Grass Roots


Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By John O’hern

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....

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