When asked to describe the significance of baskets in pre-Contact California, Pomo basketry and ethnobotany expert Sherrie Smith Ferri (Dry Creek Pomo) succinctly stated: “baskets pervaded just life. Social life, daily life — what you needed to survive.” Ferri aptly conveys the importance of baskets in Native California culture, an artistic tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years. It’s one that has endured hardship, loss, adaptation and resilience throughout history.
For several years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend invaluable time in the presence of many talented basketweavers. Ask any weaver in California and they will tell you that baskets traditionally were — and continue to be — essential for all aspects of life. People cooked in baskets, stored food in baskets, danced with them, sang with them and gave them as gifts. They were used for fishing, for gathering and processing acorn, for use in ceremonies, and eventually, for selling to others. Some baskets are so finely woven they are watertight and can be used to store and transport water. Aside from some desert areas in the southeastern part of the state, California does not have the type of soil conducive to pottery, which further enforces the predominance of basketry in Native California art and material culture. While traditionally women were the primary weavers of their community, today, there are also talented male weavers who are helping to ensure its survival. As weaver Justin Farmer (Ipai) describes: “a man weaver is better than no weaver at all.”
Baskets can be equal part utilitarian object and exquisite work of art. Even baskets woven for functional use contain elaborate design patterns and complex stitching that requires a knowledge of geometry and mathematical concepts not done on a calculator. But they are also a lifeway, a form of self-expression and a connection to the earth, to ancestors, and to home. Essentially, life begins and ends in a basket — from the cradle baskets that hold newborns to baskets that accompany one’s passing.
Basketry as an art form is not unique to California. It is not only widespread across Native North America but also practiced by cultures across the globe, from the bamboo baskets of Japan to the Zulu wire baskets of South Africa. Yet what makes Native California baskets — widely regarded as some of the finest in the world — so exemplary is due to the diversity of the California landscape. California is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, home to thousands of plant species that thrive in a variety of ecosystems. Consider, for example, the city of Los Angeles: drive just two hours in any direction and you can find yourself in the desert, the rocky central coast, the mountains or grassy chaparral. Basketry plants reflect the diverse landscapes of the homes of their makers across California. In the northernmost part of the state, weavers use conifer root, woodwardia fern, and hazel — plants that grow well in the temperate redwood forests. In the southeastern deserts, baskets contain plants like yucca and Martynia, appropriately nicknamed “devil’s claw” due to its clinging hooks and sharp spines. Traditions also transcend today’s current geopolitical boundaries; the Kumeyaay, for example, extend from San Diego into Mexico and weavers in the Sierras overlap with their neighboring communities in Nevada.
Native California weavers use both the coiling and twining methods in their basketry. Techniques and methods vary, both across communities and among individual weavers. In a coiled basket, the weaver loops a material known as a “weft” around a foundation, which can either consist of a single rod of a given plant material, three rods or a grass bundle. She (or he) will use an awl to pierce a hole to pull the next piece of weft material through before wrapping it around the foundation. To weave a twined basket, a weaver intertwines weft materials between “warps,” or long sticks that emanate from a starting knot that give it shape and support to weave the strands through. Baskets can take months and even years to make, depending on their size and complexity. When asked how long it takes to weave a basket, many weavers say “a generation,” due to the knowledge that has to be passed down in order to become an accomplished weaver.
Long before actual weaving begins, weavers must gather and process their materials. Gathering requires an intimate knowledge of ecology and seasons. Some weavers, like Clint McKay (Dry Creek Pomo/Wappo/Wintun) are fortunate to have access to ancestral sedge beds that their families have tended for generations. Many others face more difficulties to gather the plants they need, such as lack of access. Tima Link (Šmuwič Chumash) describes having to cross “no trespassing” signs and encounters with law enforcement to be able to gather tule, a plant that once thrived all over Santa Barbara, her community’s ancestral landscape. Even McKay’s sedge beds, however, are not immune to the innumerable environmental challenges threatening the state. Weavers also risk exposure to pesticides. Because weavers often soften basketry plants by running them through their mouths, they voice rising concerns over pesticide use in California. Gathering is closely linked to tradition, like all aspects of the art form. As McKay reflects, “when we gather our material we are spending time with our old people.”
From the moment that Europeans set foot in what we now call California, they were enamored with basketry. Early Spanish and Russian colonizers collected baskets to be sent back on their ships and spurred widespread interest in the art form; an ironic twist in their efforts to quickly exterminate Native culture. Rumsien Ohlone weaver Linda Yamane has traveled to institutions such as the British Museum and the Musée du Qui Branly in Paris to examine some of the only remaining baskets from her people. The Ohlone were one of the communities hit hardest post-Contact, with few surviving examples of their basketry and no weavers left to pass on the tradition due to violence, disease, and enslavement in the mission system. All Native communities from across the state suffered devastating population losses during the second half of the 19th century.
As weavers experienced the drastic alterations to their homelands, landscapes, and cultural practice, they also adapted their basketry. Early changes included incorporating non-traditional design motifs and trade materials such as glass beads and yarn, which weavers often substituted or wove alongside shell or feathers. Many weavers initially preferred white trade beads, as they most closely resembled shell.
The turn of the 20th century led to a surge in basket collecting during the period known as “salvage ethnography” when anthropologists, museum curators and collectors rushed to collect material culture from what they considered to be a “vanishing race,” a term coined by photographer Edward Curtis who traveled the country documenting Native communities. He often staged photographs to make his subjects appear to be frozen in time. Baskets also appealed to Victorian-era collectors during the rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which praised handmade items such as weaving and textiles in response to the advent of mass-produced goods during the Industrial Revolution.
Tragically, collectors did not often record the names of the weavers. There are some exceptions, such as the baskets collected during the “Indian Field Days” of Yosemite National Park in the 1920s, where weavers such as Lucy Telles (Yosemite Miwok/Mono Lake Paiute), Carrie Bethel (Mono Lake Paiute/Kucadikadi), and others were essentially put “on display” to weave for tourists and eventually became well-known for their spectacular basketry. In some cases, older baskets can be identified by certain patterns, design motifs, or “signatures” that are unique to individual weavers. Some baskets have been recently attributed to their makers, decades or even over a century after they were collected. For many others, their information will simply remain “artist unknown.”
Today, contemporary weavers blend both tradition and innovation. Some weavers prefer to maintain the techniques perfected by generations before them, and others are experimenting with new materials and styles. For example, Chumash weaver Linda Aguilar weaves with dyed horsehair and pairs bingo chips and credit card pieces alongside more traditional clam and olivella shell. Other artists integrate basket imagery into their work, such as the late Harry Fonseca (Nisenan Maidu/Hawaiian/Portuguese), one of the visionaries of Native California art in the late 20th century, whose painting “A Gift from California” speaks perfectly to its title. Cahuilla artist Gerald Clarke gained notoriety for his “Continuum Basket,” an impressive sculpture spanning six feet across made of crushed beer and soda cans, his subtle commentary on the prevalence of alcoholism and diabetes in the Native community.
Now, some of the finest baskets can be found in museums around the world. Native American art is finally being brought into the spotlight, after decades of being classified as “primitive art” or solely being relegated to natural history collections. Museums like the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are starting to place Native California baskets alongside their Euro-American counterparts from the period, at long last putting these works in dialogue with one another. When you think about it, a basket woven by Lucy Telles has a lot in common with an Albert Bierstadt painting, as the creators of either work are depicting the natural landscape around them. What truly sets these works apart, however, is the cultural practice of basketry gleaned from generations of traditional ecological knowledge.
[Click right and left below to see examples of contemporary basketry]
I consider myself very fortunate that I’ve been able to amass knowledge about an incredible art form and cultural tradition that has survived — against all odds — for millennia. Almost everything I’ve learned has been from the weavers themselves. Textbooks can tell you about form and function, the scientific names of materials and the distinctions between coiling and twining. But baskets are so much more than just their technical elements — they’re also about the traditions instilled in the process, and the intentions put into them. Ask any weaver to describe what a basket is to them and you’ll get the true answer.
Top Image: Wilverna Reece (Karuk) weaves a twined basket | Matthew Whalen