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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 28, 2001 - Issue 41


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Baskets Past, Present
The nearly lost art of Indian basketry is seeing a rebirth as Inland women take up the traditional cultural activity


 by Pat Murkland The Inland Empire Online-July 15, 2001

Early tribal people living in Inland valleys and mountains believed that before the Moon Maiden went up into the sky, she gave them a gift: She taught them how to weave baskets.

Baskets helped keep Indian cultures and traditions woven together for centuries. All began unraveling in the 1800s when settlers arrived and began overtaking Southern California lands.

While Inland baskets gained renown for their beauty and made their way to museums around the world, fewer and fewer people learned how to make them. In recent years, fewer than a handful of basket weavers remained.

But now the art is growing again.

With Riverside County women in the lead, the Southern California Indian Basketweavers Organization -- called Nex'wetem after a Cahuilla word for basket weavers -- has formed to save and share the region's heritage.

The renaissance begins

Donna Largo, a Cahuilla basket weaver from the Santa Rosa Reservation in the mountains above Palm Desert in eastern Riverside County, is president. She is teaching basketry this week during the Idyllwild Arts Academy annual "Native American arts and culture" summer program, as she has for many years.

Largo sparked the group's beginnings when she called for a basket gathering last October. Nearly 200 people from area reservations expressed interest. People from Southern California cultures -- Quechan, Kumeyaay, Chumash, Tongva, Cahuilla, Luiseno and Juaneno -- learned ancient gathering and coiling techniques with juncus, sumac and other traditional plant materials.

Two Miwok weavers from the California Indian Basketweavers Association came from Northern California and cooked acorn mush using a watertight basket and heated stones, methods not seen in the Inland area for years.

Rosemary Morillo, a Cahuilla basket maker from the Soboba Indian Reservation near San Jacinto, helped share the nearly lost art she has been teaching to her three granddaughters.

Lori Sisquoc of Riverside, a Cahuilla-Fort Sill Apache who is curator of the Sherman Indian Museum, first learned basket making in 1986 when she received a scholarship to attend the Idyllwild summer program.

"I still consider myself a student," she said. She found out that it's difficult to make a basket and sometimes tougher to find basket plants such as juncus.

Nonnative grasses, construction and fences have ended many traditional gathering spots. One of the new group's major concerns is protecting the native grasses that remain.

Some grow on public lands. "That's why the Forest Service plays such a critical role," said Daniel McCarthy, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and tribal relations liaison for San Bernardino National Forest, which made a meeting site available for the group's October event near Pine Cove in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Nex'wetem has a newsletter and has sponsored some local weaving circles. The basket weavers also are planning the second annual gathering Oct. 19-21 at the Santa Rosa Indian Reservation.

Integral weavings

Baskets once were essential to Inland life. Cahuilla men, for example, made plain work baskets for gathering, storing and cooking foods.

The women were the artists. Without using patterns or plans, they wove intricate designs into artistic baskets for gifts or sacred ceremonies.

When Katherine Siva Saubel, 81, was a little girl on the Los Coyotes Reservation in northern San Diego County, she remembers how women sang special basket-making songs and danced with their basket artwork.

The basket makers wove in their surroundings -- mountains, rainbows, stars -- and told stories in their art. Nex'wetem's spring newsletter recounts how Juana Apapas, a Cahuilla weaver on the Soboba reservation, explained in the early 1900s to an anthropologist that a basket showed landscapes near the Cahuilla Indian Reservation -- and more.

"Over and over again when I am weary and tired, and angered at the rude treatment of my people," she said, "I lay down at night and my eyes look to the long gray light in the sky, and I wish I could pass away, and my spirit would walk on this path of light with those above, I could then look down upon the ones who subjected my people to such treatment and see them in their sorrows . . . "

Basket-making began disappearing with the old ways when settlers put up fences and ran cattle on lands traditionally used for gathering plant foods, medicines and basket materials. The Indians eventually were pushed from their homelands onto reservations.

Deborah Dozier, a Palomar College teacher who has studied baskets extensively, said a basket-collecting craze swept the nation from about 1900-10 -- until the supply of older baskets was exhausted -- and brought some needed cash to those on Inland reservations.

Yet new generations did not learn basketry skills. Lace-making, introduced in the 1900s by social groups trying to aid the Indians, supplanted basketry. Federal officials hired a lace teacher for the Malki (now Morongo) and Pala reservations, the San Diego County area community college teacher said.

That trend fizzled but by the 1930s, the average age of basket makers was more than 50. In Temecula, for example, the youngest skilled weaver in 1934 was Ceciona Gomez, 53; the eldest, Michela Quileg, was 98.

Government-run schools such as Sherman Indian School in Riverside also removed Indian children from their families and traditions, aiming to teach them how to live in the dominant non-Indian culture. Girls didn't learn basket weaving anymore.

"I always wanted to make baskets," Sisquoc, who serves as Nex'wetem treasurer, said. "But when I came along, no one was doing anything."

When women lost the skill of basketry, they lost more than a creative means for expressing emotions, Sisquoc said: They forgot how to be caretakers of their natural landscapes, including the plants needed to make baskets. They lost an integral part of Indian culture, she said.

Learning about baskets, she said, is an important way to reconnect.

 Maps by Travel

California Indian Basketweavers Association
The purpose of the California Indian Basketweavers Association is to preserve, promote and perpetuate California Indian basketweaving traditions.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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