of Riverside Metropolitan Museum
basket more than 100 years old took a place in philatelic history when
it was featured on a United States postage stamp.
from Heritage Keepers Newsletter Volume 2, No. 3 © Dorothy Ramon
Coiled and woven into baskets, then used for every purpose
by Michael K. Lerch
Deer grass in San Bernardino National Forest by Pat Murkland
before there were Tupperware containers, Revere Ware pots and pans, cast-iron
skillets, or even painted ceramic ollas, there were baskets. People have
made containers out of plants for thousands of years. Baskets more than
11,000 years old have been recovered from dry caves in the high deserts
of the Great Basin. Along with baskets, plants also were used to make
sandals, cradles, and various types of matting and bags, as well as hats,
seed-beaters, and even water jugs sealed with pine pitch. Here we focus
on basketry trays and containers made by the Native peoples of Southern
California during historical times, building on a tradition that undoubtedly
had ancient roots similar to those of their desert cousins.
Baskets can be made by twining or coiling, and it is the latter method
that made Southern California Indian baskets, historically known as Mission
baskets, prized by collectors in the early twentieth century. Among the
many types of traditional forms were flat trays used for parching seeds
with hot coals; large, flare-sided baskets used for cooking and storage;
large flat-bottomed, cone-shaped burden baskets; and small, globular baskets
used as gifts. The acorn granary made of wormwood, arrowweed, or willow
was itself actually a very large basket.
Coiled baskets were made most often of three important plants —
deer grass, rush, and sumac — shown here
of the basket was made of deer grass, around which splints of other plants
such as rush or sumac were coiled. Deer grass has a tough straight stalk
somewhat like oat straw. Basket weavers used a portion of the stem above
the uppermost joint, which sometimes reached a length of about eighteen
inches. This material was gathered and tied in bundles for later use.
Several species of Juncus were used to wrap the coils, including
the aptly named J. textilis, and J. acutus. Both seem
to have the same Native name. However, another species, J. effusus,
was known to the Serrano by a separate name, máhwatshr.
The color of the Juncus ranged from deep rust brown at its root to a light
straw color at its tips.
The weaver split the rush with fingers and teeth into three equal portions,
rolled it into coils, then stored until needed. The Juncus splints were
dyed black occasionally by using solutions containing elderberries (Sambucus
mexicana) and stems, or in later times, rusty nails, in which the
coiled, prepared materials were soaked. They could also be buried in the
sulphur mud of hot springs. Sometimes the splints were soaked in a yellowish-brown
dye produced from the dalea (Dalea emoryi).
Another plant also used for wrapping was the sumac, Rhus trilobata.
The new shoots of the sumac were gathered in the early spring, split into
three equal sections, and with the aid of a sharp stone or knife, scraped
to remove the outer brown bark. Most often, the sumac splints were left
their natural white color. The Serrano called this material yeranka,
which means “white one.” Sumac splints also were dyed black
by soaking them in an elderberry solution. Other sources of basketry material
included the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), called
mámau’tsh in Serrano and maul
in Cahuilla, and the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), chermatshr
in Serrano. Fan palm leaves provided white splints in basket-making, and
Joshua tree roots were used to make a dark, reddish-brown design in the