A few weeks ago, I returned from a visit to see my brother in Sacramento, California. We did some sightseeing. I had not visited the state capitol up until then. Old Town’s Museum covered the Gold Rush’s beginnings of what became Sacramento. The California State Indian Museum had a collection of California’s Native Community art and historical artifacts.
In their collection, I found the baskets from California’s Native American communities to be captivating and beautiful. The weaving of the intricate and meticulous design work for the baskets communicated the depth of knowledge of the artistic process that was understood and treasured by a rich and varied group of people.
“California’s cultural diversity matched its biodiversity: it contained the most diverse native cultural groups of any other state or country of comparable geographic size from the Arctic to the tip of South America…Alfred Kroeber listed between five and six hundred tribes as the number of sociopolitical and economic groups that were autonomous and self-governing” M. Kat Anderson, Wildlife, Plants, and People. Chapter 1.
The intricacy of the forms and the durability of the materials employed, especially their color permanence, is remarkable.
“Basketry was (and still is) an art form, a means of self-expression. A basket was so much a part of a person who made it that a weaver’s peers could often recognize the weaver by a basket’s subtle style, its grade of weave, and its designs. Basket makers say that a decorative pattern is not preplanned; “it just happens.” The ethnobotanist David Prescott Barrows commented on this phenomenon among Cahuilla: No model or pattern is ever used; the basket takes ready shape under her skillful fingers, and is always symmetrical and shapely, and the intricate regularity of pattern carefully preserved.” M. Kat Anderson, Wildlife, Plants, and People.Chapter 6: Basketry.
Since I am located in California, I also found it a worthy subject to delve into as it relates to my own preparatory study of the process involved in creating art using natural dyes. It is fascinating to read about the practice employed by Native Californian basket weavers to cultivate and prepare their materials.
California Indian’s cultivation of “wild” plants for basketry blurred the line between gathering and agriculture. When one considers the spectacular numbers of plants parts produced for basketry (a small Western Mono gift basket required more than 1,000 deergrass flower stalks; one sedge basket required 1,000 rhizomes) the cultivated plants come close to fitting the definition of a “crop.”…In addition, the continuous intergenerational visits of native people to the same gathering sites point to semisedentary lifestyles, similar to those of New World farmers.” Ibid.
At the Museum’s entrance garden, I found Western Redbud, a plant cultivated by Native American weavers for the bark’s reddish color.
The basketry craft was a concrete expression of native people’s seamless connection to the natural world…A basket’s fineness of weave and perfection of design were not achieved by skill alone. Its beauty began with tending the native plants that were to “become” the basket. Whether it was iris in coastal prairies, bracken fern in red fir forest, sourberry in coastal scrub, deergrass in chaparral, or oak in blue oak woodlands, almost every type of sedge, wildflower, fern, bush, tree or grass used in a basket was fussed over and meticulously groomed by weavers. Ibid.
Over the last set of months, I have found myself selecting plants and preparing a strategy to cultivate them in a garden. My focus has been mostly on flowering plants that have been used to fashion natural dyes. I have a wide global selection of seeds available to me. Amongst my choice of plants, I have included a number of California Natives along with others used in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. So far, I am including Marigolds, Chamomile (used in Turkey for carpet production), Coreopsis, Indigo, Lady’s Bedstraw (used in Scotland for tartans), St. John’s Wort, Rudbeckia, Tansy and a number of others that are good candidates from which to harvest their petals. These plants also need to be non-toxic. I had to let go of Pokeweed and the reddish purple dyes it could offer (out of concern for my son, family dogs and neighbors’ cats) since it was poisonous.
It is interesting to read about the rather extensive preparation that Native American communities also had to undertake as they managed the cultivation of the plants they used for materials to weave their baskets.
Branches, stems, leaves, roots and rhizomes, if left to grow willy-nilly, end up crooked, brittle, and short and are rejected by weavers. It is no coincidence that in a basket weaver’s home, the whorls of basketry material on the shelves are as orderly and regular as neatly coiled rolls of synthetic string, or that long, uniform branch rods are as neatly bundled as stacks of wooden dowels. Nature just doesn’t grow that way. On close examination, these materials exhibit features usually not present in the wild: they have no blemishes, no insects, no side branching. To gather parts like these by the ton, weavers had to cultivate. Ibid.
While at the Museum, I located a number of reading source materials with the assistance of Marion Millin (Park Aide and Statewide Museum Collections Technician). In particular, she brought to my attention the fact that the specialized cultivation of the basket making materials was an area that had been largely overlooked by those assessing the workmanship involved in the art form of basket weaving.
The visit to Sacramento proved to be a very nice opportunity to learn about other communities, in this case Californian Native American basket weavers and their art-making process. I was glad to find that their work process also included the cultivation of a garden from which to draw the natural materials employed in their craft. Since this discovery, I will most likely find myself considering how other cultures and people’s have gone about the selection and cultivation of the plants they used for their dyes. At this point, I am interested in the petals and leaf pigments that will best serve my needs, and in order to do this, I have started to develop a gardening mindset within the art-making process of my studio space.