Need Climate Change Evidence? A Western Shoshone Basketmaker Has It

Leah Brady making willow-bark thread
A version of this article appeared in Indian Country magazine in 2017.

Culture means learning from each other and sharing,” Western Shoshone basketmaker Leah Brady tells me. Nowadays, it also means an intimate experience of climate change and pollution, as she weaves natural materials—willow, cedar, reeds and more—into baskets.

Brady’s Elko, Nevada, home showcases her award-winning work and that of other artisans—several generations of her family and additional makers from Northern Paiute, Goshute and other area tribes. The items' materials evoke the millennia-old relationship between Native people and their rugged desert and mountain homeland.

That world is changing in ways that Brady and other local crafts makers observe first-hand. She shows me how she creates willow-bark thread—biting down on one end of a willow branch to steady it and pulling off three narrow strips of bark. “If my mouth starts tingling, I know the willow has been sprayed with a pesticide or other chemical,” Brady says. “Some basketmakers report getting blisters in their mouths." These days, they have to travel a long way to find willow in an area that’s remote enough to have escaped spraying.

She holds up a slender willow branch with tiny white spots. “Here’s climate-change evidence,” she says. The spots are a new phenomenon, associated with bugs boring into stressed willow trees and weakening them further.

Changing climate has altered the way basketmakers store their materials. “We used to collect branches in the fall and leave them outside all winter,” Brady says. “They would dry in the cold air, and we could strip them into thread as needed.” Today’s warmer, moister winters mean willow branches do not air-dry thoroughly and must be kept in a freezer before being processed.

Brady gives me a tour of the works on display. One reminds her of hearing about the moment when her great-grandparents saw white people for the first time. Another leads her to recount an origin story describing her people’s journey in a mythical basket from what is now California to their current homeland. She explains the iconography for boy and girl babies on the cradleboards hung on one wall.

She points to a conical, loosely woven willow basket. “We used baskets like this one to collect pine cones, a staple of our diet, and carry them back to camp. There, we placed the cones on a willow winnowing tray and added hot embers.” The cook worked quickly, pushing cones and embers around with a stick, so as not to char the cones or the tray. Heating the cones made them brittle, so they could be crushed and the nutmeats removed and parched in a similar manner. (Need more climate-change proof? Some cones harvested nowadays have bugs in them, another sign of stressed trees, according to Brady.)


Teaching is central to Brady’s life and work. A retired public-school teacher, she helped develop the curriculum Celebrating Nevada Indians and gives basketmaking demonstrations to tribal members and others. She co-founded Great Basin Native Basketweavers Association and is on the board of the California Trail Interpretive Center's Heritage Alliance, in Elko. 

For more on her work, and that of other artists, go to whiteknifeshoshone.com. You have to go to Nevada if you want to buy Brady’s work, though. She does not have an online catalog, for fear that she would end up creating dozens or even hundreds of the items, taking the joy out of the process. 

“I don’t want my art to become a chore,” she says. “I do it because I enjoy it and want to share it with others.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo. 

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