Native American Technology and Art
Willow Toys and Figures

Native Americans, thousands of years ago to the present, have made animal figures and representations of peoples out of split willow sticks. In the Great Basin and Grand Canyon areas of southwestern North America, willow figures of deer have been found that are thousands of years old. In more recent times, willow dolls have been made by Native Americans of the Great Lakes area. To the present day, Native Americans have continued to use the willow figures in creating contemporary art.

On the Colorado Plateau of Utah, in Cowboy Cave, archaeologists have found many split willow figures representing deer, some that were made by Native Americans 3,500 years ago. Often these ancient split willow deer are found in ceremonial contexts, but in this cave they were found battered and broken among ordinary refuse in layers of fill, suggesting that the deer had a more secular use, perhaps as children's toys. Some of these deer more aptly resemble a llama, having a tall body and short legs. In making the willow deer, only a single unbroken split willow is needed. A long branch is split down its length, leaving the last few inches of the wide end unsplit. The unsplit end of the branch forms the rear leg, and the two halves of the split branch are used to wrap the body and form the head.

Basket-like figures made of willow branches have also been found in Arizona, Coconio County, in Stanton's Cave. The figures of deer here were made by Native Americans more than 3,000 years ago. The willow deer from Stanton's Cave indicate the unsplit end was used to make the head, and bending of one of the split halves through the split end formed the deer's nose. Additional folds of the split branches helped create the body and legs. The Stanton Cave willow deer are finished by using the end of the willow lashing to penetrate the wrappings of the deer's body, so that the end sticks out like a spear. Perhaps indicating the deer representation had been ritually 'killed'?

In her early 1900's work with the Ojibway (Chippewa) people living on reservations in Minnesota, Densmore photographed and described a child's doll made from split willow. This elongated doll was made by a woman living at Grand Marais, on Lake Superior's north shore. The doll's head is made of checker-woven willow withes, that are bent around to form the doll's head. The core of doll's body, arms and legs consists of bundled grass or cornhusk that is simply wrapped with split willow branches. Densmore noticed, and the same is true for many other traditionally made dolls, that the features or details of the doll's face are not outlined. In contrast to the one-piece split willow deer, a dozen or more shorter pieces of split willow are used to make this Ojibway doll.

Present day Native American artists have perpetuated images of the split willow figures in modern jewelry making. Many contemporary southwestern Native American magazines and galleries depict necklaces with cast or wire-wrapped 'split twig' animal charms and pendants.

See how Split Willow Stick Deer are made
See how Split Willow Dolls are made

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