Polychrome Coiled Basketry Bowl (ca. 1860–1900)

Gabrieleño / Fernandeño (Tongva), Los Angeles Basin, California.  From Collection of John and Clara Lee Tanner, donated by Karl and Sandy Elers, 2011.  Text by ASM Associate Curator, Andrew Higgins.

This is a 19th century southern California coiled basket that was recently donated to the museum by the family of the late John and Clara Lee Tanner. I selected this basket as my curator’s choice for four reasons. First, I was in complete awe the first time I saw this basket. Although it was filthy and in terrible condition, the visible design elements indicated that it might be a Chumash basket produced during the 1800s (it turned out, instead, to beGabrieleño / Fernandeño). Second, it is a utilitarian basket that was actually used. It is very rare and exciting to have a 19th-century southern California coiled basket used for food serving or preparation. Third, all Curator's Choice objects are assessed (and if necessary, treated) by ASM conservators before going on exhibit, and the basket's poor condition made it an excellent candidate for conservation.

Finally, this object gives us the opportunity to show the public how the museum’s preservation division is capable of restoring the beauty and the research potential of a basket like this. Our hope is that the public will help Arizona State Museum build and preserve its basketry collection. We are currently raising money to complete a project, partially funded by a Save America’s Treasures grant, that will result in construction of a climate-controlled, visible-storage vaultdesigned to preserve ASM's perishable collections for visitors, researchers, and Native American artists.

Identifying a California Basket

Native Californian baskets are well known all over the world for their beauty. For many native groups, basketry has proven to be an enduring link with tribal traditions and history. Baskets were and still are used for gathering, processing, cooking, serving, and storing food.

The ability and expertise to identify plant materials used to weave a basket is incredibly important, as raw material choices can often indicate the culture of the weaver. The museum was fortunate to have Dr. Bruce Bernstein, an expert on California basketry, as a judge for our 2012 Southwest Indian Art fair. Dr. Bernstein was able to study the basket while he was here, but before it was treated by ASM conservators, and he sent us some very helpful information.

Dr. Bernstein suggested attribution to the Tejon, Kitanemuck, or Vanyume. Unfortunately, as he notes, “examples of these baskets are scant,” and I was unable to find any examples useful for comparison. I found myself coming back to the fact that the basket had strong Chumash elements. I started to research Fort Tejon and the reservation established there, just north of Los Angeles, where bands of the Chumash, Yokuts, Kawaiisu, and Kitanemuck were relocated to better enable American expansionist policy in the West. With so many different groups together one can imagine a mixture of cultural design influences in basketry. After learning this, it made sense to me how Dr. Bernstein came up with his opinion. The designs along the basket's rim area, called herringbone, are very common among the Chumash. The diamond or "rattlesnake" pattern, is common among the Yokuts and Kawaiisu. Each of these groups was confined to the same area and it would only make sense that basketry artists shared ideas and designs. However, as I mentioned earlier, correctly identifying the plant materials is often the key indicator of the culture of the weaver.

I felt another expert opinion might help to pinpoint a cultural attribution. I contacted Dr. Jan Timbrook, curator of ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Dr. Timbrook was happy to help us try to identify the basket. She suggested the basket should be identified as Gabrieleño / Fernandeño. (See both complete expert opinions on identification.)

We then sent the basket to Dr. Nancy Odegaard, head of our preservation division. (See her illustrated conservation report.) After Dr. Odegaard partially cleaned and stabilized the basket, we were able to actually see the materials and confirmed that all the red elements were produced using juncus stem and not yucca root. This was a major component in identifying the culture as likely Gabrieleño / Fernandeño. Dr. Bernstein likely would have made the same material identifications, but had the disadvantage of viewing the basket before it had been treated by conservators.

The Gabrieleño / Fernandeño

The name Gabrieleño / Fernandeño derives from the Spanish missions of San Gabriel and San Fernando at which they were confined in colonial times. Their ancestors settled in the Los Angeles, California, area between the Chumash and Digueño tribes, perhaps as early as500 BCE. They were primarily hunter-gatherers with a heavy dependence on acorns, marine resources, and trade with their neighbors.

The Spanish began building missions in California in 1769 to spread Christianity and to colonize the coast. California Indian tribes were forcibly relocated to live and work in the missions. By 1771 the San Gabriel Mission was established, and in 1797 the San Fernando Mission was founded. The missions ushered in dramatic changes for the Gabrieleño/Fernandeño. They and were forbidden to speak their native language, many converted to Christianity, and many died from European-introduced diseases. The mission system was discontinued 1833 and most former mission lands became ranches. By 1900, smallpox and other diseases had reduced the Gabrieleño/Fernandeño population to a few dozen. Today, there are approximately 1,500 self-identifying members.

California Basketry Today

California Indian basketry is an ancient art, yet one kept alive today by contemporary weavers throughout the state. Weavers, young and old, female and male, from many cultures are now actively revitalizing native basketry traditions. Many basket weavers have joined the California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA). This association works to encourage native basketry traditions and to address issues of basketry raw materials availability and access and herbicide use. Each year CIBA holds a gathering that includes demonstrations, exhibits, and other events open to the public.

Generous Donors

This basket is part of a collection of 99 Native American objects owned by the late John and Clara Lee Tanner, and donated to ASM by Karl and Sandy Elers, their daughter and son-in-law. It was not made for the tourist trade but was displayed and appreciated by the Tanners. Based on the condition and the nail hole in the center, it is safe to say it hung on a wall for many years.