Nuwä baskets come back
After 125 years, Nuwä baskets have come back home. In 1897, a Nuwä Indian woman spent many months carefully weaving a fine basket in Kern County using native plant materials of willow, Western redbud, bracken fern and deergrass. With skilled fingers and a practiced eye, she carefully stitched the coiled basket together, creating a beautifully-patterned vessel that was lightweight but durable.
When the basket was finally completed, she sold it to a pioneer rancher, and used the scarce money to buy needed items for her family. That basket and two others were cherished and passed down through generations of the ranching family.
Then 125 years went by. Last week, the baskets came back to Kern County permanently.
Desiree Cassel of Watsonville, a descendent of the Walser ranching family that had originally purchased the baskets, generously donated the three of them to the Tehachapi Museum.
Desiree is an artist herself, and she lives in an artfilled house surrounded by a lush and vibrant garden. She made the unselfish decision to return the baskets to the area where they were made, and chose the Tehachapi Museum to care for them and make them available for others to admire their beauty and craftsmanship.
We probably won’t be able to determine exactly which weaver made the baskets, but they are clearly of Kawaiisu origin. An old note accompanying the baskets said that they were “Made from 1895-1900 by Piute Indians.” Though they self-identify as Nuwä and are called Kawaiisu by archeologists, these Native people are part of the Southern Paiute family of tribes, and elders used to say “Tama Paiute” or “We’re Paiute.”
The Walser family traces its roots in Kern County to Daniel Waggoner Walser, who purchased 160 acres in Walker Basin from Hamp Williams in 1864. In 1867, Daniel married Mary Florida Lightner, the daughter of another very early ranching family in Walker Basin. Daniel and Mary were married in front of three lilac bushes that had been planted in front of the Lightner homestead by Mary and her sister, Lavinia.
The following year, in 1868, Lavinia married Walker Rankin in front of those same lilacs, and that location has been the scene of at least 11 marriages in the Lightner and Rankin families over the ensuing 160 years.
Daniel and Mary raised seven children on their Walker Basin ranch, including a daughter named Daisy, who married a man named Wallace. Their daughter Marjorie Wallace married John Cassel, and together they had Desiree, Bob and Mary Andrea.
Desiree was born in Stanford and initially raised in Los Altos, and in Orland.
Later the family moved near Los Gatos and Campbell. Just before Jonas Salk invented his life-saving polio vaccine, which was approved in 1955, the family got polio. While Desiree and her brother contracted the disease, they didn’t suffer long term effects, but their mother and sister both became very disabled as a result.
While living in Canada in her 20s, Desiree started making and selling candles to support herself, and began a life of creativity. These talents were later expressed through masonry, brickwork and tile, and her home and garden include many of her decorative pieces. Art has obviously played an abiding role in her life, and her great respect for art played a role in her choosing to find an appropriate home where the Nuwä baskets could be kept and displayed.
The amount of work that goes into creating coiled basketry of the Kawaiisu style is difficult to conceive. The weaver must first go out and harvest the plant materials at the appropriate time of year, then process them – laboriously splitting, cleaning and trimming the different types of plant fibers. It is only after this preparation is done that the actual weaving can begin.
I use the analogy of knitting to convey what this entails. Weaving a basket is not like going to the store, buying yarn, and coming home and starting to knit a sweater. Instead, it is like first needing to shear sheep, then having to wash and card the wool, then being required to spend hours
spinning it into yarn. Only then would you be ready to start knitting a project. Weaving a basket is like that, with as much time required to gather and prepare the materials as in the actual weaving.
In Kawaiisu coiled basket making, the weaver tightly stitches a small diameter bundle of deergrass stalks, smaller than a pencil, onto the preceding coil, stitch by stitch, and the basket slowly grows bigger and taller.
To figure out approximately how many linear feet of weaving were in one of the antique Kawaiisu baskets, I got cotton cordage that was about the same diameter as the coils. Then I placed the basket upside down, and gently laid the cordage around and around the basket to duplicate the weaving process.
When it was completely enveloped, I cut the cordage and then measured it. While it’s just a ballpark figure of what actually went into the basket, I measured 1,322 inches, or 110 feet and two inches of linear feet. While the rate of weaving depends on the weaver, complexity of the basket, and fineness of the stitches, a weaver might weave at a rate of an inch to an inch and a half per hour.
When you add in the amount of time spent preparing the materials, you can see that it can easily take 2,500 hours of work to complete a full-sized basket. And the basketweaving would have to somehow be fit in around the weaver’s other life responsibilities, like cooking food and caring for her family.
Native American baskets are truly impressive works of great skill and artistry. They are a testament to the talent and dedication of the women who made them.
The Tehachapi Heritage League is honored to be entrusted with Kawaiisu baskets made by Kern County weavers, and we are very appreciative of the three baskets that Desiree Cassel has just sent home after her family’s 125 years of caretaking them.
Have a good week.