Baskets: Sharing Our Stories

For the Cahuilla people, baskets have always been a central part of life.  Basket making is an involved process, from going outside to gather the plants, to making offerings for the plants that are gathered, to cleaning and preparing the plants, to the actual weaving of the baskets.

Juncus Baskets by Lydia Vassar

“Juncus Baskets by Lydia Vassar,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog

For centuries, indigenous peoples managed the land through basket weaving. Practices required for basketry such as weeding, pruning and controlled burnings are how Cahuilla people tended to and sustained the land.  Similar to how gardeners prune their roses so that the roses stay healthy, trimming and gathering local plants makes the plants themselves grow stronger. Cahuilla elders explain that if people stop attending to and harvesting Native plants, the plants will not continue to grow.  Human neglect of plant communities has already had disastrous consequences for the region’s ecosystem.  Thus, it is critically important that Cahuilla and other indigenous people keep using local plants, for the livelihood of the plants and the surrounding environment.

Gathering sumac for baskets

Gathering sumac for baskets

“Abe Sanchez Gathering Basket Sumac,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog

Baskets are used in every aspect of Cahuilla life, from the beginning of one’s life with the baby basket, to basket hats, to food processing, storage, cooking, transporting resources, ceremonies, gift exchanges and much more. As such, baskets are of great significance to Cahuilla culture and embedded in the histories of the local community. The teaching of basket weaving is typically done by elders, whose knowledge and experience come from years, usually decades, of careful practice that have produced exceptional baskets.  Many Cahuilla baskets are regarded as works of art and exhibited in museums all over the world.

Different stories are told through baskets. Many include the original Cahuilla stories of the moon maiden and her teachings about basketry to the first people.  She showed people how to make baskets and taught them about the designs, types of plants to use, and where to gather those plants. Within these stories, people learned about the plants, the animals, and the land, similar to the lessons contained in bird songs.

Basket Cornucopia

“Basket Cornucopia,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog

In order to continue basket making today, Cahuilla people work with local, state, and federal agencies like the National Park Service, as such agencies manage many of their traditional gathering areas. Gatherers inform agency staff about indigenous uses for local plants and resources in effort to prevent the use of harmful pesticides.  This outreach is part of Cahuilla people’s role as caretakers of the land, not just on reservations but in city parks, state parks, and private land.  Cooperation between agencies and Native communities is important, not only to local gatherers and basket weavers, but to the survival of the land itself.

Open Weave and Coiled Juncus Baskets

“Open Weave and Coiled Juncus Baskets,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog