California Indian Baskets – part 3

September 6, 2014

The basket maker’s signature is discerned in the basket’s starting foundation and in the direction of the basketwork. A basket speaks as a gift – it presents a blessing whispering in our ears, observe the seasonal changes, look beyond the surface to focus on ancestral treasures that will only enlarge in daily life proportionally as they occupy thoughts. Basket makers observed plants and animals as ethno-botanists and artists that adapted to their surroundings. Coiled basketry requires a form of sewing; instead of using needles Coast Miwok employed bone awls. Women wore protective wraparound deerskin skirts to do basketry stitching with an awl made from bone. Coast Miwok developed crafts reflecting traditions and wisdom culled through observation. Indigenous Californians practiced controlled burns in gathering areas a year prior to gathering materials in order to harvest young shoots. Man’s relationship with a spiritual universe where nature was considered a “being” and humans were part of nature.

California Indian basket makers learned about the materials for engineering durable baskets by observing nature. The sedges used in many baskets have long root systems that evolved with local climate change. Today these native plants are being planted again for sustainable landscaping so that what is ancient is new again.

California Indian basket makers learned about the materials for engineering durable baskets by observing nature. The sedges used in many baskets have long root systems that evolved with local climate change. Today these native plants are being planted again for sustainable landscaping so that what is ancient is new again.

Coast Miwok and Pomo to their north were sophisticated in in cultivating the land. They studied cause and effect – abundance from a cultivated pristine landscape was manifested in variation in basket making materials used to create baskets for diverse uses. This was reflected in spoon-shaped wickerwork seedbeaters made of willow and hazel that were used only to harvest only mature seeds leaving immature seeds to propagate for posterity. Thought formations of seedbeaters from a distant era were impressed over time in clay earth at Olompali in Marin County to be excavated during the twentieth century.

Coast Miwok ate tule roots, but other plant parts were employed in constructing dwellings, granaries, and boats. The strength of tule fibers, grass-like sedges of the genus Scirpus growing along rivers and by wetlands, was identified for manufacturing water-resistant products. Sedge beds along streams under the shade of oak trees were carefully worked by basket makers who used a digging stick to expose the rhizomes for select the best rhysomes for baskets. Tule was processed as an absorbent material in infant diapers and sanitary napkins that were burned after use.

Basketry woven from plant materials, rather than pottery, crafted by Coast Miwok, Esselen, Costanoan, and Pomo tribes, reflects the region’s unique climate, topography, and native plants. Rainfall patterns, soil types, and growth characteristics of regional plants from their roots to shoots were observed throughout the year with each season unfolding changes in pliability and hues, and basket makers knew the best spots for gathering. Women pruned wild plants throughout the year, to eliminate knobs and lateral branches, to cultivate only straight rhizomes and branches. Form and function (employing sophisticated weaving techniques) were requisite to produce baskets able to endure stress, weight, and wear.

Basket

Modern pine needle basket by Joan Denys (Costanoan-Esselen, Monterey Bay California) acquired at the SFSU Powwow, spring 2011. Photographed by R. I. Otterbach, 2014.

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