By Mary Lou Walbergh
The livin' was easy, and the art was superb. From the late 1800s, the tribes of the far Northwestern California created baskets unmatched for beauty anywhere in the world. It has been speculated that this was possible partly because the climate was fairly benign, the rivers were teeming with salmon, the woods full of deer, and the oaks loaded with acorns. This allowed for a culture in which talented women were able to weave long hours every day, honing their skills to a level which is not possible in these complicated modern times, and creating baskets of rare beauty.
These baskets are known, collectively and informally, as Hupa, because the local trading post was located in the town of Hoopa (incorrectly spelled by the whites who named it) but actually there were six tribes living and weaving baskets within that tiny space: Hupa, Yurok, Karuk, Tolowa, Whilkut and Wiyot. They all spoke different languages, and indeed, those languages derived from three different base languages: Hokan, Athabascan, and Algonquin.
The baskets themselves are woven by the twining technique, with the warp being of hazel or willow sticks and the base weft being conifer root, either pine or spruce. Over that is twined the decorative layer: white beargrass, black maidenhair fern, red woodwardia fern (dyed red with the bark of the alder tree) and sometimes porcupine quill, dyed yellow with staghorn lichen. Even their utility baskets, such as cooking and eating bowls for mush, were beautifully done: a background of the pale brown conifer root, usually with a bear grass band of decoration.
In the early days, these people had no metal vessels, so acorn meal mush was cooked by mixing the acorn meal with water and putting the cold, pasty mush into a basket and adding hot stones, stirring the mush with a mush paddle. The old cooking baskets still bear the scorch marks. Tribal members are currently seeking the cooking baskets, so as to teach their children how it was done in the old days.
The period between the very early 1900s and WWII could be termed the Golden Age of basketmaking, when the art of the weavers rose to its highest level. Tourists and basket dealers came into that area, and Indian baskets of all sorts were a very popular decorating accessory, as they went so well with the Arts and Crafts furniture of the time. The most famous of the dealers was a woman named Grace Nicholson, who bought from many women, but who almost exclusively handled the work of the most famous and skilled of all the weavers, Elizabeth Conrad Hickox.
Elizabeth's story would make a great movie. Her mother, Polly Steve, was a full blood Wiyot. Polly and her sister were standing by the river one day when a German gold prospector named William Conrad paddled by, with his brother, in a canoe. The two men stopped and asked the pre-teen girls if they would like to come with them. The men seem to have behaved honorably, asking permission of the parents, and respecting the girls until they were of (young) marriageable age, and then legally marrying them. The result of William's marriage to Polly Steve was Elizabeth Conrad, who married Luther Hickox, a Karuk man. The name Elizabeth Conrad Hickox is legendary in basket circles, and you could buy a new, mid-size automobile for the price of one of her magnificent, lidded trinket baskets, which are absolutely unmistakable, and so fine that no one has ever been able to copy them.
Sadly, the Lizzies (as her baskets are fondly called today) are almost the only ones which can be identified by sight, and since most of the dealers and collectors in the old days didn't seem to care about properly attributing the baskets to their weavers, the vast majority of the baskets are unidentified. Since the techniques are the same for all the tribes, except for the Whilkut (now thought to be extinct as a tribal entity) in whose baskets the design shows roughly on the inside, it is fairly impossible to even visually identify the tribal origin of the baskets, much less the name of the weaver. Since woodwardia grew so much better upstream on the Klamath, the Karuk used a lot more of it in their baskets, so if a basket has mostly red in it, it is much more likely to be Karuk, but that's about the only clue, except that occasionally we can spot a weaver's favorite pattern, and assume the basket to be hers. The utility baskets are the same for all the tribes. Only if the buyer thought to write a small note with the weaver's name, and to keep it with the basket, are we able to know the tribe and the weaver.
The amazing thing about these baskets is not only how fine, and how wonderfully executed they are, but that the pattern, often unbelievably complex and detailed, seems always to come out perfectly, with the design elements evenly spaced, a characteristic which does not exist to this degree in the baskets of any other Native American tribe. Plus they all came out of a time when the livin' was easy and the art so very superb!
Mary Lou Walbergh has loved collecting baskets her entire life. Last January Smoke Signals reviewed the book she penned, Tales of Tecopa, the story of her youth and the nexus of her passion for history and beautiful objects. You can find Mary Lou at the High Noon shows circling beautiful Indian baskets! Or contact her via email at: MLWalbergh@aol.com
Top: A small trinket basket by Elizabeth Conrad Hickox. The swooping knob, intricate design, and use of quill and fern are hallmarks of her distinctive style.
2nd: Fern negative basket. Fern is so hard to weave that few weavers ever used it as the background material.
3rd: Perhaps a Tolowa basket, from the collection of Doc Stuart. The Tolowa often did spaced design elements, instead of a circling, continuous design.
4th: A very complex dance hat, possibly done by Amy Smoker, as the pattern is a variation of her favorite. Not sure, however.
Last: Two large acorn storage baskets, a mush paddle, giant cooking bowl, and other utility baskets.