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ART : Basketry Weaves Tale of White Settlers' Influence on Indians

May 16, 1991|MARY HELEN BERG | Mary Helen Berg is a regular contributor to the Times Orange County Edition.

The current basketry exhibit at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center tells the tale of how this delicate art, a way of life for the Indians of northwestern California, was transformed by the arrival of white settlers.

The show--"From Classic to Contemporary: The baskets of Northwestern California"--surveys 125 pieces created by the Karuk, Yurok, Hupa, Tolowa and Wiyot peoples, made mostly between 1850 and 1950. The works range from a rare Karuk man's ceremonial cooking basket to the salable tourist kitsch that makes up much of what is woven today.

An integral part of daily life, the baskets were used for cooking, eating, storing food and for ceremonies. Traditionally, the role of basket making fell to a few women within a family and the basket makers spent nearly all their time painstakingly gathering and sorting materials. Some baskets would take up to a year to create.

What distinguishes these baskets from those made by other California Indians is the use of a technique called twining, says curator Coleen Kelley, an American Indian art consultant and former director of the Clarke Memorial Museum. Skilled basket makers using the tight, tiny weave accomplished a smooth appearance that looks almost like needlepoint.

The first room of the exhibit introduces the technique and the roots, sticks grasses and other materials used for the baskets. As the exhibit continues, samples of some uses are displayed, including intricately designed bowls, storage baskets, caps and ceremonial regalia.

Perhaps most striking are the ceremonial caps. Prized possessions, the caps were custom-made for each wearer and then worn for a lifetime to ceremonies, celebrations and, finally, for burial.

A highlight of the show is the display of three small baskets from mother and daughter weavers Elizabeth Conrad Hickox and Louise Hickox, considered to be among the premier Karuk basket makers. Also rare for its size and mint condition is a storage basket identified as Yurok or Hupa that is perhaps 3 feet high, which Kelley says makes it one of the largest northwestern California baskets ever made.

In the last gallery, the exhibit shows how basketry changed with the arrival of white settlers in 1851. Weavers began to create cups and saucers, letter holders, wastebaskets and other items to appeal to white buyers.

In the middle of the room, a glass case displays the kind of gift shop souvenirs that make up 90% of the basket maker's work today. Gone are the captivating, intricate designs and the smooth, fine stitching of earlier work. Somehow heart-rending, the case displays samples of key chains, earrings, and a cigarette lighter case. While traditional baskets are still made, Kelley says they are often kept within the family or tribe.

Kelley estimates at one time there where "hundreds and hundreds" of northwestern basket makers who practiced the craft and passed it down to daughters or nieces. But as young women left home to marry or take jobs, the number of basket makers dwindled.

Today, there are perhaps 20 skilled basket makers left, Kelley says. The quality of contemporary work also suffers at times because traditional materials are difficult to come by. The homelands that sprouted beargrass, maidenhair fern and hazel sticks have become private ranches and parkland.

What: The Baskets of Northwestern California.

When: Through June 30. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; Sundays noon to 5 p.m.

Where: Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 West Malvern Ave., Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Take the Riverside (91) Freeway to the Euclid exit and then go north about three miles to Malvern. Left on Malvern and the Muckenthaler is on the right.

Wherewithal: Suggested donation is $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.

Where to Call: (714) 738-6595.

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