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Largest Navajo Pitch Basket
Posted December 21, 2016
By Glenna Nielsen-Grimm
Seen on the ground floor of our Collections Wall is a giant pitch basket – in fact, the largest one known to exist. It was made by master basket maker, Etta Rock, a member of the Navajo Nation who lives in Monument Valley, near the Utah-Arizona border. The Navajo pitch basket, also known as the pitch pot or tóshjeeh, is a humble water jug. It is a woven wicker jar covered with a layer of gum or pitch inside and out so that it can hold water. The pitch basket was most likely adopted from the neighbors of the Navajo, the southern Paiutes, with whom it is a commonly used vessel.
Etta Rock uses a distinctively colored pitch with a reddish hue, collected from pinon pine trees near her home. She melts the pitch over a fire until it reaches just the right consistency and then applies it by hand. She works on the outside first, and then pours it into the inside second, dispersing it evenly with the addition of water to help gently push the cooling pitch evenly across the wicker. Below are some photos of Etta demonstrating her art, published in “Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space” by Georgiana Kennedy Simpson.
Photos from “Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols, Sacred Space” by Georgiana Kennedy Simpson.
While the pitch basket is a more everyday rather than ceremonial basket form, the Navajo do use pitch baskets in their sacred ceremonies, and the water inside is considered sacred and protected. What’s more, one of the Navajo dieties, Tó Neinilii, the Water Sprinkler, carries the water jug and appears with it at his side. The Water Sprinkler controls the heavenly waters – very important in the dry southwest landscape.
The huge basket in the Collections Wall was made by Etta as an art piece rather than a practical water jug. In our Native Voices Gallery, NHMU has on display a smaller, more common size pitch basket used for holding and carrying water.
Glenna Nielsen-Grimm is the Anthropology Collections Manager for the Natural History Museum of Utah, a part of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Our mission is to illuminate the natural world and the place of humans within it. In addition to housing outstanding exhibits for the public, NHMU is a research museum. Learn more.