Comments on the Nez Perce Bag from the Spalding/Allen Collection

             I had the opportunity to examine this important flat twined storage bag from the Spalding/Allen Collection in January 2001.  From its size, shape, design, technique and materials I feel certain that the bag was made by a Sahaptian-speaking weaver on the Columbia Plateau in the mid-19th century or earlier. I base this identification on several factors:

            The technique  used in weaving the bag is plain twining with the decorative areas achieved in external weft wrap (commonly known as false embroidery). See David W. Fraser's book, A Guide to Weft Twining, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989, 94ff, for a full discussion of the technique and the groups who utilized it. Fraser attributes this particular variation of the technique to Nez Perce, but Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and other related weavers also used it extensively to make the bags they needed for carrying and storing dried foods and other necessary items. The tight fabric produced by this technique created a dust-free container which was important in this dry region. False embroidery is practiced today, but only for making handbags and smaller pieces.

The top edge of this bag is finished in a technique that I've seen only rarely on the flat bags. Described as a "self edge," the technique produces a braided effect and commonly is used on the round bags made by the Upper Chinookan people (Wasco/Wishxam) of the Mid-Columbia River.  The  majority of the  flat twined storage bags such as this one are finished by  " twining off" -- employing the twining strands to lock the bound-off wefts in place.

            The form:  Woven in one piece in loose-warp (off-loom) twining and therefore seamless, such a large bag could be folded away when empty and would expand to hold the great quantities of dried food roots a family needed for the winter. It met the specific requirements of families who had many places of residence, moving from one to the other with the seasons.

            The materials: Women of the Plateau spin the outer fibers of the giant dogbane (Apocynum cannibinum, known generally as Indian hemp) on their knees into a strong 2-ply string or twine that forms the basic structure of the bag -- the darkest background area. The design areas are woven using a strong species of unknown grass, possibly beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) which is known to have been used in these earlier bags. I believe that the two natural tones of the false embroidery in this bag are achieved by using grass which has been dried in the shade (the darker) and in the sun (the lighter). This use of grass predates the later adoption of cornhusk (Zea mays) for the designs. The yellow/orange color could have been obtained from the roots of the sand dock (Rumex venosus).  Indian hemp is insect resistant, an important attribute in a food-storage container.

The subdued colors in the designs suggest an early date of manufacture, probably before the 1840s. Although not evident on this bag, reds from raveled wool began to appear in twined hats early in the 19th century and probably also were incorporated in other early post-contact weaving.  

 The design motifs and arrangement on this bag are consistent with those favored by Plateau weavers of the 19th century: vertical columns of stacked triangles and stepped motifs are common patterns; the designs on the two sides differ; a wandering left column is caused by the left-moving tendency of Z-twining.

 Date of manufacture: From the signs of use on this bag, I believe it to have been made long before it came to Ohio in 1846, and to be the earliest documented example of a flat twined storage bag from the Columbia Plateau. The design, materials, and the large size are consistent with  weaving made prior to the middle of the 19th century, before  canvas and other substitute materials for carriers were introduced in any quantity, and before settlement limited access to many of the traditional root digging areas reducing the quantities of food roots available and therefore the need for the larger bags.

-- Mary D. Schlick