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November 21, 2012

It's All Connected—California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | Introduction

Conservation workshops and site visits to Native communities are important educational opportunities for fellows and interns in the Conservation Office of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). These interactions provide a way for consultants, staff, fellows, and interns to share expertise and learn from one another. Knowledge gained from these experiences underscores that the interconnectedness of culture is paramount to understanding objects in the museum's collections. The museum has found that enlarging conservation methodologies to include this type of exchange can be a very beneficial approach to conservation. 

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 museum, joined members of the museum's Conservation Office in a program centered on Northern California basketry and its broader cultural context. Following a workshop at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Maryland, Deborah invited the conservators to come to Northern California, where they attended the 20th Annual Gathering of the California Indian Basketry Association, witnessed a Yurok Brush Dance ceremony, and were hosted by the McConnells at Hoopa.This is the first in a series of posts offering multiple perspectives on their collaboration. 

Beginning a basket
A basket start in Louisa Hunsuzker's hand. Weaving circle, 20th Annual California Indian Basketry Association Gathering, Ione, California, June 2010. Photo by Marian Kaminitz, NMAI.

Introduction to the California Basketry Project 

The mission of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) honors, supports and helps perpetuate Native cultures. The collections policy states that the museum "acts as the steward rather than owner of the collection items in its care, and that preservation should be undertaken in consultation and collaboration with Native communities. NMAI recognizes its Native constituents may consider collection items held by the museum as living entities, and acts accordingly in its preservation activities."

The NMAI conservation staff strongly supports the museum’s mission and collections policy. The staff is also committed to offering fellows and interns educational experiences within a cultural or community context. To date, these have included lectures by Native artisans and culture-bearers; collaborative conservation treatments with Native experts; Native technology workshops, such as quill working, back-strap loom weaving, and basket weaving; trips to tribal lands for on-site cultural research and learning—including buffalo hide-tanning workshops, assisting with regalia-making for and attending a powwow, and attending ceremonies open to outsiders. Exposure to and collaboration with indigenous cultures sensitizes us as conservators and encourages our fellows and interns to see beyond the museum walls when considering an ethical approach to conserving cultural materials. In recent years, several academic programs, notably in the United States, Canada, and Australia, have also begun to offer collaborative experiences with indigenous cultural representatives as a component of conservation training.

The collaboration between NMAI conservators and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault), and Robert McConnell (Yurok) exemplifies the importance of this cooperative approach. Deborah McConnell is renowned for her accomplished basket weaving and as a teacher of basketry. She has been involved with the California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA) for many years. Robert McConnell is the heritage preservation officer for the Yurok Tribe. He was one of a core group to re-establish the White Deer Skin Dance in the Yurok Nation, as well as to help perpetuate the art of Yurok canoe-making. Briannon Fraley currently works as self-governance director for the Smith River Rancheria. A presentation made during Ms. Fraley’s summer 2009 internship at the NMAI was the initial impetus for our collaboration. Marian Kaminitz, Susan Heald, and Kelly McHugh are all staff conservators at the NMAI whose responsibilities include insuring that collaborative processes with Native American culture-bearers are a part of conservation methodology at the museum and mentoring fellows and interns.

One main goal of this collaboration was, through the expertise and perspective of Ms. McConnell, Mr. McConnell, and Ms. Fraley, to better understand the cultural, socioeconomic, and political context of Hoopa, Yurok, and Tolowa collections at the NMAI. This raised a multitude of issues, including:

Incorporating contextual information regarding cultural materials into conservation methodology;

Utilizing active collaboration from source communities as a purposeful approach to conservation, education and training;

Acknowledging and respecting multiple voices in the stewardship of indigenous collections within an institutional setting;

Recognizing and understanding the impact of social, economic, and governmental policies on tribal life ways and culture continuity; and

Assessing the value of this overall approach for ethnographic conservation mentors and educators.

As is the nature of collaboration, in this discussion, our individual voices speak distinctly, addressing these issues and different aspects of the collaboration, to create the whole. 

Next: Briannon Fraley's internship 


This project was made possible in part by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the foundation's generosity continues to support these opportunities. 

Thanks are gratefully given to those who read and edited this text: Robert McConnell, Anne Gunnison,and Luba Dovgan Nurse. 


Deborah E. McConnell, a Hoopa tribal member with Yurok and Quinault ancestry, resides in Hoopa, California. She attended College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California, majoring in art with an emphasis in computer science and business, and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree and teacher preparation from California State University, Humboldt, in Arcata, California, in 1993. She recently began working with the Klamath Trinity Resource Conservation District, where she is project manager of the community demonstration and botanical garden. Deborah has a lifelong interest in contemporary and cultural arts. She conducted a survey of California basketmakers during the early 1980s and has taught classes in the Klamath–Trinity region for more than two decades. She worked for the California Indian Basketry Association (CIBA) from 2000 to 2009.

Briannon Fraley is a citizen of the Smith River Rancheria located on the Northern California coast. She is Tolowa from the ancient villages of Yontocket and Enchwa, as well as Yurok from Blue Creek. She grew up on the Smith River at her family’s tribal village, Niili-chun-dun. She was nurtured through and participated in the Tolowa’s earth renewal dance, Nee-dash. She learned the art of regalia-making from her family and her mother-in-law. In 2009 she graduated from Humboldt State University with a Post-Bachelor’s degree in Native American studies and a Certificate of Art in museum and gallery practices.

NMAI staff members Marian Kaminitz, Susan Heald, and Kelly McHugh are profiled on the NMAI Conservation Office web page.


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