The Coast Miwok, originally a Northern California group of peaceful hunter-gatherer tribes, made their home in what is today Marin and southern Sonoma counties. The Coast Miwok consisted of about fifteen independent multi-village tribes that spoke related languages – however – linguists later assigned this grouping the name Coast Miwok.

Status in this environment was achieved through the artistry and accomplishments. The Coast Miwok headman (hoipu) and headwoman (maien) controlled social behavior through suggestion and influence rather than through heredity or coercion. Baskets were constructed for gendered essential to economic stability, diplomatic intertribal relationships, and a sacred harmony. Spirit imbued the creation of baskets from the basket making materials to their eventual contents.


Oak trees were central to Coast Miwok life. Stewardship of oak groves passed through family lines. Acorns, which can be stored for two years or more, were the most important seeds for life contributing carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and fat to diet. From about 1200 A.D., the Coast Miwok and other coastal tribes began to manufacture clamshell beads used as currency in exchange for a wide range of goods and services from an edible clam Saxidomus nuttali with a thick shell found only near Tomales Bay and Limantour Estero. The value of currency was linked to communal function and aesthetics and not to abstract concepts of individually accumulated material wealth.

I grew up in the San Francisco North Bay and an area considered to be historic tribal lands for the Coast Miwok. We had a friend of the family that had California Indian baskets in his home that were functional. Betty Goerke in her book Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel, and Legend, A History of Marin County’s Namesake and his People (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2007) includes photographs of elaborate baskets residing in European and Russian museums made by Coast Miwok women. California Indian baskets cannot be found in California museums. I have thought about these baskets over time, and what it must mean to a group when their artifacts cannot be found in public collections where they can see them and study them. It is one thing to have these creations safely secured in tribal hands, or returned to the spirit world as they were intended; it is another to thing that perhaps their cultural value has been buried by the thoughtlessness of aggressors. The language of historic California Indian baskets is like a tossed pebble creating ripples throughout a calm lake; like an earthquake sending shock-waves over the earth; as the ocean tide after a storm reveals an ephemeral shoreline that shifts with each new wave – it is to the modern world an echo of primordial wisdom that speaks to the collective human consciousness.

Seedbeaters are loosely woven baskets used to gather edible seeds, immature seeds were returned to the earth for another season

Seedbeaters are loosely woven baskets used to gather edible seeds, immature seeds were returned to the earth for another season