PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM DISPLAYS NATIVE AMERICAN BASKETRY OF THE WEST.
Palm Springs Art Museum displays Native American basketry of the West.
Utilitarian wares among Native Americans were just that, made for everyday use. They were often decorated with symbols and images. Once the beginning weavers and potters established their basic skills, they refined their techniques, the shapes and intricacy of their vessels and clothing and cherished them, often for generations. Baskets were part of the production, but their lifespan was short. Few baskets remain from before the 1880s.
The Palm Springs Art Museum is displaying 150 baskets from their own collection in the exhibition Grass Roots: Native American Basketry of the West, through June 18.
With the arrival of the railroads and the accompanying tourists in the late 19th century, Native artisans had a ready market and created some of their best work for it. Although men wove various kinds of vessels for hunting and fishing, the fine baskets made for trade were done primarily by women.
One of the interesting vessels in the exhibition is a Paiute water or storage jar, circa 1900. It was woven of natural and dyed juncus and twine and lined with pine pitch to waterproof it. Some materials, however, when newly woven remain waterproof for some time with no treatment. The pointed bottom amphora shape comes from ancient Greece, the point increasing stability when either stuck into the soft ground or in wooden racks aboard ships. The storage jar is decorated with simple, horizontal wavy lines. The basketmakers were often encouraged to create more elaborate designs on their work to be more attractive to the tourist trade. Dolores Patencio (Cahuilla/cupeño, Agua Caliente Reservation, circa 18601931) is one of the weavers we know by name. Her husband Francisco (18571947) was a ceremonial leader of the Aqua Caliente tribe and said, “The way of the Indians was very hard. First he learned the way of the Spanish...then
the way of the Mexican. Then, he had to learn again... the way of the white man. The Indian could not please everyone.” A large storage basket with animal designs and a Greek key motif is in the exhibition. Often baskets were anonymous but local collectors acquired baskets from their makers and passed the information along to the museum when they donated the objects.
Patencio gathered and prepared her own materials as did most basketweavers.
In an 1897 edition of The Oregon Naturalist,
H.K. Mcarthur wrote poetically, “The labor of gathering materials and preparing them before the work of construction begins, occupies many months, and is most arduous. The weary and toilsome climb to distant mountain tops, for rare and beautiful grasses that only adorn the face of nature in these lofty solitudes. The digging of certain tenacious roots and cutting of twigs, bark and fibre, all of which mist be cured, made into proper lengths and macerated to a desired flexibility before being woven into the intricate and enduring beauty of baskets. Coaxing from coy nature her secrets of dyes, whether from peculiarly colored earth, charcoal, extracts of barks, or immersion in water.”
That arduous process results, nevertheless, in an object that is ephemeral if not cared for. The museum’s collection numbers about 700 items. Several years ago its Western Art Council spearheaded an “Adopt-
a-basket” program. Donors contributed toward the conservation treatment of specific baskets.
Efforts at preserving historic baskets exist alongside efforts to preserve the basketmaking tradition itself. The California Indian Basketweavers’ Association (CIBA) was formed in 1992 to assist weavers as well their access to sources of traditional materials. Its 2017 gathering was held at the Autry Museum. One of the group’s founders, Sara Greensfelder observed, “There were tribes that no longer had practicing basketweavers, and many others that only had one or two, or a small handful.” The group now has over 1,000 members.
The scarcity of weavers was not the only threat to continuing the tradition of basketweaving. The use of pesticides on traditional gathering areas and restrictions by the federal government on access to those areas have been a continuing threat. “By increasing California Indian access to traditional cultural resources on public and tribal lands and traditional gathering sites, and encouraging the reintroduction of such resources and designation of gathering areas on such lands,” continues to be a part of CIBA’S mission statement.
4. Dolores Saneva Patencio (Cahuilla/cupeño), Large Olla Storage Basket, ca. 1910, sumac, natural and dyed juncus on a deer grass bundle foundation. Museum acquisition by exchange. Gift of Winifred Little, Edwin D. Walker and Mr. & Mrs. James H....