POMO BASKETMAKING: A SUPREME ART FOR THE WEAVER, Elsie Allen, Naturegraph Publishers, Happy Camp, CA; 800/390-5353. 1972, 1992 reprint, paperback, 67 pages, many black and white photos, $6.95. 87961-016-6

This book is very highly recommended. It is clearly written with numerous photographs and drawings, and will be accessible to younger readers, as well as the adults for whom it was written. Elsie's book is fascinating for anyone interested in baskets, Pomo people, or a Native woman's personal history woven into a life of an art and a craft that is more in harmony with nature, more environmentally-centred -- because of its use of living plants -- than any other art or craft. The Pomo basketmaker is, of ncessity, a natural scientist, and the necessities of the lat 20th century force her to be an environmentalist too, if her art is to survive.

The basketmaker "worked constantly with sky and earth and living plants, with great patience and devotion, to create something of superlative beauty. She watched the sky and also felt the sky, its changing moods and signs of what was coming, so that she knew by the literal feel of the air, something reaching her inner being, that now was the time to make a trip to the eastern mountains to collect the inner bark of the Redbud tree...." So wrote publisher Vinson Brown, in an introduction to this book. I would add that later parts of Elsie Allen's life after the 72 years of it she chronicles here concern water, more than sky -- the drowning of a Pomo valley that had been the major source of basketry plants, especially sedge, whose roots are the sewing or weft, by the dam which now forms Lake Sonoma.

Pomo women spearheaded the unsuccessful opposition to the drowning. Elsie Allen, then in her 80's, was the principal Indian consultant employed in a court-mandated Warm Springs Dam Cultural Resources Study. Though there was concern at the drowning of some burial grounds and ancient Pomo village sites, Elsie's concern was to try to save the plants, so necessary for continuation of the millennia-old art of Pomo basketry. That's not touched on in this book, which was completed in 1972.

You can see quite a bit more about Elsie's life, and some photos that are drawn from her book in my basketry art section. I was inspired to do this section very largely by Elsie's book (and Ojibwe elder Edith Bonde's split globe basket). I very highly recommend the book, which weaves together a real story with a real art.

Elsie Allen (1899-1990) was a tribal scholar, and a famous California Pomo basket weaver, who came from a family in which there was a long tradition of this art. According to Kathleen Smith, Dry Creek Pomo, herself a scholar of a younger generation, "Elsie felt this urge that if she didn't share what she knew, it would die. She didn't want it to die, so she broke with the real strong tradition of not teaching it to those outside your family. She got a lot of flack, but the time was right for people to listen to her." Elsie was apparently the first weaver ever to teach Pomo basketry outside her immediate family. This little book, written in 1972, with the help of her granddaughter and considerable help from the publisher in photography and drawings, is part of what and how she shared -- her life, as well as the demanding art and environmental knowledge.

Elsie's early life was hard, as it was for most California Indians of the early 20th century. Subjected to the first official U.S. Army massacre, at Bloody island in 1850 (see Brief Pomo history), rounded up and interned at Round Valley and Fort Bragg, the Pomo had pooled money from labors -- and basket sales -- to buy back some small patches of their former land -- but by the early 20th century this had been lost to swindles, and to inability to keep up mortgage and tax payments. Extreme racism characterized what they faced in their traditional homeland of north-central California.

In her early years, she lived with her grandmother in the Cloverdale area, where nature was her teacher. There were no other children for hr to play with. The little girl made dolls for herself of cattail grass. She gave bushes, trees, willows names. They were persons and playmates in her imagination. She describes an early nearly-fatal illness that was cured by her grandfather, an Indian singing doctor, which she felt gave her some health protection in later life. When her mother remarried after her father's death, she lived with her great uncle and grandfather who worked for local ranchers. In summers, they lived in a traditional house made of willow, "and my grandmother built m a bed that was high off the ground, on cross-pieces of willow resting on four large stakes driven into the ground" and a mattress of corn husks. The high bed "was to keep it out of range of snakes."

Her life became harder, when she was taken away from her family and sent to one of the government boarding schools, whose intent was to destroy Indian language and culture. At her first job (as a cleaning woman in San Francisco), the white householders treated her like a prisoner. She was never allowed out of their house. Later, she worked in a hospital (as a cleaning woman). Through the years of raising her children, when she worked as a domestic, did field labor for white farmers, and -- her softest job, laundress, she had little time to make baskets. Those she did make were buried with relatives, which saddened and discouraged her.

Elsie's mother, Annie Burke, and other older relatives, were accomplished weavers. Annie Burke had a large basket collection she showed at state fairs. She wanted Elsie to continue this tradition, and not to bury her baskets with her, as was the Pomo custom. She wanted Elsie to have all those baskets, to learn from and to teach with. To teach, among other things, that "Pomo people aren't dumb," by showing it, through these beautiful products of art, knowledge, skill and work (som of these baskets take years of steady work to make, and an equal time to gather, prepare and cure the plant materials). Elsie promised to do this, and upon her mother's death, when Elsie herself was 62 and her children and grandchildren no longer needed her full-time support, became a full-time weaver.

This means gathering and properly preparing the plants used -- willow, sedge roots, bulrush roots and redbud. Elsie discusses gathering the plants, and the relation of the weaver to the earth, water, sky, and seasons. It is fundamentally a wholistic, environmental-protective lifeway, one wholly integrated with both processes and products (plant materials for baskets) of the natural world. Gathering roots and shoots became increasingly difficult to do, because the California land was being developed, sprayed with poisonous pesticides that killed birds and small animals as well as plants considered weeds, built upon and fenced. Traditional plant- gathering sites became inaccessible to Indian women or were destroyed. An unusual note from the publisher appears in the section where Elsie discusses each of the 4 traditional plants (clear drawings identify them in the book, and photos show likely habitats):

"People who have land where sedge roots grow can allow basket-weavers to gather roots, provided they don't leave any litter and leave about half the roots to reproduce. Please let local Indians or the publishers know if you have land that might be used for root gathering." I was very interested in this and called the publisher to find out if anyone had volunteered to let Indian women gather roots on their land in the quarter-century this book has been in print, specially now that they have an 800 number. I spoke with the publisher's widow, who now, with aid of her children, runs the press and was actively involved with Elsie Allen's book -- and Elsie -- in 1970, too. No, she said, in 25 years, no one has ever contacted them to say Indian women may gather roots on their land.

I felt very sad about that. Surely in this long period of steady sales, there must have been many back-to-the-land-and-nature readers who tried it thmselves, briefly, on their California land with its suitable streams and reeds. None thought to invite Indian women, from whom they might have learned much, and gained new friendships.

After a discussion of basketry plants and the joys (or drudgery) of gathering and preparing them, Elsie gives profusely illustrated step by step instructions on weaving different kinds of baskets. This practical and beautiful introduction to the weaver's art is interspersed with family pictures of other generations of weavers. My biggest disappointment is that a centerspread which once apparently was color photos of feather and bead gift baskets is now replaced with rather murky black and white ones, perhaps for cost reasons. I have remedied this -- on a Pomo fancy basket gallery page -- by computer-colorizing them, based on the kinds of feathers used and the appearances of similarly-made baskets in museums; you can see them in better glory here, along with some from museums.

Usually, the life story of a person who interests you must end with the book written about it, whatever else may happen in that person's life after the book is done. Elsie lived 20 years longer. Her plant and basketry experience gave her a central role in two big environmental issues spearheaded by Pomo women, in California: the Warm Springs Dam (which created Lake Sonoma, flooded and filled in 1985) and the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Park, which is about a million dollars short of existence on the clear-cut, logged-over redwoods watershed land the intertribal council has just two more years to raise money to buy or the state of California will sell it to developers.

Elsie's creative influence, her importance to Pomo people, to basketmakers of other tribes, and to anyone concerned about environmntal damage, didn't end in 1972 when her book was published. In the late 1970's, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to build a dam at Warm Springs in Lake County, part of the traditional Pomo homeland. This would flood the valley where most of the Pomo basketmakers of Mendocino and Lake county got almost all their basket plants. It would also drown old burial grounds and old village sites. There was no fighting it; one Pomo reservation (Coyote Valley) had been entirely drowned already, all the people living there had had to leave. The Pomo -- especially the older women -- wanted to try to save as much as they could.

Elsie Allen became a primary consultant in a group that was mostly composed of Pomo women, a few archaeologists, and some supporters in the Warm Springs Cultural Resources Study, which attempted to inventory all that would be lost when the reservoir filled behind the Warm Springs dam and to sauce, or try to compel the government to save, as much as they could. Elsie's expertise was the plants and their sites. In 1985, the dam was finished, and Lake Sonoma flooded the entire valley where most of the Pomo basketmakers had come for plants for time immemorial -- one of the few remaining places in California where sedge, willow and bulrush roots could be freely gathered. The women arranged to transplant some of these plants, partly onto some volunteered private land, and part to be maintained under the supervision of Ya-Ka-Ama (Out and, in Pomo) the native plant nursery that was gained by Pomo occupation of an abandoned CIA spy base in 1970 (see the page about some parts of Elsie Allen's life and Pomo survival struggles that aren't in her book).

The determined and intelligent efforts of these older Indian women established (although not in a legally binding way, unfortunately) that plants needed to continue activities central to the continuing life of an Indian culture, not just archaeological remnants of a long-gone life or bones of the dead, may require legal protection under environmental laws, though ultimately they didn't get it in the now-flooded valley. They did stop th dam and get some funding for the investigation and salvag projcts. This is a different principle -- and to tribes with still-living traditions of use-gathering perhaps as interesting -- as claims that some vast project will destroy sites that are sacred, claims the courts have ignored from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Tellico Dam boondoggle to Badger Two-Medicine mountain, and many other places.

--Paula Giese

File: art2032

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: 6/10/97