“Education is man’s most amazing tool… amazing toy, or effective tool, or it can be… man’s most effective weapon. Education” Maya Angelou “Blacks, Blues, Black!,” 1968. Design by Meredith Eliassen

“Blacks, Blues, Black!” (Episode 6: Education)

Conversely, Native Americans in California used baskets as if they are extensions of the human body; infants were immersed in water-holding baskets as they get immersed in culture. Basket makers are engineers who create amplified baskets from spiritualized raw natural materials; as children learned gendered tasks related to basket and net making, they learned cultural values. Here we perceive the concept of ecology as the study of environment and how its structure and content impact human beings. When the United States government attempted to eradicate the tribes in southern Oregon, they destroyed functional Native American baskets as a war tactic. In southern Oregon, during the Rogue River Indian War (1855-1856), vigilantes and army troops attacked Tututni villages employing a military tactic to undermine tribal stability by destroying all baskets and their contents that were use in every aspect of life, because without baskets, the tribes were unable to survive (See note).

In medieval European England, Biblical translator and reformer John Wycliffe (1338-1384) came to regard the scriptures as the only reliable guide to the Truth that came from God. Wycliffe maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics. He said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy. In keeping with Wycliffe’s belief that scripture was the only authoritative reliable guide to living a good life, he became involved in efforts to translate the Bible into English as a means of empowering the common folk. Wycliffe asserted that not having English-language Bibles meant that it was not accessible to laypeople, therefore the common people were being deprived of God’s Word because it was written in the language of a foreign people.

Note: Stephen Dow Beckham, Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 27.

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.


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.


Specific geographic locations fostered the development of distinct stylistic basket motifs. Generic baskets were not produced; names were assigned to baskets classified by function. Working mothers safely carried infants in tule shade cradles. Tightly woven storage baskets about 2’ x 3’ constructed of hazel with straight sides were traditionally hung in structures. Acorn baskets featured an open stitch to allow air to move through the seeds in a coastal climate where fog supported mold growth. Parching trays were round and flat; close woven water-resistant conical burden basket held seeds; course woven conical burden baskets were constructed of hazel were used to gather foodstuffs; and coiled basket hoppers for grinding acorns. Men made large non-water resistant burden baskets with a handle on each side to store dried acorns. One man on each side using handles carried the basket that was placed on sticks or grass inside the granary.

The acorn woodpecker stores in trees while California Indians traditionally stockpiled acorns over a couple of years in baskets secured in small bark-covered structures that allowed for good air circulation in the foggy coastal climate.

The acorn woodpecker stores in trees while California Indians traditionally stockpiled acorns over a couple of years in baskets secured in small bark-covered structures that allowed for good air circulation in the foggy coastal climate.

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.


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.

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