Valley Center resident Lydia Vassar, left, along with fellow basket weavers do a basket dance in celebration of their first basket of the day.
Strands of time: Basketweavers work their art with history
"In our weaving circle, we have people from five different bands," Lydia Vassar said, putting finishing touches on a Pomo Indian-style American Indian basket. "We're a group of mostly women of any race, any age," she continued. "It's like an extended family. And though we aren't related by blood, we're related by common interest and in spirit."
Vassar exchanged friendly conversation as she was winding down after weaving classes on the first day of the 15th annual California Indian Basketweavers Gathering, held recently at the Cupa Cultural Center on the Pala Indian Reservation. The three-day event attracted basket weavers and admirers of the art from the reaches of California and Mexico to share and learn the venerated traditions of the first Americans.
The weaving circle Vassar referred to contains members of five tribes, plus non-Indians, she said. The circle has been together for four years, she said, meeting weekly under the tutelage of a master basket weaver from San Juan Capistrano.
The group doesn't exclude men but, since it meets during the day, many men are working or have other obligations, she said. The members share materials and skills, support each other in projects and in their outside lives, Vassar said.
The goal of the gathering, like that of Vassar's weaving circle, was to keep alive the weaving traditions that have existed since ancient times when, as the saying goes, the earth didn't belong to people, rather people belonged to the earth.
Vassar, whose family has lived in the Valley Center area for five generations, is a member of the San Luis Rey Mission Indians. Around her, tables were strewn with weaving materials.
"We were learning to use tule (too-lee)," Vassar said, displaying a basket woven of the material that was about the size of her two hands and resembled the head of a a lacrosse stick. "I can take that technique and use larger strands and make a bigger basket," she said.
That kind of enhanced learning is part of the purpose of the California Indian Basketweavers Association: to preserve, promote and perpetuate California Indian basketweaving traditions, according to information provided by the group. One way the group does this is by providing opportunities to study traditional basketry techniques and forms and to showcase the work, their Web site said.
The gathering's unifying theme of the day was transforming natural resources such as the hearty Juncus , a reed whose reddish-color base is used to create the intricate designs woven into the baskets; deer grass; tule, a light green reed used to make dolls, thatch roofs, sleeping mats, boats, bags and baskets; and yucca, which is dried and shredded for the starts of the baskets as well as to make rope and sandals. The weavers' skills elevate their creations from utility to art.
Colletta Cole, 23, of Santa Ana, is a basketry student who has been working at basket weaving for about five years, she said. Cole serves as a member-at-large of the tribal council of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, traditionally known as the Acjachemen Nation, whose ancestral lands comprised what's now Orange County. Cole holds a bachelor's degree in Gender, Ethnicity and Multicultural Studies from Cal Poly Pomona.
In addition to giving out samples of weaving materials and colorfully wrapped sage bundles to visitors at the gathering, she offered pieces of cornbread made with chia seeds, a valuable source of protein and nutrients that can still be gathered from flowers that grow near Warner Springs and Rainbow, off Pala Road.
Permits and permission are needed to harvest materials in most places, she said. And it's best to give a courtesy notification to those who own the property, she said, "so folks won't call the sheriff."
What makes people want to continue the basket-making tradition? Why not just purchase a basket at a store? Because baskets and weaving are a big part of the American Indian culture, not separate, said Lorene Sisquoc, curator of the Sherman Indian Museum in Riverside.
"It has so much more meaning when it's made," Sisquoc said. "All your good thoughts are put into the work. It helps you connect with your environment and your inner peace. It helps to balance you and you thoughts while you're thinking about your heritage. The weaving connects to everything ---- the culture, the language, the environment. It connects us with our culture because we use it for everything: clothing, hats, eating utensils, and even our funerals."
In the process of learning to make baskets, students learn a lot of other things, said Sisquoc. Even picking and choosing the materials, people must be mindful to respect the land and not pick too much.
"It helps us learn about our traditional values by practicing those ways," she said. "It gives more meaning to whatever we're using them for."
Sisquoc is a Fort Sill Apache/Mountain Cahuilla Indian. She serves on the board of directors of the California Indian Basket Weavers Association and has coordinated many traditional weaving circles with local tribal members. Co-founder and treasurer of the Nex'wetem, Southern California Indian Basketweavers, which was organized to assure the continuance of this art, she also serves on the board of directors of the Malki Museum, a native-run museum on the Morongo reservation that tells the history of the Southern California Indian tribes.
The two most common weaving techniques in the Southwest are twining, which interweaves materials horizontally and vertically; and coiling, which is like sewing with an awl. Plaiting is also common.
Each tribe has its own weaving technique, Sisquoc said. Even neighbors have little variations among them. Baskets are woven according to available plants and materials in the area and traditional patterns, legends and customs of the tribe that were passed from generation to generation.
According to legends, basket weaving was considered a gift to the people from the sacred "first beings," such as the Moon Maiden Menyil who taught the Cahuilla people the skill. During the weaving process, the beginning stories are handed down, "because ours is an oral tradition," Sisquoc said.
"It was something that was taught to us for a purpose," she said, "to be done respectfully."
California Indian Basketweavers Association
PO Box 1348 Woodland, CA 95776-1348
or visit www.ciba.org/
Sherman Indian Museum, Lorene Sisquoc, curator
9010 Magnolia Avenue, Riverside
Basket collection on exhibit and summer basket weaving classes on Thursday
Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation
Upcoming Basketry Classes
Temecula Valley Museum plans a workshop July 20 on basket making and American Indian toys and games. Call for details. 28314 Mercedes St. Temecula, (951) 694-6450.
Cahuilla Basket Making Workshop
Idyllwild Arts Native American Arts Program
52500 Temecula Road, Idyllwild
Tuition: $495 plus $25 for materials and transportation fee.
(951) 659-2171 or visit www.idyllwildarts.org/
Workshop on Southern California Indian Basketry
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 13, one-day class
Contact UC Riverside Extension at (951) 827-2655 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Riverside Municipal Museum
3580 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission is free. Call (951) 826-5273 or visit www.riversideca.gov/museum/
Cupa Cultural Center
Pala Indian Reservation
35008 Pala Temecula Road, Pala
Contact: (760) 742-1590 or email@example.com
Barona Cultural Center & Museum
1-95 Barona Road, Lakeside
(619) 443-7003 Ext. 219
Information compiled from various sources
Contact staff writer Agnes Diggs at (760) 740-3511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.