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Indian Culture
(Owens Valley Paiute, Tubatulabal, Western Mono, Yokuts)


Inasmuch as basketry is one of the best known and most wide spread of American Indian arts, this is one of the most characteristic and highly developed arts of California Native Americans.

In basketry 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.

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, both weaves are employed, though for basketry containers, coiling is far more characteristic of the tribes of the Great Basin east of the Sierra.

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. It is very rare among the Owens Valley Paiute, being a distinctly south central California form that had not invaded the Great Basin.

Another coiled Yokuts basket is the large, flat tray, decorated generally with bands, and employed for dice throwing and other uses. 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.

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. 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.

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. This was also made by the Yokuts, but the weave is much inferior, being coarser. 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. This also occurred among the Yokuts but was almost certainly borrowed from the east of the Sierra as it is not general in California. Somewhat like a small winnowing tray but equipped with a handle and of open twine was the seed beater, used by both peoples.

Distinctive of the Great Basin tribes and correlated with their need of transporting water in their arid environment was the pitchcoated, twined water bottle. 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. The Yokuts also made large baskets to ferry women and children across rivers. 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 owl-shaped vessels with beads.

It is important not to 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.

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.

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