Monday, June 16, 2008


One of the most moving events at Breath of Life was our private visit to the Hearst California Indian basket storage area.

Although we had to don gloves (we were told, to protect US - ironically, the pesticides once used to keep insects from the baskets are now hazardous to anyone who touches the baskets ... though I recently read that a bacteria has been discovered that can eat the pesticides and leave the baskets undamaged), we were allowed to hold, touch, pray over and sing to, our ancestor's baskets. One woman used the amazing database there to find a basket by her grandmother. She held it and cried with joy.

I took a few photos, but my camera died. Here is what I was able to get. I borrowed Louise's camera and took some photos of Salinan/Ohlone/Costanoan baskets, and when she sends them to me I'll post them. That was as close as we could get to Esselen baskets. We held them and Louise said prayers in Esselen.

These are cooking and water-carrying baskets. California Indians wove them watertight, then coated the inside with asphalt. Filled with rocks heated in a fire, then with food (acorn mush, soups, etc), then alternated with newly heated rocks, the baskets were hard-core working class.

Here, my friend Thelma (Kon'Kow Maidu), holds a basket with a unique snake design. You can see how we were crowded into the aisles. The shelving units have big wheels at each end, which are turned to slide the shelves to one side or another in order to open different sections. The rows of massive shelves went on and on - just for the California baskets.

These designs are stunning. The darker sections are done with maidenhair fern, a beautiful black, square stem that I've held, and which reminded me of onyx.

These conical baskets are called "seed-beaters." Women would hold them in their arms or support them with wide strips of woven belts, and sweep seeds into them in the fields. What I've always loved about baskets: they are as beautiful as the act of feeding your family should be.

There are many baskets like this one: unfinished. They look almost comical, as if their hair were standing on end, but I always wonder why the basket was left incomplete. Was it simply collected that way because it was desirable? or was it stolen, or did the basketweaver die, or flee, or decide she didn't like the design, leaving her work behind her? My fingers itch when I see these baskets, even though I'm no basketweaver myself. I just want to finish them, complete that circle.

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