nature & Science  
2001 Colorado Boulevard
Denver, Colorado 80205

The Museum is located in City Park, approximately three miles east of downtown Denver, at the intersection of Montview and Colorado Boulevards.


read also: American Indians

By Jack Cox  Denver Post 

Some see life as a ladder, a road, a river or a series of peaks and valleys. Not Joyce Herold, the longtime curator of ethnology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. 

A nationally known expert on native cultures, she likes to think of life as a basket, formed out of coils of experience interwoven with knowledge, passion and tradition. 

Her own life's container is far from finished, of course, although Herold is climbing gradually toward the rim. At 72, she is retiring in December after more than 35 years immersed in a milieu of baskets, rugs, pots, tools, clothing and other everyday items - "the grungy parts of life." 

Such materials - old and new, from this country and abroad - "are central to how she explores humanity," says her colleague and one-time protégé, Ella Maria Ray. "She looks at baskets, and textiles generally, as a reflection of the way in which families and communities, our whole planet, are woven together. She's able to see not just the objects, but the human beings behind them." 

To Herold, who intends to continue her work as an emeritus curator, all artifacts have stories to tell - some matter-of-fact, some symbolic. 

One large basket she acquired for the museum in the 1970s, for example, was woven at her request by an old woman known at the time as the best basketmaker in the Jicarilla Apache nation of northern New Mexico, about a 45-minute drive south of Pagosa Springs. 

A frail, white-haired virtuoso, the weaver was named Tanzanita Pesata, and she lived such a secluded life that a trader who regularly bought her wares from her son had never seen her. 

Herold met her for the first time simply by walking up to her home and knocking boldly on the door. 

"I didn't speak Jicarilla Apache, but what I came armed with was some old baskets out of our collection," she recalls. "It worked. She was very interested in what I had." 

The basket, woven a few years later and now in the Denver museum collection, took about four months to make, was purchased for about $100 and would fetch about $2,000 on the open market today, Herold says. 

Slipping on a pair of white gloves to protect it from the natural oils in her skin, she pulls the piece from one of about 20 large, metal cabinets where scores of artifacts are stored under lock and key. 

"Can you smell it? That's sumac. It continues to be fragrant," she says, tracing the spiraling stitches with a care bordering on reverence, as if she were fingering the beads of a rosary. 

The basket, a sturdy, pan-shaped implement with foundation rods made of willow, could have been used to gather acorns or other food. But its bold colors and big "butterfly" pattern show it wasn't merely a utilitarian piece, she notes. 

The four-armed design, mapped out in the weaver's mind before she began, incorporates aspects of the tribe's origin myth. For ceremonial reasons, the base and rim - the start and finish - had to be created in full sunlight and completed in a single day. 

"To Tanzanita," Herold says, "the whole basket was like a prayer - for long life, good health and everything beautiful." 

Herold, a white woman so respected by native peoples that she has been given an honorary Tlingit name and taken part in a Jicarilla coming-of-age ceremony, grew up in Texas as a first-generation American in a Czechoslovakian immigrant's family. 

She got her first taste of ethnographic field study in high school, doing a paper on the folklore of warts and wart curing. It won honorable mention in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. 

A National Merit Scholar (her school's first), she majored in anthropology and sociology at the University of Colorado, graduated with highest honors in 1955, and launched her career by spending summers at Mesa Verde with her husband, Larry, a now-retired geographer who worked as a seasonal ranger. 

But although she delved deeply into the Anasazi - suggesting in her masters thesis that high elevations and short growing seasons may have been as big a factor in their disappearance as drought - she came to realize that prehistory wasn't her chief interest. 

"I could never have been a dirt archaeologist," Herold confesses now. "I wanted to work with living people and what they made and used in their lives." 

Gradually, she discovered a field she says was "little emphasized in academic anthropology" at the time - American Indian material culture. She grounded herself by studying "all things Indian" at the Colorado History Museum and Denver Art Museum, and capped that with a fellowship that sent her to the Jicarilla reservation. She later became an expert on other basketmakers - from the Havasupai tribe in the Grand Canyon to the Hmong people of Southeast Asia, the latter a culture she first learned about through refugees who migrated to the Denver area beginning in the mid-1970s. 

She has long felt drawn to baskets, she says, because "baskets are a woman's thing - women appreciate the detail, the weaving, the stitchery," and because baskets are used not merely for decoration but to hold the staples of life. 

"I liked the variety, and the idea that you can see the hand of the weaver in the final product. ... You can fake ceramics or just about any other art form, but you can't fake a basket." 

A former president of the Native American Art Studies Association, Herold also is an authority on textiles and beadwork - especially trade beads, which she has studied for years as the leader of a group of about 30 other aficionados. 

"I love seeing her examine a new piece," says Elizabeth Bennett, a Denver importer of African art who knows Herold well. "Her eyes light up, her face lights up, and I know it's a cliché, but there's a childlike sense of wonder about her. She sees things differently from people who don't have her understanding and her discerning eye." 

In her 37 years at the Denver museum, Bennett says, Herold "has built an absolutely world-class Native American collection, with enormous sensitivity to the rights of the peoples involved." 

The core of the collection - one of the largest in the country - consists of 12,000 objects donated to the museum in the late 1960s, when its North American Hall was just taking shape. Herold arrived in time to help unpack everything from tomahawks to totem poles, and played a lead role in documenting the items and modernizing the way in which the best of them would eventually be exhibited. 

Over the years, Herold augmented the museum's holdings through her own ethnographic field research in the Southwest, Southeast Asia and southern Africa - expeditions on which she was sometimes accompanied by her husband and their son, Evan, who now works in Denver in marketing specialized medical equipment. 

"She's just a wealth of knowledge - about the institution, about the collections, about Southwest archaeology in general," says Steve Holen, the museum's curator of archaeology. "And she's friendly, thoughtful and always ready to help people identify things." 


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How to read a basket 
Look first at the shape. That tells you how it was meant to be used. Is it a plate, a bowl, a pan, a bucket or a storage jar? 

Consider the construction. Is the weave coarse and stiff, making it strong enough for everyday use, or fine and flexible, suggesting it's more for decoration? 

Inspect the material. It can tell you where the basket was made. The Jicarilla Apache use willow rods and strips of sumac, which produce rows of stitching like rigid rows of corn kernels. The Mescalero use yucca, which is softer. 

Examine the design. Are the colors natural or dyed? Is the pattern big and bold (Jicarilla) or small and complex (Navajo)? Is there an open "road" or "gate" from bottom to top, akin to the "spirit line" in a rug? 

Pay attention to the details. Which direction does the spiral in the base go? Counterclockwise is more convenient for a right-handed weaver. How is the rim finished off? A herringbone, or "false braid," appearance is a Jicarilla hallmark. 

Imagine how long it took to make, who made it and for what purpose, where it came from and how it arrived in its current condition. Then consider what you have made in your lifetime that would reflect your heritage with as much clarity and authenticity. 

- Jack Cox 

Herold's winning manner has certainly opened doors for her on the Jicarilla reservation, where she has been doing videotaped interviews with tribal elders as part of a continuing project to document their history and cultural heritage. 

"She has a real good rapport with the elders," says Lorene Willis, the tribe's director of cultural affairs. "They have been sharing photos and recollections with her of people who are gone now, and stories of how they survived in the old days. We appreciate her willingness to share the information she's collecting." 

The handcrafted artifacts she deals with typically carry far more cultural meaning than the mass-produced goods found in mainstream American households today, Herold acknowledges. 

Yet from an anthropological standpoint, she says, even store-bought items may contribute to a family's legacy: Just consider what you have acquired on vacations, what you've hauled from house to house as you have moved, even what's stuck to your refrigerator or stored in your garage. 

"Every family has its important treasures, its icons," Herold says. "They may not be things they've created themselves, but they've imbued them with a spirit. I think that's the way Americans are doing it today." 

At her own home, Herold indulges a passion for music, antiques, gardening, cooking (especially Mexican food) and collecting indigenous art, including dolls, beadwork and - naturally - numerous baskets, from China, Pakistan, Africa, South America and North America. 

Ironically, while she knows more about them than just about anybody around and has co-written a book titled "By Native Hands," she has never made a basket herself. 

"That's on principle," she says. "It (the craft) is theirs. It belongs to them. I may understand and analyze it, but I determined in the very beginning that I would never make one." 

Staff writer Jack Cox can be reached at 303-820-1785 or jcox

read also: 

Indian Beading: Of all the peoples who have made beadwork a part of their culture, it's arguable that the Native Americans have brought it to its highest artistic levels. Many people think only of wampum and necklaces when they think of Indian beading, but traditionally there's much more to it than that. That's the topic we explore in the following article.


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American Indians
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Buffalo dance
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