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Containers of Culture 

by Carrie Scozarro & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t may be a challenge for modern museum-goers to wrap their minds around the significance of the MAC's new exhibition, "Fibers of Life: From a Weaver's View." After all, in our throw-away society, cheaper is better and more is best. It wasn't always this way, though; handcrafting used to count for something. In some cultures, it still does.

Consider the effort required to make a basket. Gather and prepare such material as grass, willow or bark. Condition your fingers to twist, stitch or plait material sometimes rope-thin, so that every row flows into the next. Practice until you're adept. Begin experimenting with technique and style to make each creation a reflection of you and your culture. Your basket must be durable no matter what its intended use: a squirming baby, tonight's dinner, an important ceremony. As you weave, the stories and family lore that have shaped you also shape your creations. When you're gone, part of you remains in the craft you've left behind, like the distinctive Haida hat with its black and red stylized design or the coiled basket with horses and humans, topped by a tightly-looped rim.

There's more to it, of course, because weaving is an ancient art form. Moreover, baskets are more than just functional, decorative objects, especially to their makers. "To tribal elders and basket weavers," explains Michael Holloman, director of the U.S. Bank Center for Plateau Cultural Studies, baskets are presented with reverence "as 'living' relatives." Thus there is a spiritual aspect to these beautiful, purposeful creations that contain much more than the foodstuffs or worldly goods for which they were originally made; these baskets contain an essence of tribal culture.

Cultures represented in the exhibit span western North America -- from the Aleutians to the coast, down through California, across the Southwest, and throughout the Great Basin. For such a broad area, the exhibition is only 100 baskets, or roughly 3 percent of the museum's collection. Yet it's comprehensive, says Bruce Bernstein, assistant director of cultural resources at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, where a 2003-05 show, "The Language of Native American Baskets: From the Weaver's View," served as a foundation for the MAC exhibition.

The exhibition is instructional, as many are at the MAC, a contextual bridge to understanding both the weaving and the weaver. Bernstein writes: "Each tribal and cultural group is invested in maintaining their identity, language, stories and teachings that become woven into each basket. Patrons will witness not just extraordinary aesthetic and historic pieces; they will also find themselves interacting with the spiritual forces that have sustained this tradition for generations untold."

"Fibers of Life: From A Weaver's View" opens Saturday, Feb. 4, and continues through Oct. 9 at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture, 2316 W. First Ave. Hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 am-5 pm. Tickets: $7; $5, seniors and students; free, children 5 and younger. Visit or call 456-3931.

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