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“Basket Makers” (1901) by George Wharton James

Cover, Sunset: A Magazine of the Border 8(1) (November 1901)
Cover, Sunset (November 1901)

MARIA ANTONIA, ONE OF THE MOST EXPERT OF THE CAHUILLA, CALIFORNIA, BASKET-MAKERS. WHEN THE PHOTOGRAPH WAS TAKEN SHE WAS JUST BEGINNING AN ELABORATE BASKET. CAHUILLA HAS BEEN MADE FAMOUS BY THE REFERENCE TO IT IN MRS. HELEN HUNT JACKSON’S “RAMONA.”


Sunset magazine masthead: SUNSET / PUBLISHED MONTHLY • SAN FRANCISCO / SOUTHERN PACIFIC COMPANY / A MAGAZINE OF THE BORDER.
Vol. VII November, 1901 No. 1.
Illustrated from photographs by the author. Three exquisitely woven baskets in the Plimpton Collection, San Diego

Illustrated from photographs by the author.
Three exquisitely woven baskets in
the Plimpton Collection, San Diego

Basketry is a primitive art. It is found among all primitive peoples in some form. or other, and in the remains of the most ancient people. From the tombs of Egypt baskets have been taken, made at the time when Moses and Aaron appeared at the court of Pharaoh, or even before Abraham became a wanderer on the plains of Kadesh and Shur. The earliest visitors to Asia found basketry, and when the Columbian discoveries opened up the new world of America, every tribe was found to have its expert, basket-makers, from the farthest region in the south to the highest point reached in the north. And it was not an art found in a rude and primitive state. It was highly developed, and, indeed, was then in its days of glory—a glory never since surpassed and seldom equaled.

To the Californian it must ever be a fact of great interest that nowhere in the world was the art of basket-making carried on with greater skill and success than in his own state. From north to south the native Californians were all more or less expert

YOSEMITE INDIAN’S ACORN STOREHOUSE
YOSEMITE INDIAN’S ACORN STOREHOUSE

basket-makers. The Pomas in the north were equally proficient with the Palatingwas in the south, and, though it must be confessed that the art of basketry is on the decline, it is not less certain that the California Indian of today holds a very high position among the existing basket-making peoples of the world.

It is not my purpose in this short article to present a comprehensive survey of the whole field occupied by the California basket-maker. I have neither the knowledge nor the ability to do this. Of one tribe alone, the Pomas, Dr. J. W. Hudson, of Ukiah, has written, with a wealth of knowledge and research that has never before or since been equaled by any other writer about the basketry of ally other people. I merely

MONO INDIAN’s ACORN CACHE, USUALLY ERECTED IN FRONT OF THE CABIN DOOR
MONO INDIAN’s ACORN CACHE, USUALLY ERECTED IN FRONT OF
THE CABIN DOOR

propose to conduct the reader, in an easy and chatty kind of way, to several basket-making peoples of California, that he may see them at their work, learn a few characteristics of special kinds of weaving, and gain a little deeper insight into what basket-weaving used to mean, and still does, to some of those who are engaged in it.

In the Yosemite valley, even under the very shadow of Sentinel Rock and within reach of the music of the great Yosemite falls, two or three camps of basket-making Indians may often be found. And yet they are not Yosemite Indians. There is a small, scattered remnant of the once great and powerful Yo-ham-i-ti tribe still in existence, but its members are generally to be found near Cold springs and at Wawona, rather than in the world-famed valley to which they have given their

MERCED NOLASQUEZ OF AGUA CALIENTE, MOTHER OF THE PRESENT CAPITAN OF AGUA CALIENTE INDIANS
MERCED NOLASQUEZ OF AGUA CALIENTE, MOTHER OF THE PRESENT CAPITAN OF AGUA CALIENTE INDIANS

name. The Yosemite Indians of today are generally either Paiutis or Monos, and both tribes are excellent basket-makers.

A small but interesting collection of baskets may be found in the valley, at the photographic studio of Mr. J. T. Boysen, and I have no doubt he will gladly show it to visitors who proffer a request to him.

Not far away from the foot of Yosemite falls is an Indian camp, and there I found three acorn caches. They are perched upon stilts and are of rude basket-work, an opening being left near the bottom through which the store can easily be reached.

When I made my trip to the Monos, before described in the pages of Sunset, I found there an acorn cache of different construction. It was perched on stilts, as were the Yosemite ones, but these supported a rude platform of crossed logs, on which the cache proper rested. It is a pyramidal structure and was erected in front of the cottage door, so that it could be constantly watched. Like the Yosemite caches, it is of rudely twined twigs, but this, when full, was covered over with canvas, so as to protect it completely from the weather.

Further south than the Monos is the Tule River reservation. Here I found many expert weavers and discovered several interesting facts. We speak of Tulare, Yokut, Paiuti, Fort Tejon and Mono baskets as distinct species of weave. I am inclined to doubt whether any person can distinguish between them, unless he has personally purchased from the weaver and learned from her. to which tribe she belongs. For here on the reservation are people of all these names. The original stock that once inhabited all this region, from the Fresno river as far south as Fort Tejon, was the Yokut. They were divided into a number of clans, many of which are named by Powers in his “Tribes of California,” and several of which he never knew. I found, among others, the Yo-er-kal-is, Yo-el-man-is and Wi-chum-nas, together with Paiutis.

Now, the intrusion of the Paiutis (whose original habitat is Nevada) into this region offers a most interesting and fascinating field for meditation. Why came they hither? They

STUDY OF A TYPICAL BASKET-MAKER OF CAHUILLA
STUDY OF A TYPICAL BASKET-MAKER OF CAHUILLA

TULARE BASKET IN PLIMPTON COLLECTION, SAN DIEGO. The zigzag line represents lightning, the meanderings of a stream, or the barbs of a Yucca palm.
TULARE BASKET IN PLIMPTON COLLECTION, SAN DIEGO
The zigzag line represents lightning, the meanderings of a stream,
or the barbs of a Yucca palm.

themselves give the answer. Living, as they did, on the alkali plains of Nevada, subject to drought and consequent starvation, the struggle for existence became too great. Their hardships did not prevent their multiplying in great numbers, and soon they were forced to “expand.” Whither should they go? Eastward, where tribes were similarly situated as themselves, or westward, where the game-haunted summits and slopes of the California mountains, the fish-stocked streams of the lower slopes, the fertile grass and shrub-covered foothills and valleys, and the herds of deer and antelope that roamed the plains assured them a livelihood far superior to any they had ever before enjoyed? There were not many passes, but with these they were more or less familiar: Bloody canyon, Walker, El Cajon. These afforded the opportunity. Stealthily they laid their plans, and when time was ripe they forced their way over the summits and completely split the once powerful Yokut nation in two. They took possession of Kings river, Kern river, Kern lake and Poso creek, and, though efforts were now and again made to drive them out, they found the land too great a “land of promise,” a “land flowing with milk and honey,” to abdicate their joys. If they left, it must be by force, and that the Yokuts could not apply with sufficient convincement to be successful. Thus, in a few years the singular spectacle was found of this once great nation split apart by the alien Paiutis, who, from that day until they succumbed to the vices taught them by the whites, held securely to the territory they had gained. The baskets of each are almost alike in design and so absolutely the same in weave, that no person, however expert, could possibly tell which was Paiuti and which Yokut.

ILLUSTRATED FROM PHOTOGRAPHS BY THE AUTHOR Three exquisitely woven baskets in the Plimpton collection, San Diego, (see illustrated title of this article) reveal the various modes of presenting the human figure. The basket, oval in shape, shown in an accompanying picture, was made by a Wichumna of the Yokut tribe. She was living in one of the upper reaches of Kings river, in Kern county. Here the figures are those of dancers, holding hands, some wearing feather kilts. This undoubtedly represents a “big dance”—something the weaver desired to celebrate and keep in memory, as the kilted figures are possibly those of shamans, many of whom were present. The crosses were copied from the pictured rocks of the locality, and, taken- in conjunction with the great dance, the presence of so many kilted shamans or medicine men, and the explanation given that these crosses represent battles, I assume that this its the memorial basket made by a woman who witnessed the dances

MONO MAIDEN BASKET-MAKER IN THE YOSEMITE VALLEY
MONO MAIDEN BASKET-MAKER IN THE YOSEMITE VALLEY

held in honor of certain decisive victories won by her people.

Above the dancers is the diamond-back rattlesnake pattern, beautifully woven. The basket to the left in the picture is by a Tulare weaver, and shows the general method followed by this people to represent the human figure. In the border above the figures is the rattlesnake pattern divided into segments, and thus making a kind of St. Andrew’s cross, which has led some people to interpret the sign as proof that these Indians have been subject to Christian influences. This is an error, at least so far as this design is concerned. It is a manifestation of the fact that makers do not always slavishly adhere to any set design, and that by and by there results a loss of the distinctively imitative pattern and the gain of a conventionalized form that, by successive mutations, may lose all resemblance to the original.

One old weaver to whom I showed

PAIUTI EXPERT AT TULE RIVER RESERVATION. The basket designs of Yokut and Painti Indians are practically the same
PAIUTI EXPERT AT TULE RIVER RESERVATION
The basket designs of Yokut and Painti Indians are practically the same

this design informed me that the rattlesnake pattern was originally incorporated into baskets, by ancestors, as a propitiatory offering to the snake. ‘Prayers were said asking immunity from danger for themselves and families from the reptile’s deadly bite. In the course of time the diamonds of the design were cut in half and placed upon the baskets in the form of a St. Andrew’s cross. The identity of this cross with the rattlesnake design would be apparent to no one, and if the inquirer were to ask of an Indian what it meant, and he were to be told that it was a prayer to the rattlesnake, asking him not to bite the weaver, the answer would seem to be far-fetched and strange. Yet a study of the growth of the design and the mutations through which it has passed, renders its symbolic meaning clear.

TULARE BASKET IN PLIMPTON COLLECTION, SAN DIEGO. Here the origin of the St. Andrew’s cross is believed to be shown
TULARE BASKET IN PLIMPTON COLLECTION, SAN DIEGO
Here the origin of the St. Andrew’s cross is believed to be shown

The basket to the right in this picture is an old Inyo county basket, purchased in Lone Pine from a Paiuti woman by Mr. A. W. de la Cour Carroll, an enthusiastic basketry collector, who has secured some choice specimens. It shows the oldest type of human figure known to these Indians, and offers a singular contrast to both the other designs.

Another picture shows several fine “Tulare” baskets in the Plimpton collection. In color, weave and design they are equally delightful to the expert. In one the origin of the St. Andrew’s cross is clearly and beautifully shown, as it is apparent to the most casual observer that the single crosses of the second, fourth and sixth rotes of designs from the top are but the diamonds of the first, third and fifth rows cut in half at their points. The design on another represents watercourses, with quail, and the W-like design in the upper part of one of the watercourses is said to represent a spring. Another basket shown may represent three different things, and, as no interpretation was obtained from the original weaver, the reader may make his own choice. With some weavers the zigzag line represents lightning, with others a conventionalized representation of the meandering of a stream, and with still others the pointed barbs of the yucca or Spanish dagger.

At Cahuilla, made memorable by Helen Hunt Jackson in her fascinating “Ramona,” there are a number of skilled basket-makers: Marie Los Angeles, Felipa Akwaka, Rosario Casero, Maria Antonia and several others. Their ware is not as fine as that of the Yokuts, though it is somewhat in the same style. Maria Antonia beginning work on a basket is shown in one of the photographs. The inner grass of the coil is called “su-lim,” and is akin to our broom corn in appearance. The coil is made by wrapping with the outer husk of the stalk of the squawweed and skunkweed, and the root of the tule, the two former being termed “se-e-let” and the latter “se-el.”

The only colors used are black, brown, yellow and white. The white, yellow and brown are colors natural to the growth and are neither bleached nor dyed. The black is made by taking a potful of mud from the sulphur springs that abound in the reservation and boiling it, stirring the mud and water together. As the mud settles the liquid is poured off, and, while hot, is used to color the splints. Two or three “soakings” are necessary to give the fast and perfect color. The brown is the natural color of the tule root. The outer coating is peeled off into splints never longer than ten inches, but generally nearer six or seven. It is a common sight to find a

TULARE BASSET IN PLIMPTON COLLECTION. The design represents water courses with quail
TULARE BASSET IN PLIMPTON COLLECTION
The design represents water courses with quail

number of these splints hung up in the humble kishes,” or tule or willow huts of the Cahuillas.

A number of baskets of these people are here shown, and some from other villages of the vicinity. They are mainly in the collection of Dr. C. C. Wainright, the physician of the Tule River and Mission Indian Agency. A few of the baskets are mine. The one to the extreme right of the bottom row in this picture was made by Juana Apapos, at Saboba, near San Jacinto, and yet it represents mountains and valleys — conventionalized, of course—of the region round about Cahuilla. The mountain peaks are represented by the higher portion of the design and the valleys by the depressions. It will be noticed that black splints are worked into the valleys. These represent the soil, and the small white spot underneath the soil shows the water sources— the springs.

Above the valleys are two large black triangles, united. When I asked Juana what these represented she was a long time in answering. She was afraid I would laugh at her, and, with an Indian’s sensitiveness to ridicule, she positively refused to tell me. But when I finally satisfied her that I would not laugh, she said they represented trees. When she began the design she soon saw that they would come out much too large, but she had started and was resolved to finish them as she had begun.

Human figures are seen in the basket to the left, in the bottom row, and in the oval basket in the third row from the bottom are conventionalized arrow points. In the basket below the one which bears the legend, ”1895 Basket,” are flying geese, and in the second basket from the left, in the top row, is a representation of the tracks of a worm. The second basket from the left, in the second row from the top, shows the rainbow, while the second basket from the left, in the bottom row, has the spider-web pattern afterward to be referred to.

The conical carrying basket to the right, in which Dr. Wainright’s little boy insisted upon sitting while I made the photograph, contains a design that perfectly represents the poetic conceptions of the Indian and her methods of weaving them into her basketry.

In another picture is reproduced an interesting Cahuilla photograph. It shows the Ka-wa-wohl or acorn mortar, around the top of which a circular piece of basketry is securely fastened with pinon gum. This basketry acts as a guard to keep the acorns from flying out as the “ta-kish,” or pounding stone, is brought down upon them. It is laborious work, this whole process of making bread from acorns, for everything has to be done without any of the modern methods for saving strength expenditure. Students of the human face and hands will also

YOKUT WEAVER AND A FUTURE CHIEFTAIN
YOKUT WEAVER AND A FUTURE CHIEFTAIN

be much interested in those here shown, especially the hands, for there are characteristics in them that are generally associated only with centuries of high breeding and culture.

Another Cahuilla weaver shown is a keenly alert and intelligent woman, Maria Los Angeles by name. She lives in Durasno canyon — the canyon of the peach — at Cahuilla, and makes quite a number of fairly good baskets each year.

At Agua Caliente, on Warner’s ranch, San Diego county, are a number of good basket-makers. Their style of weave, materials and colors used, and general run of designs are similar to those of Cahuilla, and it would be impossible to determine at which place a basket was made if one had not seen it in the process of manufacture. Merced Nolasquez is the mother of the present Governor or Capitan of Agua Caliente, and she is

MARIA LUGO, POUNDING ACORNS AT CAHUILLA, SHOWING THE KA-KA-WOHL OR ACORN MORTAR
MARIA LUGO, POUNDING ACORNS AT CAHUILLA, SHOWING THE KA-KA-WOHL OR ACORN MORTAR

naturally an aristocrat and a leader. She and her son both have a dignity which would impress any one who could see below the Indian exterior.

A short time ago a high dignitary of one of the churches wrote a letter to the press, stating that these people were suffering for want of the necessaries of life. It might have done the reverend bishop good had he seen the indignation of this woman and her son when they were told what had-been said of them and their people. They repudiated the idea that they or any of the Indians of Southern California needed help from the white man. All they asked was that they be left alone and given a fair chance, and they were quite capable of caring for. themselves. The same things were said at Cahuilla, where I went around and visited every “kish” or house, in the village. With the exception of three sick and crippled persons, there was not one who did not resent the imputation of incapacity to provide all that was necessary for the proper sustentation of life.

The design of Merced’s basket is the spider-web pattern, a pattern largely popular with the Hopi people of northern Arizona, and found on many of the baskets used for holding the sacred meal in their snake dance, which is now one of the best known of all Indian ceremonials.

When I asked Merced for the meaning of the of the design, she said that in the long time ago her people lived where there was little or no water. They prayed constantly for rain, but before their prayers were uttered they sought to gain the favor of the Spider Mother, who made all the clouds, and they wove the representation of the spider web in their baskets for that purpose.

When I told her that, prior to the Hopi snake dance, the Antelope priest goes, with sacred meal and bahos (prayer sticks), to the shrine of the Spider Woman and their prays and sprinkles the sacret meal from one of these baskets and deposits the bahos, she said:

“Perhaps they (the Hopi) all same as my people long ago.”

To attempt to describe the different kinds of weaves in this article would be impossible. In spite of the ridiculous assertions sometimes made, that there are only two styles of weave, I must again affirm, as I have done elsewhere, that he who imagines Indian basketry is so simple and primitive an art is far too ignorant to white upon the subject. In my small book I have let experts tell what they know about it, and, as Dr. Hudson says of the Pomas alone, they have nine kinds of weave still in use and four that are obsolete, and as many more kinds can be found in the widely diverse basketry of the southwest.

Another most interesting thing in connection with basketry should not be overlooked, and that is that the materials used depend almost entirely upon the natural growths of the countries in which the various weavers live. For instance the Pomas find a beautifully colored and tough, durable wrapping splint from the root of the slough grass. The Cahuillas, on the other hand, not having this particular grass root, substitute the root of the tule. In Arizona, however, the outer husks of the various yuccas have to answer for this same purpose. In Japan the bamboo is used, in Maine the sweetgrass, and so on. Hence there is to be gained from the study of Indian basketry a knowledge of techno-geography that in itself is highly instructive and interesting.

CAHUILLA BASKETS MAINLY FROM THE COLLECTION OF DR. C. C. WAINRIGHT AT THE TULE RIVER AND MISSION INDIAN AGENCY
CAHUILLA BASKETS MAINLY FROM THE COLLECTION OF DR. C. C. WAINRIGHT AT
THE TULE RIVER AND MISSION INDIAN AGENCY

About the Author

George Wharton James (1858-1923) in his study
George Wharton James (1858-1923) in his study
[click to enlarge]
(Bancroft Library Portrait Collection)

Bibliographical Information

George Wharton James (1858-1923), “Basket Makers,” Sunset 8(1):2-14 (November 1901). Illustrated. 28 cm.

In 1907 George Bryon Gordon acquired the Fred S. Plimpton California basketry collection for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

Converted to HTML by Dan Anderson, October 2007, from a microfilm copy at the California State Library and a digital copy from University of Michigan. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.
    —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us



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