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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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