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November 29, 2012

It's All Connected: California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | The Visit to Northern California

In 2009 and 2010, basketweaver Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault); cultural heritage specialist Robert McConnell (Yurok); and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), a former summer intern at the National Museum of the American Indian, joined members of the museum's Conservation Office in a program centered on Northern California basketry and its broader cultural context. This is the fifth post in a series that presents multiple perspectives on their collaboration. To read earlier posts in the series, see:

1. Introduction to the Project, Acknowledgments & Contributors 
2. NMAI Internship Programs 
3. The Collections Visit, Consultation & Workshop
4. Practices and Beliefs


The June 2010 trip to Northern California exposed us to the complex and interrelated social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of caring for indigenous collections. Participating in the California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA) Gathering with Native weavers, attending a traditional Yurok Brush Dance ceremony, and spending time on Hoopa tribal lands with the McConnell family elucidated aspects of Native survival, cultural determination, resilience, and self-reliance. The realities of living in the 21st century while simultaneously maintaining and practicing centuries-old cultural traditions are evident in the McConnell family, who live on their ancestral homelands and actively work to reclaim and maintain access to their natural resources for the continuance of their people.

Formally organized in 1992, CIBA is the oldest association of its kind in the United States. CIBA describes its vision as, "[T]o preserve, promote, and perpetuate California Indian basketweaving traditions while providing a healthy physical, social, spiritual, and economic environment for basketweavers." CIBA’s goals include accessibility to and protection of natural resources used in basket-making, and discouraging the use of pesticides in areas where materials are gathered. Overall, the organization strives to act in a manner that respects their elders and Mother Earth. Although CIBA is open to weavers and nonweavers, and to non-Native supporters of California Indian basket weaving, its cultural importance is to promote solidarity and broaden communication among Native American basketweavers. CIBA publishes the newsletter Roots & Shoots and hosts the annual gathering specifically to enlarge "the network of weavers and their supporters, . . . enabling the continuation of the art and its passage to the next generation." 

The 20th Annual CIBA Gathering, in Ione, California, included weaving circles, presentations, displays, demonstrations, and sellers’ booths. Handouts available to participants addressed pesticide and land management issues. Representatives from the USDA Forest Service and IDRS Inc.—Indian Development Resources and Services, a national Indian-governed non-profit organization that works with tribes and government agencies to assist in conflict resolution—spoke on ensuring tribal input in forest planning with federal organizations; staff members from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spoke on better communication and a chemical data availability study. The available literature and speakers illustrated the ways in which CIBA provides a forum where the voices of basketweavers can be heard and creates partnerships with federal agencies and allied organizations.

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Deborah McConnell and her niece, Louisa Hunsuzker, in the weaving circle at the 20th Annual CIBA Gathering. Ione, California, June 2010.  



 

Beginning a basket-2

A basket-start in Louisa's hand. Ione, California. June 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                   
Accomplished weavers taught basketry techniques in weaving circles. This provided another valuable opportunity to study with Ms. McConnell. Space in her circle quickly grew past capacity, a reflection of her reputation as a skilled weaver and teacher. In her circle, we learned how to add more willow sticks, (warps) to a basketry start to expand the circumference of the basket. Ends of the willow sticks were chewed slightly to flatten them before inserting them into the start. This small chewing action illustrated an important component of contemporary basket-weaving: If the willow is treated with pesticides prior to collection, the act of flattening can, in fact, be toxic to the weaver. This underscores the importance of the inclusion of basketweavers in the management of land where basketry materials are collected, as well as the extent of the issues surrounding the procurement of these resources.

We also gained more experience with the overlay design technique using white bear grass, alder bark-dyed woodwardia fern, and black maidenhair fern. The technique calls for even more dexterity and design foresight than that needed simply to twine the willow-root weavers (wefts) over the sticks. Trying our hand at this type of weaving has given us an even greater appreciation of the expertise required to weave the baskets in the NMAI collections.

Following the CIBA Gathering, we attended a Yurok Brush Dance at the McConnells’ invitation. The dance was held at Sumêg Village in Patrick's Point State Park. Yurok tribal members and local park staff built the village on land traditionally used by the Yurok for seasonal encampments and dedicated it in 1990 to be place for seasonal ceremonies and an educational component of the park. Seeing dance regalia actively used in its traditional ceremonial context, as opposed to preserving it statically in museum storage or on exhibit, was an instructive juxtaposition. The sound and the sight of the regalia as danced and worn gave us a more complete understanding of its form and function, its communal, spiritual purpose. The dance—with the aromas of the surrounding woods and the fire in the dance area, the tinkling and swooshing sounds of the regalia in motion as the dancers approached, the group and solo singing, the reflected light on the abalone shells as the dancers moved around the fire in their regalia—was a sensory feast. Nothing in the museum context could begin to compare. The cultural impact of using older ceremonial regalia for the dances was brought home to us. It was made all the more relevant because many ceremonial items from the NMAI collection were about to be repatriated to the Yurok Tribe and would immediately go back into active use. 

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Willow plants along the banks of the Trinity River. Hoopa, California, June 2010. 

During our time with the McConnells and Briannon Fraley in Hoopa, we were able to see materials we had used in the basketry workshop, as well as some materials used to make dance regalia, in their natural context. Ms. McConnell pointed out ferns and other basketry materials that were growing in the fields and the forest as we drove the Bald Hill Road into Hoopa Valley. When the McConnells took us down the Trinity River on their boat, they pointed out willow used for basketry sticks and weavers, and the pines trees on the bluffs that produce the pine nuts used in dance regalia. As we visited the ceremonial sites along the river where the dances are held, the valley’s resources surrounded us with impressive beauty and proximity. We were reminded of the impact of interconnectedness on these communities: When healthy, resources are plentiful, life is abundant, and cultures are sustained. 

—Susan Heald and Marian Kaminitz, NMAI

All photos by Marian Kaminitz, NMAI.

Notes

Handouts available at the CIBA Gathering included:

California Indian Basketweavers Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Pesticide Program, Pesticides. . . What Basketweavers Should Know, (undated).

United States Environmental Protection Agency, The National Pesticide Tribal Program: Achieving Public Health and Environmental Protection in Indian Country and Alaska Native Villages, (Washington, DC: Office of Pesticide Programs, October 2009).

United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Working Together: American Indian Tribes and the Forest Service: Improving Forest Service Policy, Programs and Projects through Consultation, (Washington, DC: USDA, September 2005).

Next: Conclusion

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