MOCLIPS, Wash. (AP) – A stout, cylindrical basket of cedar bark and bear grass sits in a glass display case in the Ocean Crest Resort lounge. It has intricate, tightly-woven patterns: a black canoe silhouette, purple birds and a thin border of geometric shapes around the rim. The Quinault basket is one of about two dozen on display at the resort.
The baskets were recently donated to the Museum of the North Beach by Barbara Topete, founder of the Ocean Crest Resort. Her donation includes baskets, dolls and beadwork. The majority of her collection is made up of Quinault baskets, but it contains pieces from all over Washington and Canada.
“I just feel it’s beautiful workmanship and it’s a practice that very little is being done now,” said Topete, who is 89. “They’re something that should be shared.”
A handful are on display at the resort and the museum, but most are in storage because the museum neither has the room nor the proper cases to show the collection and keep it from deteriorating.
The museum is planning on moving into a replica of the Northern Pacific Railroad depot that served as a center of commerce in Moclips until it was torn down in the 1950s. The depot, which will be funded by donations and federal grants officials are applying for, won’t be built for at least a couple of years. So anyone wanting to see the whole collection will have to settle for the mini-exhibits.
Despite limited presentation, museum officials are thrilled just to have items that reflect local Native culture.
“It puts the museum in another league,” according to Lee Marriott, vice president of the Museum of the North Beach. “It opens up history around here.”
Museum officials say not much is known yet about how old the pieces are or how much they could be worth. Topete’s family has cataloged some of the pieces with a list of who made them. Museum officials say they are meeting with a Quinault tribal member to examine the collection soon to learn more about it.
“It’s going to be a huge research project,” Marriott said.
Topete began collecting Native art in the 1950s. She lived in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Topete owned an importing business, while her husband was a pilot for Northwest Airlines. Her husband would often find items for the import stores on his trips. Topete’s store had things from around the world, but Topete was particularly drawn to Native American art, according to her son Rob Curtright, a co-owner of the Ocean Crest Resort.
In 1953, Topete and her family moved to Moclips and opened the resort. Quinault tribal members often sold Topete baskets to sell in her gift shop. Many of the baskets were made by well-known weavers such as Mattie Howeattle and Beatrice Black.
Tribal members would often come to the Ocean Crest Resort with paper bags filled with baskets in hopes of selling them, Topete said. According to Topete, grocery stores refused to buy them and the only places that would take them were local taverns, which would charge a commission.
Topete decided to buy them and keep them at the resort for admiring guests to purchase.
“It was their way to make a little money and I was happy to help them out,” Topete said. “I was happy to have them (the baskets) and guests were happy to have them.”
Topete developed close friendships with the Quinault basket makers. Howeattle once joined Topete on a family vacation to Mexico.
“Everyone mistook her for a Mexican Lady,” Topete said. “She chuckled and replied to them in the Chinook language.”
Topete continued selling the baskets, but ended up keeping some of them. Eventually, her collection grew to more than 200 pieces.
Her collection may be as large, or larger than the collection of Quinault basketry at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture in Seattle. The Seattle collection has approximately 200 baskets Burke officials either know are Quinault or have a possible association with the tribe, according to Rebecca Andrews, an ethnology collections manager at the Burke.
She said many of the baskets at the Burke haven’t been identified because many coastal tribes in the Pacific Northwest created their baskets using similar styles, making it difficult to connect the baskets to a certain tribe. Andrews hasn’t seen Topete’s collection, but said it may hold the key to unlocking the mystery behind some of the Burke’s pieces.
“Maybe someday we’ll be able to see the collection so we can start identifying the baskets we have here,” Andrews said. “It’s great that she (Topete) kept them all and having that many baskets that can be identified is fabulous.”
Baskets are sacred to Lelani Chubby, manager of the Quinault Cultural Affairs Center in Taholah. She has a strong connection to the women who made the baskets in Topete’s collection.
Chubby’s grandmother was friends with Howeattle and Black, who was known to the community as “Grandma Black.” When Chubby was 15, she took a basket-weaving class at her grandfather’s house, which was taught by a group of tribal elders, one of whom was Black.
Chubby was the youngest in the group. Although she had acquired a skill, she didn’t have an affinity for it at first.
“I was a teenager and didn’t think it was important,” Chubby said.
When she turned 30, Chubby had a rough asthma attack, which she says prevented her from working for a long time. So she turned to basketry as a source of income and a hobby.
“My baskets were so ugly back then,” Chubby said, noting she hadn’t practiced the craft in years. “I would throw them in the trash, but my husband would keep them.”
To re-learn the skill, Chubby would disassemble completed baskets and study their structures so she could teach herself to make them step-by-step.
She became so enamored with making baskets she decided to teach basket-making to young Quinault women.
“I was really fortunate to learn,” Chubby said. “I wanted them to be fortunate. It’s very rewarding to teach our people.”
No one showed up for Chubby’s first class except for Nellie Ramirez, a 77-year-old tribal woman already proficient at making baskets.
“She took my hand and said, ‘I’m here. They’ll come.’”
Week by week more people came and soon the group grew to more than a dozen.
Chubby taught the class for many years until she began working at the Cultural Affairs Center in 1991.
She says contrary to popular belief, basket-making is still widely practiced in Native coastal communities, but the main purpose of baskets today is art. Modern technology has replaced the functions of baskets, which were used for holding whale harpoons and lines, cooking, gathering berries, clams and wood, and sometimes carrying small children.
Chubby said basket-making is also a form of therapy. It comforted her when her mother died a few years ago. Chubby began making a pink basket with salmonberry flowers and said she felt as if her mother spoke to her as she wove.
“I’d sit there and pray for her help, and it was like she was moving my fingers and hands,” Chubby said. “I weave because it calms me down. It’s a healing.”
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