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Reviving the Ancient Art of Basket-Weaving in California

Tribes in California are working to keep alive the ancient craft of basket-weaving, spearheaded by the California Indian Basketweavers Association.

Baskets once held a special place in Native culture. Used for ceremony, carrying children, cooking and other facets of life, they were woven in intricate patterns that told cultural stories, their colors identifying the wood they were made of, the traditions and techniques handed down.

In California this connection remains strong, and earlier this summer a multigenerational group of about 200 people converged at the Redding Rancheria to celebrate the craft at the annual gathering of the California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA). The June 24–26 event brought people from across the 1,000-mile-long state from dozens of cultures with one goal: preserving one of Native America’s oldest art forms and traditional practices.

“There is so much diversity in our weaving,” said CIBA board member Leah Mata, Northern Chumash. “All the tribes in CIBA have different traditions and protocols.”

The organization held weaving classes throughout the weekend, with some of the 12 volunteer teachers specifically designated for youth. This is one of the goals of CIBA, which is “continuing to engage youth in traditional arts” to ensure that the rich diversity of California tribal basket-weaving cultures will endure for centuries to come, the organization said on its website.

“We have such a level of dedication from our members, our board and our volunteers,” Mata noted.

For example, Ipai weaver, cultural scholar and author Justin Farmer regularly donates copies of his books and many basket starts to the silent auction, one of CIBA’s fundraisers. Other people donate huge jars of abalone and prepared basket materials to help support CIBA’s work. And, Mata said, everybody who came to the gathering was very happy to be there. Many willingly shared their expertise or materials.

CIBA was founded in 1991 with the mission of supporting basket weavers and addressing issues related to gathering materials used in the many forms of the craft in California. The nonprofit organization came along a year later. Although California baskets are considered among the world’s finest, and collectors prize them—and continue to appreciate them—for their artistry and technical excellence, the weaving art was in danger of dying out. The transition to a currency-based economy, the loss of traditional gathering areas—and the health risks from using plants in areas where pesticides were used to control weeds—and the move to metal and plastic housewares took its toll on California tribal arts just as in other parts of the country. A group of concerned weavers, museums, land agencies and ethnobotanists undertook the task to revive and sustain basket-weaving.

Over the years, CIBA has worked to support weavers by offering classes in various locations; working with federal, state and local governments and private landowners to gain access to traditional gathering areas, and working to raise awareness about the ill effects of pesticide use on basket plant gathering areas. CIBA also helps weavers who wish to sell their creations, holding a market during the gathering each year and training artisans on how to promote and price their pieces. CIBA has also negotiated to have a booth during the American Indian Art Show in Marin to give weavers an opportunity to start their own art careers by selling during this large exhibition.

CIBA Board President Carrie Lynn Garcia, Luiseño/Cahuilla, said that the organization continues to develop and implement programs to support weavers.

“We have the Native Voices program, which provides funding for rural tribes to train basket weavers,” she said.

CIBA also holds workshops, “Tending the Wild,” based on the eponymous book by M. Kat Anderson (Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2013). The workshops teach weavers about indigenous stewardship models and how to revive them in the stressed regions of the Golden State. Participants learn about the “fire mosaic,” the ancestral method of reviving the lands by burning undergrowth to generate plants; identification and preparation of basketry plants in their area, and how to prepare the materials for weaving.

CIBA’s work is showing results. The numbers of weavers is increasing—CIBA has about 1,000 members—and more weavers are entering the Native art field to sell their baskets, teach or demonstrate the craft. Just as in other parts of the nation, California basketry traditions are undergoing a renaissance, and more young people are interested in learning their own tribe’s art. And more agencies are working with CIBA and with tribal communities to restrict or even eliminate pesticides in gathering areas.

To achieve the massive amount of work required to bring back weaving for the more than 140 California tribes, the board members decided not to reimburse themselves for travel or other expenses, said Mata.

“It’s a grassroots operation,” Garcia said. “We held fundraisers to charter a bus to take us from Southern California up to Redding [a 660-mile trip].”

Thankfully, the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians ended up sponsoring the bus. Mata noted that as tribes change their charitable giving policies and procedures, CIBA is also ensuring that tribes continue to support them by bringing on a new grant writer who understands how to search and secure the resources to keep weavers working.

Both Garcia and Mata are heartened by the number of youth who are asking for classes.

“We’ve had requests from North Fork, from Tule River and from other tribes asking for weaving programs,” Garcia said, adding that the only limiting factor these days is the number of teachers.

“We ask a lot of weavers if they’re willing to teach,” Garcia said. “But we also are respectful of their traditional protocols that they must abide by in sharing their skills with others.”