Drawing of a basket bottom with basket maker’s signature by Meredith Eliassen

I will never forget my conversations in March 2011 with Kathy Wallace (Karuk, Yurok, member of Hoopa Valley Tribe), who taught basket weaving in San Francisco State University’s American Indian Studies Department. Kathy elevated my consciousness when she told me how baskets could be made to honor loved ones and to serve practical functions. Basket makers could take years to gather materials with which to engineer a single basket immersed in tribal tradition, to honor elders and children who are the next generation and our collective future. Materials for baskets come from the spirit world to serve a needed function and when that function is served the material is returned to the spirit world. California Indian baskets change with the times to suit the need at hand; they never pass into extinction, but they may scatter to the winds like acorns carried to distant lands by birds. Baskets reflect a consciousness of man’s relationship within a spiritual universe in which nature is a “being” and humans are part of that greater being. I reflect on Kathy’s message now; it calms me in this unusual time.

An abstract “tree of life” design with African folk design motifs by Meredith Eliassen, 2020.

News of fire in the grove of towering conifers in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in August 2020 and images of smoldering red flames inside the base trunk of a beloved ancient redwood offer no comfort in Northern California’s oppressive heat and smoke of the last week. However, as a native Californian, I am optimistic nature’s intelligent design means these groves will be reborn. The ecology of the Redwoods is resiliently designed by a higher power. The thousand-plus-year-old ancient Redwoods, or “the Ancients,” have a dense fire-resistant bark that can be a foot thick. The Redwood groves hold particular significance to local California Indian tribes who harvested basket-making material from the sacred forest floors for function and ceremony. Indigenous Californian have been great stewards of the region’s natural ecology as ethnobotanists. Native Americans understand the need for planned burns to maintain groves and manage ground-level growth during long cold seasons so in times of drought, there is no excessive fuel for fires.

Lightning strikes caused this fire. Nature may not be convenient to us humans who are set in our ways and live and build homes in densely wooded areas with little humility for their dominant ecology, but Nature takes care of us even in our ignorance. As the Ancients of the Redwood groves reach to the sky, branches are few near the forest floor. The Ancients as Redwood ancestors watch over the passing of generations from above. The largest redwoods seeming stand alone. When the fogs return with moisture from the nearby Pacific ocean, we may, if we watch over time, see how life is naturally renewed. In familial clusters within the redwoods, the oldest surviving trees scarred by past blazes stand in the middle, a few younger giants will support the center Ancestor, and a circle of younger trees will eventually emerge in a beautiful chain of life. Let us be hopeful and humble as nature does her best work.

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.