There’s a long stretch of open road that wraps around the University of Santa Barbara, lined with giant tule reeds and an occasional student desperately late for class. It’s become one of my favorite places to gather the long, flexible reeds for weaving our traditional Chumash baby cradles. Gathering is usually a very meditative activity, a time to be alone and just feel the land… but not the day I picked tule reeds for the first time.
After an hour in the summer sun, I had a good pile of tule bundled at my feet, my hair had escaped its bandanna, and tule seeds were sweat-glued to my face and chest. I must have looked like a Wild Indian. Or a Wild Criminal Indian. Or a Wild Dangerous Criminal Indian. The policeman certainly thought so, and as I explained that I was harvesting traditional plants he remained at a safe distance, his eyes following the waving of my tiny gathering knife as I talked.
“Ma’am. I need you to first put down the knife.”
See how basketweaving becomes an essential part of Native American life and creativity on "Artbound" S9 E8: The Art of Basketweaving. Watch now.
After a thorough search of my backpack, my truck, a review of my tribal card, and a phone call to the University landscape manager who had given me permission to gather, I got my bundle of tule, the baby eventually got its cradle, and I got my first taste of the many obstacles I would face in simply getting the materials to continue the weaving traditions of my people.
Like many California Native tribes in the last 150 years my people have seen many “lasts”—the last weaver, the last language speaker, the last canoe captain, the last free-flowing river. We struggle to maintain a sense of self in our ever-changing cultural and ecological landscape. How can we re-learn to weave? How can we get access to plants? How can we dye weaving materials if we live in an apartment? These questions are part of our daily lives, and they don’t have easy answers.
Being a weaver is much more than just weaving — you’re also a teacher, a politician, and an environmentalist. We maintain relationships with parks, forestry, marine sanctuaries, surfers, ranchers, nice landowners, mean landowners, scientists, advocates, communities, and universities — these are all a large network of support and information that helps us combat the threats to our weaving materials: climate change, development, and pollution. Over the years, individual efforts have given birth to organizations like the California Indian Basketweavers Association, which provides an environment for California Native weaving traditions to flourish. CIBA also works on behalf of California Native weavers to develop forestry management plans with state and federal entities in order to keep pesticides off of traditional gathering sites.
Besides fortifying our community from the outside, weavers also work to do the same inside our tribal communities by teaching what we know. Teaching is much more than passing on a set of skills; it’s a gift of strength and knowledge that transforms a student into a teacher.
My personal journey from a student to a teacher began simply with string.
I began with the name of string in our Shmwuich Chumash language: tok. There was also a village site named toktok (lots of string) and that village was high in the mountains, where, as it turns out, tok grows. For five years, I went in search of this plant and its secrets, and in the process, made friends with our State Condor Preserve, gathered knowledge from the tribal corners of California (Paiute, Ohlone, Cahuilla, and Yokuts), and figured out where it grew locally, how to identify it, how to weave it, and hardest of all, how to get access to the high mountain preserves where it grew.
I couldn’t stop there, and a whole world of ‘things I could make from tok’ drove me to try my hand at Chumash cradle-making — an ambitious undertaking, since there were no more old-time cradle-makers. Our cradles are a complex weave of willow, tule reeds, and tok, and the final product is a balance of weight vs. strength vs. function. Help came from museums and private collectors who had cradle remnants; I spent weeks staring at old knots and weaves. Bow-makers lent me their expertise on wood, tule boat-makers showed me what tule could do and what it couldn’t, and mothers shared thoughts on child carrying. Even so, my first five cradles were…interesting looking. And I got better.
Cradle-making led to cradle belt-making, which took me to the far corner of Yokuts country in search of belt weavers. They cheerfully untangled my many attempts at belt weaving, and sent me home with my head full of string and old-time stories. And I got better.
A cradle isn’t complete without a traditional bird-skin blanket. For this, I learned the finer points of skinning sea birds under the sarcastic and hilarious guidance of my uncle. But no one in living history had sewn bird skins together — not in our tribe, and not in any of the other coastal tribes I spoke with in California.
So I took a wild shot, and started looking at coastal Canadian and Alaskan tribes. Bingo. After a good bit of research and a call to the Alaskan Cultural Museum, I was given a phone number that I held in my hand for two days before working up the nerve to call. Lydia Apatiki answered the phone, a Yupik native from a tiny island off of the coast of Alaska. She had learned the art of bird-skin sewing from her aunts as a child, and she had made a parka made entirely of cormorant skins, which is on display at the Alaskan Cultural Museum. In her soft, patient voice, she gave me an hour of knowledge on how to dry, cure, cut, and sew bird skin. And I got better.
Somewhere in the middle of cradle/belt/blanket making, I asked my cousin to make a cradle-making song in our Shmuwich language, and so that too was born.
Twenty years later, I am still weaving tok’, along with dozens of other cultural items. I am teaching others who have lost knowledge, in my tribe and other tribes, and they in turn are teaching me. I am bringing our community skills that are saturated with cultural stories of village sites, language, songs, plants, tribal relationships, and a soft-spoken lady in Alaska who told me that children’s pee cures bird skins the best.
This vast network of Native culture keepers throughout California and North America is changing our cultural and ecological landscape again — in a good way. We attend each other’s gatherings, weave-ins, and ceremonies, and this sharing of knowledge and experience is fueling a huge wave of cultural revitalization. I’ve got my Chumash floaties on, paddling along on that wave, adding a bit of my spirit and artistry to its momentum.