It is not certain where or when basket-weaving originated, because the ancient baskets decay into dust, but basket-weaving has been a tradition for cultures worldwide for thousands of years. It is a skill passed down from generation to generation, usually by the women.
Baskets were once an essential part of Indian life, but modern metal and plastic tools in the 20th century made them almost obsolete. In fact, by the 1980s, basket-weaving was seldom practiced, according to one history. “Few younger weavers were learning to weave, and the mostly older women who continued to weave were finding it increasingly difficult to carry on their work. The demands of family life and the struggle to make a living, together with the destruction of plant habitats, pesticide contamination of gather areas, and difficulty of obtaining access to gathering sites, were reducing the time and opportunity for plant tending, gathering and basket-weaving.”
For many tribes, including the Tule River Tribe in central California, losing basket-weaving was an unacceptable consequence of adopting so-called modern technology. In 1991, a tribal council established the goal of preserving this vital part of their culture, and a year later, the California Indian Basketweavers Association was formed.
The revival of basket-weaving for the Tule tribe is a crucial restoration of a traditional culture. For the elders, losing basket-weaving would be like losing their language, or their oral fables. Basket-weaving is part of what makes the Tule tribe a tribe, and part of their identity would slip away if basket-weaving disappears.
Basket-weaving and the Tule tribe have gone hand in hand since the origins of their tribe. However, western influences nearly made it extinct. The Tule tribe started basket-weaving to store food before cooking and to preserve it when done. (Basket-weaver and Tule River Tribal Member Nicola Larsen says, “Baskets were the early Tupperware.) This was a practice that was sacred to the tribe and a way the women bonded, passing down the lessons to their daughters and other family members.
As time went on, the tradition of basket-weaving steadily declined as the need for woven baskets disappeared. It is now considered more of an art than it is a method for transporting food and cooking. In 1980, basket-weaving was at risk of dying out altogether. In many tribes, it is only the elder women who still practice basket-weaving because of a general lack of interest in the younger generation.
A lack of interest imperiled basket-weaving, but something bigger was at work as well. Environmental factors such as climate change and invasive species dictate where and when tribes can collect the materials needed to make baskets. Invasive plant species such as the star-thistle and scotch-broom can do incredible damage to the plants the Tule needed in basketry. For instance, the spiny plants can prevent gathering, invasive fast-growing plants can take out whole areas of native plants, and invasion of an unknown plant species can render a formerly sacred basket-weaving gathering place as useless to the native people.
Since agriculture is no longer a significant source of income for the Tule River Tribe, they have established three enterprises. One is the Eagle Mountain Casino, which has created jobs, provided additional income to buy back lands to expand their reservation, and much needed capital for future enterprise investments. Basket-weaving is making a comeback among the Tule and is being reintroduced into their culture. As the weavers begin to master it, they will soon be able sell their baskets as a means to earn additional income for their families.
There are four most common types of basket-weaving: coiled, plaiting, twining and wicker. Each method uses different materials, depending on the flexibility, durability, and what the basket will be used for. In addition, basket-weaving methods vary by tribe as well as what grows naturally in the surrounding environment—native grasses, twigs, pine needles, tule, chaparral yucca, willow and red bud. Deergrass was once a native grass that flourished in the Central Valley . Its use in basket-weaving was important because it was flexible, long, and had the ability to become “watertight as the stalks began expanding.” This made it desirable for holding water, and for cooking. Another material commonly used in basket-weaving was the tule plant. There are many tule species used in basket-weaving. Rhizomes, also called “black root,” are dyed black and used to create designs on the baskets.
Grasses are often combined with sourberry sticks and used to weave water bottles. Yucca leaves are often split and used as a weaving material. The coyote willow was the most common material used in basket-weaving. California red bud is used to create beautiful designs throughout the baskets.
Equally as important as the material used is the means by which the land is managed. For example, the Tule do not harvest all of the rhizomes, so they can repopulate every couple of years. They till the soil, and get rid of invasive species that can overtake the rhizomes. To preserve deergrass, they do controlled burns that remove dead leaves and other organic material that would otherwise block the sun for existing deergrass. Land management combined with harvesting are both important examples of how traditional basket-weaving knowledge has been lost.
Times have changed and it is up to each tribal member to make sure that traditional Tule culture is not suppressed by modern society. Since much of the youth have become westernized through formal education and mass media, it is important to nurture their traditional heritage. Unfortunately, native habitats have been disturbed and destroyed beyond natural repair. However, modern agriculture can be used to cultivate vital weaving materials. Once native plants have been revitalized, the traditional methods for land management can be restored and basket-weaving will be revived for the long run.
This article was written by San Jose State University students Derek Brown, Amanda Carvalho, Christopher Johnson, Idacyte MaBon & Kristina Myllenbeck.