In April, eight women of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, along with 20 other Native American women representing the 21 tribes of Arizona, were inducted into the Women’s Plaza of Honor at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson.
Two of them were mother and daughter Audrey Santo and Alice Manuel; the two were selected for their leadership, contributions and preservation of culture. Both were recognized for their basket-making and their willingness to continue to teach the women of the Akimel O’odham to preserve the legacy of O’odham basket-making throughout the years.
Learning the Tradition
Santo and Manuel began learning how to weave baskets in 1984, when they both attended basket-weaving classes instructed by the late Hilda Manuel, a 26-week class that started out with 21 women and one young man. The class was funded by an Indian Nations program, Save the Children grant. Santo finished four baskets and was working on her fifth by the time the class was complete.
“It just so happened that the class was offered and mom [Audrey] said that her grandmother had woven baskets too, so I thought, ‘Well, we can learn that too,’ so we took the class,” said Manuel. “There were a lot of people who were in that class, young and old. Some just came to visit. We just sat and talked; it was a really nice thing to do.”
Manuel was 19 years old when she took the class with her mom.
“I was just watching the people,” said Manuel. “The first time the teacher brought these big five-gallon buckets full of willows, a bunch of them, more than I ever picked. She showed everyone how to do it, and I still didn’t know how to do it. I still didn’t get it. I was watching and watching, [but] I felt that I was wasting [the willow]; I was just guessing on how to prepare it. What I did was I just saved it all down to one little strip, and she finally came around to me and she just laughed, then showed me how to prepare it. It took about two to three weeks before she got to me and showed me, the class was so big.”
Women who took the basket-weaving class in 1984 included the late Louise Easchief, Ruth Cough, the late Leatrice Sampson, Darlene Lyons, the late Lillian Rhoades, Burdina Burke, the late Marceline Manuel and Juanita Juan.
“It was so cool. When we started to learn, my dad (the late Wayne Santos) went to Ace Hardware and got us these little paring knives that were real good. We had them for years until they disappeared. I guess that was his way of being happy for us as we learned how to weave,” said Manuel.
Manuel started to weave too because she had one daughter, and at the time she didn’t know that she would be the only one she would ever have. But she does have a lot of sons, so through them she gets to have a lot of daughters-in-law.
“I have one that expressed that she wanted to learn. Sooner or later she will be ready to get up early and go out and gather her own stuff with the class,” said Manuel.
She added, “There are going to be times when people come around that aren’t O’odham but they are married to an O’odham and have O’odham children. [When that happens] you’re supposed to help them, because [these traditions] need to continue. Those children are still O’odham, and you need to help them so they can teach their children so that this kind of weaving can continue. That’s why I learned, so I make sure it continues the way it’s supposed to. That’s what Hilda said to us: to share it, teach people, and not to keep it to ourselves because it belongs to the people.”
Both Manuel and Santo continued passing on their basket-weaving talents by teaching several classes in the Community through programs such as the Huhugam Ki Museum. They also have had many opportunities to share their talents through demonstrating all around the southwestern United States, giving them a chance to meet other Native people who dedicate their lives to keeping their traditional ways alive by making the things their people used and sharing those skills with others.
More Than Making Baskets
Although this mother and daughter may be known for their basket work, they also have other talents. Santo is a well-known traditional O’odham dressmaker and quiltmaker; she has made many dresses and quilts for family and friends over the years, but unfortunately now she has retired from both.
“I have made many dresses for coming-out ceremonies, weddings and other events,” said Santo. “I made quilts and baby blankets too; I got invited to a lot of baby showers.”
Santo tried to recall when she learned how to make dresses; it was around the 1960s or ’70s, she explained. “There was this class at the Day School with the late Hilda Manuel, the late Dorothy Lewis and others; they wanted people to come in and help make dresses for the students who participated in dances. I went. I didn’t know how to make the O’odham dresses at the time, but I did make regular contemporary dresses for my girls to wear every day. I did all that by hand,” she said.
“Everyone had their own way of making dresses,” she continued. “They showed me how, and that’s where I learned how to make the O’odham dresses. Once in a while I would ask people how they would make theirs, and that’s how I just got to where I made my own way.”
As Santos continued to improve her dressmaking skills, the word got out quickly. She remembered a time when a young girl’s coming-out ceremony was approaching and one of the dancers come to Santos and asked her to make her dress.
“One of the dancers come to me the day before the ceremony to make her dress because the person she originally asked fell through. I said yes, and I made the dress, but as I was finishing it I [saw] another dancer through the window coming up to the door. She asked if I could make her dress. All of a sudden I’m making 15 dresses the day before the ceremony,” said Santo, laughing as she remembered that day. “I was just wishing and hoping the ceremony would come and end so I could go to sleep.”
Santo learned how to sew from her late great-grandmother Louisa Antone, who sewed by hand until her eyesight went bad. She also learned along with another lady whose husband would bring them old flour bags, which were like pillowcases with flower prints on them. They would make skirts and baby-doll blouses with the material.
“One time I got a pattern from the late Claudina Wood. It was a simple pattern for little girls’ dresses. That’s what I would use to make my daughter’s dresses,” said Santo.
Santo remembered when she would make quilts and her granddaughter Raeann would help her tie the quilt.
“She [Raeann] was about five or six. She would say, ‘Grandma, when I grow up I’m going to make quilts just like you,’” said Santo. “She is one of the only ones who do what we do, making baskets and dresses. Alice is a late bloomer on making dresses; she just learned this past year.”
When Santo was presented with her award at the Women’s Plaza of Honor, she stated that the things she did were out of the kindness of her heart. She didn’t expect to be honored for the things she was taught to do to help others with her talents and to pass on the traditions.