California Indian Baskets – A Brief Historical Perspective

September 10, 2014

At the passing of a relative or loved one, aboriginal Californians wailed and mourned – ethnographers referred to this practice as a “cry.” Coast Miwok living in Marin County believed that the spirits of their ancestors traveled beyond Point Reyes, California, over the water west toward the setting sun. The setting sun created a line over the surf thought to lead the way to the home of the dead. Olompali was the site for annual mourning ceremonies that had a traditional burning ground near the village for cremations.

Sir Francis Drake in command of the Golden Hind made the first European contact with Coast Miwok in June 1579. The ship’s chaplain and diarist Francis Fletcher described them as “of a tractable, free and loving nature, without guile or treachery.” On 21 June, the English presented Coast Miwok leaders with shirts and linen cloth. In turn, the tribe presented the visitors with feathers, net caps, quivers for arrows, and animal skins. Fletcher chronicled how they returned to their homes and commenced with horrifying cries of lament, as if they were mourning the dead. Two days later a larger procession came to the invaders with more offerings: the men left gifts of bows; and women and children followed with additional gifts; the women displayed violent physical expressions of mourning to the point of inflicting bodily self injury.

Anthropologists speculated that when the Coast Miwok met the Europeans they assumed, “they were looking upon relatives returned from the dead, and hence performed the usual mourning observances.” American anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber (1876-1960) speculated that the baskets historically made only by the Coast Miwok, Pomo, Lake Miwok, and Wappo societies, “served as gifts and treasures; and above all they were destroyed in honor of the dead.” Three more days passed, and an even larger group came on 26 June. In this group, each woman carried a round basket filled with offerings including root made into meal, broiled pilchard-like fish, and seed and down of a milkweed-type plant. Women made elaborate baskets for rituals, both diplomatic and sacred; sacred mourning basket were filled with what the diseased would need for the journey to the land of the dead; and the baskets were destroyed to release the spirit of the basket contents and the natural materials used to make the baskets. At the conclusion of the diplomatic ceremonies with Drake, the Coast Miwok acted as if releasing the spiritual energy of the dead ancestors as they, “again departed, giving back to the English everything they had received.”

At the time of first European contact, the indigenous California population was estimated to be from 10,000 to 15,000. Each consecutive wave of invaders brought some form of technology that altered the biotic circumstances of the land. The Coast Miwok took the brunt this as their territory lay north of San Francisco Bay at the entryway to California inland areas rich in natural resources. Radically reliant upon their immediate surroundings, Europeans brought of non-native invasive plants and animals that drastically altered the environment. Over the subsequent generations, logging, sheep and cattle ranching, dairying, cultivation, commercial fishing, and urbanization all took their toll.

The first Spanish penetration into Coast Miwok lands occurred when a 200-ton Spanish ship San Agustin under Portuguese Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño sailing from Manila traveled up the Petaluma River in July 1595. Cermeño’s scribe chronicled: “the Indian treated the Spaniards to his acorns and the Captain declared that no one should do them any harm or take anything away from them.” The Spanish governed Alta California under a missionary/military system. Mission staff, as well as the limited basket-making materials found adjacent to missions dictated the types of baskets that were constructed, which curtailed the construction of some indigenous basket designs over time. The Spanish authorities banned controlled burns practiced by Native Californian, disrupting the abundant supplies of seed crops, forage for wildlife, and reliable human food supplies. Many of the Coast Miwok at Olompali were baptized at Mission San Jose de Guadalupe between 1816 and 1818 at a time of sweeping small pox epidemics. The best basket making supplies diminished without the controlled burns forcing many Coast Miwok to join the mission system. Neophytes enjoyed less varied diets and living conditions, and the Coast Miwok population was nearly depleted during the years of Franciscan proselytization. German-Russian painter Louis Choris (1795-1828) traveled with the Romanzoff expedition in search of a northwest passage. Choris chronicled the symptoms of extreme trauma among indigenous residents of Mission San Jose in his paintings, at one time noting, “I never saw one laugh… They look though they are interested in nothing.”

Russians arrived along the Sonoma County Coast in 1803 and established Fort Ross (Крепость Россъ), and Bodega Bay located in Coast Miwok territory became as the Russian port of entry to the California fur trade. Admiral Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell (1796-1870) served as the Governor of the Russian American Company settlements in North America. Wrangell discerned that the Coast Miwok easily learn diverse arts and crafts, but did not distinguish between the Bodega Miwok and the Pomo when he brought indigenous-made artifacts back to Russia and Europe. The Russians imported a social hierarchy of Russians (at the top), Creoles, Aleuts, and Native Americans (at the bottom), but they did nothing to coercively alter Coast Miwok / Pomo culture, so they offered indigenous Californians an alternative to Spanish domination.

The Coast Miwok and other tribes adjacent to the San Francisco Bay were on the front lines of cultural battles with Anglo-American invaders in California. Coast Miwok lands increasingly became home to Mexicans, Californios (of mixed racial heritage including European, indigenous Mexican, African, and indigenous Californian), Anglo-Canadians, Russians, Creoles, Aleuts, and Kanakas (indigenous Hawaiians). The Hudson’s Bay Company hoped to gain a foothold in California’s lucrative hide and tallow trade during between 1841 and 1844. Their tactic was to make aboriginals dependent: “for having abandoned the use of all their former arms, hunting and fishing implements, and clothes, they can no longer subsist without the guns, ammunition, fish-hooks, blankets and other similar articles, which they receive only from the British traders.”

In early 1848, during the early months of the California gold rush before traders could obtain tin pans for gold mining from the East Coast, Native Californians produced shallow baskets for “gold panning” that were sold to miners. This ignited consumer demand for California Indian baskets using new materials and shapes to accommodate jars, whiskey bottles, and goblets. During the Victorian era, miniature baskets came into vogue.

Americans observed Coast Miwok prudently gathering seeds and digging bulbs and tubers, they derisively labeled them “digger” Indians. With the Civil War, the United States Congress passed legislation, terminating titles to almost all of Indian land in California, stripping most California tribes of lands. Basket makers continued to cultivate and harvest basket-making materials from public lands. Stripped of homelands, anecdotes derisively described how now transient Coast Miwok were “self-exiled, poured over driftwood for salvage,” and how Coast Miwok women were seen, “trudging along with the children and bearing huge baskets on their backs strapped to the forehead… crammed full with dirty blankets, camp utensils, dried fish, pinole and papooses.”

 

When the 49'ers first searched for gold, they traded manufactured good for shallow baskets for panning with the California Indians that were used to "pan" for gold, once they got mass produced pans the baskets were abandoned.

When the 49’ers first searched for gold, they traded manufactured goods for shallow baskets for panning with the California Indians that were used to “pan” for gold, once they got mass produced pans the baskets were abandoned.

California Indian baskets changed with the times to suit the need at hand, but they never passed into extinction, they were scattered to the winds like acorns carried to distant lands by birds. As early as 1898, Bodega Miwok Tom Smith spoke of the necessity for tribal elders to interpret this minority counterculture to the dominant American society and more importantly for tribal posterity: A man with no family has no history and no eyes to see the future. He goes about blind. Our family, our relations, are not only those around us, they are also those who have gone before us. They are our history. They gave us our ways, and we are to be the teachers of our traditions. If we lose our ways, our history, we will be lost and there will be not one to tell us where to go. That’s why those Indian things and doings are so important; they are our eyes and our children’s eyes.

Bibliography:

Federated Coast Miwok (FCM). We Are Still Here: A Coast Miwok Exhibit. Bolinas: Bolinas  Museum, 1993.

Greenhow, Robert. The History of Oregon and California and other Territories of the    North-West Coast of North America. New York: Appleton, 1845.

Heizer, Robert F. Elizabethan California. Romana, CA.: Bellena Press, 1974.

Kroeber, Alfred L. Handbook of the Indians of California. Berkeley: California Book Company, 1925.

Thalman, Sylvia Barker. The Coast Miwok Indians of the Point Reyes Area. Point Reyes: Point Reyes National Seashore Association, 2001.

Wagner, Henry R. Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth       Century. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1929.

 

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