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Impearls: HIC 4.10: Basketry

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Basketry   by A. L. Kroeber

The basketry of the Yurok and their immediate neighbors is the finest ware made in a style that extended with only minute variations south to the Wailaki, east as far as the Achomawi, and north at least to the Athabascan tribes on the Umpqua River, if not beyond.  If a number of specimens in the British Museum are representative, the ware of the Kalapuya in the Willamette Valley was similar.

This type of basketry is unusually specialized in the rigid limitation of its processes.  Coiling, wicker, checker, and twill work are all unknown.  Substantially the only technique is simple twining, with patterns throughout in “facing,” that is, overlay.  Three-strand twining is customary for starts and strengthening courses, and diagonal twining is known, but neither weave is regularly employed for entire vessels.  Wrapped twining and false embroidery are common farther north, and lattice twining and three-strand braiding are used to the south, but are never followed in the local area constituted by northwestern California and southwestern Oregon.

The Yurok employ hazel shoots almost exclusively for their warps.  The normal woofs are the split roots of conifers — pine, redwood, or spruce.  For special purposes, such as the first courses of a basket or especially fine work, strands split from the roots of willows, grapevines, and other bushes are substituted.  The conifer roots are of a gray or buff color, which turns brown with age.  Service baskets have their patterns made by facing certain woofs with glistening whitish strands of bear grass or squaw grass (Xerophyllum tenax), a material used along the Pacific coast for long distances to the north.  Ornamental baskets have the entire surface overlaid with this brilliant facing, except where it is replaced by patterns in glossy black maidenhair fern stems, Adiantum pedatum, or fibers of the giant fern, Woodwardia radicans, dyed red with chewed alder bark.  Occasionally both colors are used on one basket, but this is uncommon except on caps.  Rather infrequently yellow patterns are introduced, made by steeping Xerophyllum in boiled Evernia vulpina lichen, and still more rarely porcupine quills are treated in the same manner and inserted.  The use of quills seems to have filtered down the river from the Klamath and Modoc.  The Yurok keep the overlay constantly toward the outside, so that no color shows on the interior of the basket except where strand edges peep through the interstices.  Most easterly tribes twist the warp with its facing, so the the pattern is duplicated, though rather roughly, on the inner side.  The materials mentioned are varied slightly by some tribes, but, on the whole, are employed without change as far as the type of basketry prevails.

Some 20 forms of vessels are, or were, made in this technique by the Yurok.

The cooking basket, usually specially for acorn mush, is a bowl with vertical walls and usually a single band of rather light pattern.

A smaller basket of the same kind is used by individuals to eat from, or sometimes to cook in.

A vessel like the cooking basket, but somewhat higher, and often faced solidly with Xerophyllum, serves as a general receptacle around the house.  The decoration runs either vertically or in horizontal bands, sometimes diagonally.

Large baskets, up to 3 feet or more in diameter and height, serve for storage.  Vertical and diagonal patterns prevail.

Similar baskets are made in coarse or open work, often on multiple warps, naturally without decoration.

Loads are carried in a conical basket, which hangs across the shoulders from a strap passing over the forehead.  These baskets are made very neatly in a wide spaced but even open work.  The type is known throughout California as far south as Tehachapi.  (Pl. 9.)  [Ed.:  This may be a typo.  It's unclear which of the plates Kroeber is actually referring to, a possibility being Pl. 23, but see also Pl. 24 and others.]

Similar baskets for gathering seeds are made somewhat smaller in close stitch, usually faced and patterned.

The seeds are whipped in with a beater, a disk of coarse openwork on a handle.

Similar disks, somewhat more hollowed and lacking handles, are plates for individual portions of fish; and large trays of the same type abound in every house.

A close woven tray, faced and patterned either in bands or in radiating diagonals, is 1½ or 2 feet in diameter, and serves to gather and shake acorn meal.

This meal is sifted by the Yurok from a smaller, stiff, and entirely flat tray, which is tapped with a deer leg bone.  The Hupa replace this sifter by one in the form of a very obtuse cone, which does not require tapping.

Similar to the Hupa sifter is a water dipper, used by both tribes.  It is usually unornamented.

A very small bowl or tray, decorated inside, serves parched seed meal.

The rumitsek is a more or less globular basket in openwork, hung about the house to hold spoons, awls, sinews, and odds and ends.  It is sometimes made very prettily with courses of crossed or gathered warp and a pleasingly equal mesh.

The tobacco basket is small, globular or deep, and sometimes provided with a cover of basketry or deerskin.  It is overlaid, but commonly patterned simply.

The hopper for the slab on which acorns are pounded is stiffly reinforced, and usually bears an elementary pattern of bars or dots.

The dance basket serves for display only and has been described above.

The woman's cap has already been mentioned.  The finest and evenest work is best combined in this article.  The disposition of the ornamentation is fundamentally banded, but the principal zone most often contains a series of alternate blocks of triangular pattern.  Sometimes the blocks are rhomboids disposed diagonally.

The cradle or baby carrier is a huge sort of slipper of openwork, stood on its toe or hung from the hoop which forms the heel.  Some strands shut off the toe: on these the child is set and tied in, its feet hanging free.  A more or less dangling round hood may be added to protect the face, but is commoner in specimens made to trade to Americans than in used pieces.  This is a form of the “sitting cradle” that prevails in parts of northern California, as contrasted with the “lying cradle” that most Californians use.  To the eastward of the Yurok, as among the northern Wintun, a simpler shape is used, which is little more than an ovate tray with a handle at the small end.  To the south, the Pomo, a people of great mastery of the textile art, have developed a somewhat different variety of the sitting cradle.  (Pl. 35.)



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