‘Tis the season for making Chumash baskets

This article first appeared in the 11/09/01 issue of the Ojai Valley News.  It is reprinted here with their permission.

‘Tis the season for making Chumash baskets by Earl Bates

People native to the Ojai area had a special intimacy with the plants that perhaps is best evidenced by the baskets they made.

“Baskets are really emblematic of a lot of the relationships the Chumash had with the natural world,” said Jan Timbrook, curator of ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The alliance Chumash had with plants included not only how they used plants, but also how they thought about them, how they affected the environment in which plants grew and how plants intertwined with people’s lives. “It’s not just a one-way deal, it’s an interrelationship between people and plants,” Timbrook explained.

While researching for the most essential aspect of native basket making, Timbrook heard a collective voice. “Tell people about the plants,” it said. “The plants are really the key.” The plants must be helped to grow in the right way, collected at the right time, and prepared in a certain way.

“You don’t just go wandering around looking for something that looks like it might possibly work to make a basket,” said Timbrook, “You have to know where the particular plants are.”

Many of the plants required fairly intensive management while they were growing so they would produce materials suitable for basket weaving, she said.

The main plant used for Chumash basket making is juncus rush. “It grows in freshwater marshy areas or near a spring or seep,” said Timbrook. One of the problems that weavers creating Chumash baskets today have is in locating healthy populations of the plant because much of its habitat has been drained, filled in and paved over. “It is much more difficult to find that plant than it used to be,” said Timbrook.

The many steps in making baskets happen at appropriate times during the year. “Late summer into fall was a good time to collect basket materials,” she said. “Especially juncus rush and the deer grass that is sometimes used for foundation material. It’s fully mature, but it hasn’t been battered by the weather yet.”

By November, the Chumash would begin the long and intricate process of preparing these freshly collected materials for fabrication into some of the finest and most useful baskets ever made.

The preparation process included splitting, cleaning and bundling of the material. “That’s probably what they would be doing now (in November),” she said. The prepared materials would then be put away to dry and cure for several months, a year, or maybe longer.

Preparing the materials is the most time-consuming part of basket making and unless you have done that right your basket just isn’t going to work, she said.

“The juncus rush is used whole for the coil foundation, but you have to split it for the sewing strands,” she said. “It’s split lengthwise and it has a kind of cottony pith on the inside that needs to be peeled off. Then it needs to be sized so that every single strand is the same width, all the way along, because you don’t want the stitches to be different widths when you are sewing.”

The juncus rush is also prepared in different ways to get different colors. “Pretty much all of the colors you see on a finely decorated Chumash basket come from this one plant.”

The basket weavers have a knowledge of what they are doing, but it’s not like they work from computer-assisted draftings. The creative process starts in the weaver’s mind. “Basket weavers typically envision the whole design before they begin to weave,” she said. “I think the most they do in terms of (technical) planning is counting stitches so the designs will come out even.”

“I have talked with a number of weavers and they say sometimes the basket gets a mind of its own, like it is the one that actually determines how it comes out,” said Timbrook.

“I think it’s very likely that designs for baskets came to women in their dreams, but I’m not sure of how characteristic that would be of basket weavers in native California in general.”

“I know that particular designs or patterns were inherited, passed down from mother to daughter. People who are very familiar with basket designs from a particular area can often identify the weaver of a basket just by the design patterns.”

Perhaps a design for a beautiful basket was dreamed up long ago by a Chumash woman napping on a sunny autumn afternoon under and oak tree near Ojai.

“We do have baskets that are potentially attributable to Candelaria Valenzuela,” saidTimbrook. Candelaria had family ties from the Matilija Canyon and Sespe Creek areas. “She was one of the last old-time basket weavers, she lived in that backcountry area when she was younger.”juncuswithdpi                                                          Juncus (AKA:  Rush)