June 19, 2013

Written In Rock: Reflections on Our Time in New Mexico


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Written in Rock, a conservation and cultural exchange project, has brought together people from Azerbaijan; Hopi and the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Santo Domingo ; and the Smithsonian. Abo, New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

By John Fryar

I am an enrolled tribal member of the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico and a retired criminal investigator. For many years I’ve specialized in and dedicated myself to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites, Native American burials and human remains, items of cultural patrimony, and other artifacts left by our ancestors.

Earlier this spring a group of people from Azerbaijan made their first trip to the United States to visit the Pueblo communities of New Mexico, which like their own communities, have a unique relationship with the ancient rock carvings of their country. These lasting footprints of our ancestors are better known among conservationists as petroglyphs. The Azerbaijani participants in Written in Rock included Elvin Abdullayev, Diana Farajova, Humay Mammadzada, Namil Mammadov, Nurana Shahbazova, and Novruz Pashayev. Here they met with their counterparts Ann Brierty of Laguna, Lorraine Caté of Santo Domingo, Lee Francis of Laguna, Harold Joseph of Hopi, Jonathan Sims of Acoma, and me. In addition meeting in New Mexico were Malahat Farajova, director, and Rehman Abdullayev, staff member, of the Gobustan National Preserve, Azerbaijan; Larry Loendorf and Laurie White, of the non-profit organization Sacred Sites; and Claire Eckert, of the Smithsonian's Office of Policy and Analysis, and Carolyn McClellan, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. 

The focus of the Written in Rock program is to bring people together in a cultural exchange program geared towards the protection and preservation of petroglyphs (rock art). As with the Pueblo participants’ trip to Azerbaijan in October 2012, this week was a whirlwind of activity.

Our first meeting was at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where Marth Becktell, museum director, gave us a brief overview of the cultural center, the museum, and the exhibits. We were provided with a tour of the exhibit 100 years of State and Federal Policy: The Impact on Pueblo Nations. The tour was led by Written in Rock Pueblo participants Lee Francis and Jonathan Simms who were involved with the creation of the exhibit, and Lorraine Caté, who was recently hired as an educational coordinator at the cultural center. The exhibit was a wonderful learning experience for everyone, and the in-depth commentary and knowledge of the Pueblo guides regarding the displays was powerful. It created a greater understanding of how government policies have impacted and shaped the Pueblo world today.

We had another brief tour of the exhibit A:shiwi A:wan Ulohnanne: The Zuni World, a Zuni Map Art Exhibition, which features a Zuni map-painting that depicts the Colorado Plateau as a cultural and sacred landscape. The exhibit is intended to open the mind to a world where all things are living. We finished our visit with a tour of the permanent exhibit titled, Our Land, Our Culture, Our Story, which provides a brief historical overview of the Pueblo world, along with a contemporary exhibit of original artwork and craftsmanship from each of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. We had experienced a similar exhibit at the Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum, where we were shown examples of weaving techniques and materials from various older time periods and the newer contemporary patterns exhibited in Azerbaijani rugs and carpets.

We concluded the day with a trip to the Petroglyph National Monument, which is located within Albuquerque's city limits and illustrates the impact that an urban environment can have upon a cultural landscape. We discussed the delicate balance of trying to preserve and protect these ancient markings and sacred areas from the encroachment of today’s urban dwellers. Sometimes the attention paid to an area, such as the Petroglyph Monument, has unintended consequences, such as being loved too much by overuse. This is in stark contrast to the petroglyphs we saw at Gobustan, which aren't threatened by the encroachment of urban sprawl (yet).

The following day would find us experiencing places such as Gran Quivira and Abo, research sites within the Salinas National Monument. We were provided a tour of Gran Quivira where we learned of the Spanish Colonial quest for dominance over the original inhabitants of the area. Today the Spanish mission still stands tall over the rubble mounds of the original pueblo. At Abo, we experienced rock paintings that for many members of the group were very spiritual. The majority of these drawings and paintings were associated with salt. Unbeknownst to most members of the group prior to viewing the paintings, there are areas a relatively short distance away where salt was traditionally gathered. Unfortunately, these salt lakes are now located on private land and are inaccessible for gathering salt. In Azerbaijan we had also learned of salt gathering and trade routes. In 2010 archaeologists published research showing that the Duzdagi salt deposits, located in the Araxes Valley in Azerbaijan, hold the oldest known salt mine in the world. Intensive salt production was carried out at this site at least as early as 3500 B.C. 

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Listening to a guide at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our trip to Acoma was surely a cultural experience for our Azerbaijan guests. Here we visited Acoma Pueblo, purported to be the oldest continually inhabited village in the United States. (Of course our Hopi brother would respectfully disagree. <Smile.>) Acoma is located in west central New Mexico on a mesa 365 feet above the valley floor. The name Acoma is from the Acoma and Spanish word acoma, or acú, which means "the place that always was" or "People of the White Rock."

In 1598, during the Spanish conquest of what is now the southwestern United States, Juan de Oñate took revenge on Acoma for the killing of his nephew and 11 of his men. Oñate burned most of the village and killed more than 600 people and imprisoned approximately 500 others. The prisoners were forced into slavery, and men over 25 years old had their right foot amputated. Today holes in the cemetery wall on the south side can still be seen. These holes were placed in the wall for the Acoma slaves who were taken south into what is now Mexico and did not return.

While at Acoma we were treated by the family of Jonathan Simms to a traditional Pueblo feast. This consisted in part of roast lamb, lamb stew, roast squash, squash stew, homemade tamales, red and green chilis, oven bread, and Indian tea. Interestingly, the meal was somewhat similar to the meal we were provided when we visited the sheep herders’ camp in Azerbaijan. Both were such treats! It was great to see our Azerbaijan brothers and sisters enjoying chili from the Southwest. During this meal our Azerbaijan guests provided everyone with a sampling of dried fruits and nuts in an arrangement of candles and newly planted grass. They had brought these gifts to share with us as a celebration of Novruz, the Azerbaijan spring holiday that takes place in March of each year. This was a true blending of cultures by the sharing of food and traditions from different parts of the world. 

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Hiking the Tsankawi in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our last day in the field found us at Tsankawi, part of the Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. We walked trails that were cut and worn deep into the rock by their continued use from ancient times. We climbed wooden ladders to the top of the mesa, where we could stand and witness the beauty of the surrounding area and cultural landscape. We watched as the pollen from the juniper trees would “pop” in the breeze, making it appear like a puff of smoke rising from the valley floor. We watched as the crows and a hawk watched us from above. This was a spiritual place to many within the group.


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"Graduation Day" for participants of the conservation and cultural exchange project Written in Rock. Photo by John Fryar.

Our hike on the loop trail through the Ancestral Pueblo site provided an opportunity for our Azerbaijan guests to see what a plaza looks like in ruins. The previous day we had been able to show them a plaza at Acoma still in use today. They could visualize what Tsankawi might have looked like had the buildings still been standing at this ancient place. We were able to show them many examples of pottery shards and pieces of broken arrowheads and stone tools that were still on site. They were able to witness sacred areas and participate in prayers and the offering of corn meal at this place. We also witnessed the many examples of rock writings, some telling of migration, some of settlement, and some of spirituality. For many of us, the day could have all been spent at this place.

As in Azerbaijan, we had an opportunity to make a presentation as a group. This time it was at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Pueblo participant Lorraine Caté, who is also student at the school, made the arrangements for the presentation. We had a warm reception from students and staff, and the presentation provided our Azerbaijan colleagues an opportunity to showcase their country and Pueblo participants a chance to reflect on the Written in Rock program.

We ended the week with a wonderful presentation by Nancy Olson, a rock art specialist, who had recorded petroglyphs over much of Pajarito Mesa, in the area where Tsankawi is located. Over many years she has compiled drawings and documentation that will benefit researchers for years to come.

We spent the rest of our time together talking about the future and what we wish to accomplish with the knowledge we all gained from the Written in Rock project. All participants greatly benefited from the program because of this knowledge, the cultural aspects of the project, and our greater understanding of the similarities and differences of our respective cultures. 

Written in Rock is a partnership of the Gobustan Preserve, the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis, and the National Museum of the American Indian, and is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums. 

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What a great project. Native diplomacy at its best.

This is a bold project. Nice!

April 04, 2013

Birds of a Feather: NMAI collaborates with Natural History to identify the feathers used in an Otoe headdress

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Otoe headdress, date unknown. Collected in Oklahoma in 1910 by Mark R. Harrington. 3/2750 

At the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), we have thousands of objects from all over the Western Hemisphere made using feathers. Some of these objects include eagle feathers, which are highly protected under the U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Other feathers are protected by the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The museum is not able to send any of these objects on loan outside the United States unless we obtain Fish and Wildlife Department permits for transport of the specific kinds of protected bird feather used on the object. 

So, how do we identify mystery feathers that may be old, fragmentary, dyed, or otherwise modified on an American Indian object? We are fortunate to collaborate with one of Smithsonian’s top scientists, Dr. Carla Dove, feather identification specialist at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Dr. Dove is a world-renowned expert on identifying birds that have caused aircraft crashes. (And no, she did not change her name to match her profession!) 

Dr. Carla Dove with Otoe headdress
Smithsonian ornithologist Carla Dove studying the headdress in the Feather Identification Lab at the National Museum of Natural History. 
Although always very busy with her work as a member of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Dr. Dove has regularly taken time to examine mystery feathers in the NMAI collections. Most recently, Marian Kaminitz, head of Conservation at NMAI, and I transported an object to NMNH in order for Dr. Dove to analyze the feathers and make an accurate identification. The 19th-century Otoe headdress from Oklahoma included an unidentified bird head with a yellow beak and green coloration on the head feathers. It also incorporated two turkey feather “beards” and bundles of unidentified large feather quills that are dark orange.

Dr. Dove uses two visual methods of identification. One is direct comparison with feathers in the extensive collection of bird skins at NMNH. By looking at feathers side-by-side, comparing our object feathers to those on a preserved bird skin, Dr. Dove is able to confirm most feathers’ species. For the Otoe headdress, the small bird head with a curving yellow beak and soft striped brown feathers matched specimens of the Greater Prairie Chicken. In the 19th century, this bird was widely distributed across the prairies of the west where the Otoe lived. The green coloration on the head feathers is actually pigment applied to them by the maker of the headdress.

The large orange feather quills in the bundles on the sides of the headdress, however, were not immediately comparable to those of a specific bird. Dr. Dove guessed that they could be eagle feathers, due to their size, which had been dyed with orange pigment.

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Under the microscope: Barbules on the shafts of one species of duck down. 50 microns (µ)—the scale at the bottom of the image—is described as the thickness of a sheet of paper or width of a human hair. 
This prompted Dr. Dove to advance to the second method of visual evaluation for unidentified feathers: microscopic examination of the down. The bird feather identification laboratory has a dual binocular microscope that allows scientists to view the tiny barbules on strands of bird down. Barbules—nodes on the shaft of the down invisible to the naked eye—bear signature shapes specific only to one bird, much like fingerprints. Some barbules look like rings on a curtain rod, others are heart-shaped or look like bamboo. Dr. Dove has an encyclopedic collection of glass slides of barbule samples from thousands of birds. Looking through the microscope at a reference slide of barbules from an eagle, side by side with a slide of a down shaft from the bundles on the Otoe headdress, we were able to make a conclusive identification of the orange shafts as eagle feather.

If we ever lend this Otoe headdress to an exhibition outside of the United States, we will have to go through a permit process with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to receive permission to transport the object abroad. The purpose of laws like these is to protect eagles, migratory birds, and endangered species from illicit trafficking by poachers and smugglers. The penalties for not obtaining a permit can include confiscation of the object and large fines for the Smithsonian. We have confidence that we will not run this risk for our loan objects, thanks to the expert eye (and microscope) of Dr. Carla Dove! We thank her and the Museum of Natural History for this cordial collaboration with NMAI Collections and Conservation.

—Gail Joice

Gail Joice is Collections manager for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 

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November 30, 2012

It's All Connected: California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | Conclusion

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 last 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 
5. The Visit to Northern California 


Hupa na´wehch (Jump Dance basket), ca. 1880. California. Yew wood, maidenhair fern, bear grass, spruce root, hide, woodpecker feather, sinew, paint; 65 x 10 x 7 cm. 2182. Photo by Walter Larrimore, NMAI.

When Deborah and Robert McConnell and Briannon Fraley came to the museum to conduct a basketry consultation and workshop their goal was to introduce conservation fellows and interns to the greater context of baskets in Native cultures. Consultants and conservators connected through the materials and processes as basketry techniques were taught in a hands-on workshop. The opportunity to share museum experiences and methodologies, such as storage, cleaning, re-shaping, and repair, was also of interest to Ms. McConnell and Ms. Fraley. The workshop provided a fertile environment for an exchange of ideas that may lead to new treatment solutions incorporating Native expertise, which has often been overlooked. 

The conservators' understanding of basketry's cultural context was further enhanced through a visit to Northern California to experience current cultural issues, the socio-political environment, and land management/resources challenges, all of which impact basketry production today. Conveying the interconnectedness of a museum object and the culture that craeted it is paramount to understanding: There is more to a basket than just materials and techniques.

Asked to assess the value of this educational experience, Anne Gunnison, an Andrew W. Mellon fellow in the Conservation Office from 2008 to 2010, commented:

Not only participating in the consultation with Ms. Fraley, Ms. McConnell, and Mr. McConnell at NMAI, but also attending the California Indian Basketweavers Association gathering in Ione, California, and being invited to the Brush Dance and to visit Hoopa, was an invaluable experience. This opportunity was made possible by the mandate of conservation programming at NMAI and by the generosity of the McConnells and Ms. Fraley, who were so willing to share their own experiences and comprehensive knowledge of the physical and cultural landscape of Northern California. It has underscored the importance of forging and fostering relationships and partnerships in order to best approach the conservation and care of Native American cultural material in museums and institutions. It is my intention, following my time at NMAI, to develop similar types of relationships with invested community constituents to guide my work in the care of collections.  

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Briannon Fraley weaving a basket at home. Hoopa, California, June 2010. Photo by Marian Kaminitz, NMAI.


"Basketry: It's All Connected" was originally presented in September 2010 at a basketry workshop organized by the Institute of Conservation

To read more short essays by the NMAI Conservation Office staff, fellows, and interns, scroll through the Conservation archive on the NMAI blog.

The museum's website includes further information about the Conservation Office, including outreachresearchstaff publications, and training, including internships and fellowships. 

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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.

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


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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. 

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.


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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November 28, 2012

It's All Connected: California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | Practices and Beliefs

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 fourth 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 

Baskets woven by (clockwise from top left) Ella Johnson, Deborah McConnell, unknown (gift from Susan J. Tweit), Deborah McConnell, Fanny Rube, Deborah McConnell, and (center) Ella Johnson. The photograph is called Full Circle. Deborah writes, "Please read Susan Tweit's blog 'Completing a Circle; An Artifact Returns Home' to further understand the title." Photo © 2010 by Deborah McConnell, used with permission.

We are from the earth. Our creation stories define who we are. Since time immemorial our ancestors have maintained the land and handed down cultural knowledge so that we may continue to live in harmony with all living things.

We are basketweavers and keepers of the land of the Northern California tribes—Tolowa, Yurok, and Hoopa. Our cultural perspective is unique to our culture but can be applied across the many Native American basket weavers past and present. We believe that everything is alive like you and me. We, as basket weavers bring forward new life with each stick added, with each root twined.

It is our responsibility as cultural bearers to help educate not only our youth, but also others who have been touched by Northern California basketry. The weavers of baskets tell their story through the design and materials used. We are the keepers of this knowledge and information.

We share our perspective on basket collections, basket-weaving, gathering of the plants used for weaving, to provide a broader understanding of how all these subjects relate to our land, water, and fire. We need the health of the land to produce baskets of the highest quality. You cannot have one without the other. Basketry traditions and practices promote healthy ecosystems, and social, physical, and mental well-being.

We were taught to view all living things as being integrally connected. 

—Briannon Fraley & Deborah McConnell 

It's All Connected

Northwestern California tribes indigenous along the regions of the mountainous Trinity River, Klamath River, and coastal Pacific Ocean, the Hoopa and Yurok are neighboring and separate tribes, but have similar core beliefs and ceremonies. Both groups use the same types of baskets, plant materials, and style of weaving. Durable stick-on-stick open-twine weaving is for baby baskets, food baskets, work baskets, and eel traps. The finely woven close-and-overlay twine method of weaving is for ceremonial and work caps, storage baskets, cooking and eating baskets, and the like. It literally takes a year-long process to make a basket if you consider all that is involved, including managing the land, gathering the plants when in season, and making the basket. 

Basketry traditions, practices, and beliefs remain an important part of our lives today thanks to the determination of a handful of elder basketweavers from this region who continued to weave baskets even though there were only a few of them left from the old school of weavers. They joined forces with the California Indian Basketweavers Association in the early 1990s in the hopes of making their voices heard. They feared that basketry was on the verge of being lost due to the influences of modern-day life on the younger generation. Additionally, they were concerned about the detrimental activities occurring in areas where they gathered plants used for basketry. Harmful logging practices and the application of herbicides and pesticides in gathering sites, inability to access gathering sites, erosion from road development, poor land management practices, and unnatural water flows in the rivers due to the installation of dams on the Trinity and Klamath rivers are issues that basketweavers of this region continue to face today.

Each year, beginning in 1990, basketweavers throughout California meet to share stories and discuss issues with other weavers and public and private landowners. The California Indian Basketweavers Association and the elder basketweavers’ determination have accomplished much to improve conditions for basketweavers today. Their voices were heard, and small steps have been made to provide access to gathering areas and to improve the health of ecosystems.

Deborah McConnell shows a hazel plant used for basketry construction. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California, June 2010. Photo by Marian Kaminitz, NMAI.
After the advent of federal and state fire-suppression regulations in the early 20th century, local basketweavers were unable to practice traditional land management using fire—until recent times. With traditional land management there was regular, seasonal burning of underbrush. During these times, natural lightening fires would remain small, contained to the understory of forests and not reach the tops of large trees. When traditional land management ceased, underbrush was allowed to grow into dense thickets of ladder fuel in many areas, which acts as kindling during thunder and lightning storms. Fueled by a dense understory of brush, thunder and lightning storms cause catastrophic fires that crown out at the tops of large trees, annihilate entire forests, and destroy potential basketweaving materials. Throughout the years, the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, and California Department of Fire have begun to learn the benefit of our traditional land-management practices using fire to promote healthy ecosystems. Now, with the same public land managers and local tribes, basketweavers are able to provide input for locations of controlled fires in gathering areas. Low intensity fires in areas where beargrass and hazel grow rid the forest of diseased and insect-infested plants. Fire promotes healthy, supple, and insect-free plants used for basketry. It is imperative that we burn the hazel and beargrass the season prior to gathering to ensure the quality basket materials our ancestors once used. The practice of using controlled burn methods also encourages a healthy ecosystem for all living things. 

The rivers are our life blood and provide us sustenance. The dams on the Trinity and Klamath rivers have affected many aspects of our traditional way of life. Dams on the upper Klamath and overuse by agri-business have led to low water levels causing warm water temperatures that far exceed a safe environment for salmon. In 2002, the Trinity and Klamath rivers experienced a traumatic fish kill in which over 60,000 adult salmon and many more uncounted juvenile salmon died. In recent years there have been incidents of toxic blue-green algae blooms sickening animals and humans by causing bacterial infections and skin irritations. Mycrosystin, a cyanotoxin produced by blue-green algae, is deadly to dogs and children if ingested. Through the tenacious efforts of many people including local tribes, fisherman, farmers, eco-businesses, and many more, dam removal is now a reality. 

Basket weavers are dependent on water quality and the ebb and flow of the rivers. High waters wash away insects from the sandy ground where various species of willow grow along the riverbanks. In the winter season, when the river subsides, weavers dig willow roots used for the warp of finely woven baskets. Come spring, they cut and de-bark the new shoots of the gray willow used for the weft of basketry.

Basketry was used for nearly every aspect of life and for events justifying a ceremony, e.g. a baby being born, the first spring salmon, a young girl’s Flower Dance (a rite of passage ceremony when a girl reaches puberty), gathering of acorns, the acorn ceremony, Brush Dance, White Deerskin Dance (a world renewal ceremony), Jump Dance, and more. Basketry was used to prepare and contain food; carry wood and other heavy loads; collect seeds and berries; trap fish, eels, birds and small animals; carry babies; and for the traditional ceremonies. Today we still use the same types of the baskets that our ancestors used. However, with the introduction of modern amenities like pots and pans we mostly use the cooking baskets during the ceremonial dances.

Our holistic outlook on life is inclusive of our social, physical, and spiritual environments. All things are relevant and have a purpose. Respect for self and others is of utmost importance. This ideology helps create a balance within our selves so that we may accomplish life goals in a good way. When we gather plants used for weaving we pray, giving thanks and never taking more than we need. Plants used for basketry are alive, and so is a completed basket. When weaving baskets, weavers must be in a good frame of mind because the quality of their work is a reflection of themselves. Once a weaver completes a first basket, she gives it to a special person to promote sharing and to honor the receiver. Basket- weaving traditions, practices, and beliefs promote cultural continuity between generations, building healthy communities and ecosystems.

Hoopa Valley-4
Hoopa Valley seen from the Bald Hills Road. July 2010. Photo © 2010 Deborah McConnell, used with permission.

In summer 2010, Robert and I had the pleasure of inviting and hosting the National Museum of American Indian conservators Marian Kamintz, Susan Heald, and Anne Gunnison during their visit to our part of the world. They participated in the 20th Annual California Indian Basketweavers Gathering in Ione, California, and wove a small basket; traveled to the Northern California coast and camped amongst the tallest trees in the world, the coast redwoods (Sequoia semperviren); and attended the Yurok Tribe’s Brush Dance, a healing dance for an infant child at the Sumeg Village site near Trinidad, California. They then traveled over Redwood National Park's historic Bald Hills Road through the high-country prairie of the Chilula to the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Hoopa, California. There they visited the Hoopa Tribal Museum and Takmildin and Matildin villages, and were later taken on a boat trip through the Hoopa Valley on the Trinity River.

Their experience while visiting this part of the country hopefully provided a brief insight to the Hoopa and Yurok cultures and an understanding of our belief that everything is interconnected and relevant.

—Deborah McConnell


On the fire-potential of a dense understory in unburned forest: Louisa McCovey, Hoopa Tribal Environmental Protection Agency staff, personal communication, 30 July 2010.

On contolled burning and halthy ecosystems: Jennifer L. Kalt, professional botanist and Resource Protection Associate, CIBA, personal communication, 30 July 2010.

On mycrosystin cyanotoxin: Robert McConnell, Yurok Tribal Heritage Preservation Officer, personal communication, 30 July 2010.

On dam removal: Ty Beaver, "No action planned on KBRA," Herald and News, Klamath Falls, Oregon, 7 August 2010. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement was signed by the governors of California and Oregon, U.S Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and proponents in February 2010, but federal legislation is necessary before it can be fully implemented.

Next: The Visit to Northern California

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