From Heart to Hands: Jilli Oyenque, Maker of Red Willow Baskets
We find it only fitting to launch New Mexico Makers Project with Jilli Oyenque, one of our most beloved friends and a woman whose heart is as big as her red willow baskets are beautiful.
I am Jilli M Oyenque of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. I came to the willow in the fall some 19 years ago. The master weaver of Red Willow Basketry was from the village of San Juan (Ohkay Owingeh.) Steven Trujillo had passed and the basketry had almost been lost. But in 2000 I took a class where a Santa Clara man by the name of Joe Val Guiterrez was the teacher--and he had been taught by Steven Trujillo. So it was gifted to me through him from Steven Trujillo. From the ancients to me.
I’ve always taken found items in nature and created with them from heart to hands my entire life. Wandering the mesas in search of shards, sticks, stones and arrowheads. To use my hands has always been a part of me. I took to the willow as if it had always been a part of me. I understood the selecting of the new shoots and the construction of the different utility baskets. Fruit, bread offering, gathering and platter.
I gather while the willow is sleeping after a good hard frost in winter. The leaves have fallen and the skin tightens. The yan ( tewa for willow) turns from green to the full spectrum of yellow to deep burgundy. The cooler the winter the darker the willow. Up to six bundles are gathered and set to rest a couple of days. Offerings of cornmeal are given in thanks to Mother Earth and Father sky for abundance. I then sit on the floor and offer a prayer and I begin to weave, creating a base first and then adding in spokes as progress is made and the basket grows. When it becomes the style intended it is finished and spokes are trimmed. It is numbered for the year and measured and recorded in my journal.
Baskets have been made since the beginning as pueblo people needed vessels to hold bread, fruit to gather herbs and berries to take food for traditional feedings. Willow was prevalent along the river so that material was honored and used. Small figures were created and left as tokens for a good harvest during hunting season. Small pieces were stuck onto the ground as prayers were offered. We have always used what was abundant. Old baskets can be found on the walls on older Pueblo homes, unused now because the art has died out. The men were the weavers and they have stopped making them, I suppose to become wage earners. Until I began to revive the art of traditional willow weaving. There is but a handful currently weaving.
I am inspired daily by color, nature, season and people. We have always taken found items in nature to make what we need to survive. In order for the willow to thrive. I need water--the willow knows where it is and grows there, and we need good winters. Moisture and cold.
Initially I was a crafts person, but as I honed my art I became an artist. I felt I had achieved it when museums wanted my knowledge and my baskets were requested by Native people for traditional use.
I do several shows a year including the Heard Museum Guild Indian Arts Show, SWAIA Market but you can also contact me directly. My weaving season is short, so I make no more than 25 baskets a year.
I try to teach so it will stay alive and love to talk and demonstrate.
I am named for the willow:
Tsigowano Yan Povi
Lightening Willow Flower
From Heart to Hands