This is one of the most characteristic arts of California, and it is probably that a museum collection would contain a very large number of specimens. There is danger, however, of giving a disproportionate place to this art in a museum exhibition, conveying the impression that the California Indian did and knew how to do little else than make baskets. Information on Western Mono baskets, except the Northfork group, will remain limited until the publication of Gayton's data. Likewise, the Tubatulabal art must await Vogelin's publications. At present the best description of Yokuts basketry is contained in Kroeber's "Handbook of the Indians of California," 531-4, 819-822, with several illustrations, The Owens Valley Paiute basketry is described in Steward, 1933: 270-274 and illustrated in plates 9 and 10. The Northfork Mono in Gifford, 1932.
Inasmuch as basketry is one of the best known and most wide spread of American Indian arts and as it is most highly developed in California, this is an excellent opportunity to accompany a display of specimens by an exposition of the varieties, techniques, and distributions of baskets and their relationship to other kinds of weaving. An exhibition of basketry should first bring out the fact that there are in America three distinctive weaves, the "coil" or "sewed", the "twined" and the wicker and checkerwork. Although the last is the simplest of the three, it does not occur in California, being found largely in the central and eastern portions of the continent where the other two techniques are lacking. A distribution map, accompanied by sections of diagrammatic weaves could illustrate this broader aspect of basketry in an illuminating manner. The data necessary for such presentation will be found in Mason, 1904. Thomas, 1933, has instructive descriptions of experiments in museum presentation of basketry.
The coiled and twined weaves have slightly different distributions, the latter being limited to the region near the Pacific Coast and therefore being more recent in origin. In central California and among the tribes in the region of Sequoia Park, bath weaves are employed, though for basketry containers, coiling is far more characteristic of the tribes of the Great Basin east of the Sierra. (For an excellent photo of a Northfork Mono making a coiled basket, see Gifford, 1932, plate 16-a, b.)
The most distinctive Yokuts basket is coiled, having a flat shoulder, which was formerly often decorated with quail feathers but recently with red worsted, a constricted neck and bore a banded design in red and black. This is sometimes popularly called the "Tulare bottleneck" and is not found outside the Yokuts and their immediate neighbors, including the Western Mono and Tubatulabal (Kroeber, 1925:531-2). It is very rare among the Owens Valley Paiute, (Steward, 1933:270-271) being a distinctly south central California form that had not invaded the Great Basin. (For illustrations of this see Kroeber, 1925: plate 50,a.)
Another coiled Yokuts basket is the large, flat tray, decorated generally with bands, and employed for dice throwing and other uses. (Kroeber, 1925:532.) This is another form that did not cross the Sierra.
The characteristic Owens Valley Paiute coiled basket is bowl shaped and bears banded designs in red and black. Sometimes these are oval in shape. (Steward, 1933:270-1, plate 9). The finest of this type are made by a few Shoshoni living in the vicinity of Lone Pine, who nearly equal the Washo in basketry skill. Other Shoshoni to the east and southeast also make excellent specimens. (For Northfork Mono, see Gifford, 1932, plate 12.)
Twined vessels include a number of types. The woman's hat, used largely to protect the head from the carrying band or tumpline, was made by both Yokuts and Owens Valley Paiute and is a characteristically southern California form. (Kroeber, 1925:532) The Owens Valley hat was woven in diagonal twine and was decorated with banded designs woven in brown, then painted over with black, an unusual method. (Steward, 1933:273, Illustrations, plate 10.)
The large, conical carrying basket, used in gathering food, seeds, etc., and in transportation of various goods, is characteristic of the Great Basin peoples where it is well made and is decorated with banded designs. (Steward, 1933,272, plate 10.) This was also made by the Yokuts, but the weave is much inferior, being coarser. (Kroeber, 1925.523.) For the Northfork Mono, see Gifford, 1932, plate 9. Another twined basket developed by the Great Basin tribes in conjunction with their use of wild seeds is the flat, fan-shaped, tray-like winnowing basket. (Steward, 1933:272-3, plate 10, Gifford, 1932, plate 10.) This also occurred among the Yokuts but was almost certainly borrowed from the east of the Sierra as it is not general in California. (Kroeber, 1925:523, plate 50-e.) Somewhat like a small winnowing tray but equipped with a handle and of open twine was the seed beater, used by both peoples. (Kroeber, 1925:532, plate 50; Steward, 1933:272 and plate 9c.)
Distinctive of the Great Basin tribes and correlated with their need of transporting water in their arid environment was the pitchcoated, twined water bottle. (Steward, 1933:273 and plate 9-i and Gifford, 1932, plate 14-a.) This was used very little, if at all, by the tribes west of the summit of the Sierra. A distinctive San Joaquin valley basket is that woven crudely of tules, both coiled and twined. (Kroeber, 1925:532-3, plate 50.) The Yokuts also made large baskets to ferry women and children across rivers. (Kroeber, 1925:533.) Practically no detailed information has been published on the basketry of the Tubatulabal, while that of the Western Mono is limited to the Northfork group. In general, the basketry of these two peoples is said to resemble closely that of the southern Yokuts.
For coiled basketry, the Yokuts employed a foundation or warp of a bundle of Epicampes grass, as did most tribes of southern California, and a wrapped or sewed element of woody material which was usually the root fibers of sedge (Carex or Cladium ?) for the ground color, Pteridium fern root for the black, and bark of Cercis or redbud for red. (Kroeber, 1925:532.) Mallery, p. 52, adds cedar roots for red, willow roots for white. For red, the Tubatulabal used tree yucca roots instead of Cercis (Kroeber, 1925:608). This was also used by the eastern desert dwelling tribes where available. The Owens Valley Paiute rarely used the grass foundation, but employed instead three (occasionally two) rods of willow (Salix sessilifolia Nuttall). For the base or ground color, the wrapped element is a willow spint; for the black design, it is fern root or painted inner willow bark; for the red design, it is the root of some aquatic plant or of tree yucca. Twined baskets have the same materials. (Steward, 1933:270-273.)
A recent innovation in Owens Valley basketry, perhaps originating at Mono Lake, is that of covering b owl-shaped vessels with beads.
It is important that a museum exposition of basketry should not indulge the usual white man's fancies as to the meaning of Indian designs. They were not religious or symbolical; they were not pictorial; they did not represent abstract ideas; they did not delineate composite stories. They were merely designs, used primarily for their aesthetic value, and were given names to distinguish them. Such names are "flies", "deer foot", "rattlesnake markings", etc., etc. (Kroeber, 1925:533 has given a number of these with illustrations for the Yokuts. Gifford, 1932, fig. 2, has done the same for the Northfork Mono.)
A museum exposition of basketry designs could also bring out the manner in which basketry technique limits designs to geometric forms, following the illuminating discussion of Holmes, 1888.
Attention should also be called to the fact that among the nonpottery making tribes and to some extent among such poor potters as those under discussion here, boiling was accomplished by lifting hot rocks into water-tight baskets. Basketry also served many other purposes as outlined above. In short, basketry was to the tribes of California and the Great Basin what pottery was to the Southwestern tribes, articles of hide to the bison-hunting Plains tribes, and articles of wood to the Northwest Coast tribes.
Nothing in the way of true fabrics was made by any of these tribes. The nearest to it was the rabbit skin blanket, which is of general occurrence throughout California, the Great Basin, and the Southwest. Specimens are now rare, but are more likely to be secured from the desert tribes. In some measure, the tribes west of the Sierra substituted blankets woven of bird skin, but it is not certain to what extent this had taken hold among the Tubatulabal, Western Mono, and foothill Yokuts. Birds were used to a very limited extent by the Paiute. Making a rabbit skin blanket is described by Steward, 1933:269-270.
String or cord was made by all these people, milkweed fiber generally being employed. For a description with excellent photos of this, see Gifford, 1932, p. 28 and plates 6 and 7.
Belts of glass beads are sometimes woven in Owens Valley, where a bow shaped loom is used.