The tradition of basket making in the Kumeyaay culture and neighboring Indigenous peoples dates back thousands of years in Southern California. Like many tools of the Kumeyaay, such as ollas and arrow straighteners, baskets served a variety of purposes. They have been used for practical purposes including collecting, preparing and storing food. Sometimes they were worn like caps. Some baskets were woven so tightly that they could even hold water! Depending on the use and design of the baskets, they can take months or even years to complete.
The time, skills and resources required to produce such an important and critical tool are testament to the ability of the Kumeyaay and other indigenous peoples not only to survive, but also to thrive under extreme conditions. Using the resources around them, the Kumeyaay transformed natural substances into lifesaving instruments, demonstrating their ability to adapt to the environment around them.
Taming a land of extremes
The Kumeyaay have used local plant fibers of agave and yucca in their creation of many tools to help them master the desert. Agave was cooked in earthen hearths, also known as roasting pits or earthen ovens, which in their most simplistic form are holes in the ground used for cooking food. Once cooked, the fibers of the agave would be removed from the rest of the plant material and woven together to create baskets or other materials, including strings for bows and sandals. Additionally, a variety of native plants, such as deer grass, juncus, sumac, and willow are used to make baskets. Often times, baskets can include geometric designs and shapes, as well as designs from nature.
To cook food in baskets, the Kumeyaay first heated stones, called hot stones, in an open fire. Once sufficiently heated, the stones would be removed from the heat and placed in the basket with the food. Using sticks, the heated stones were pushed around the basket, warming the food around them. Soapstone was commonly used during the baking process because it has the ability to retain heat for long periods of time.
Baskets were an essential tool when collecting food and making traditional foods such as Shawii, which is made from acorns. For the Kumeyaay, acorns were and still are an important part of their diet. The Kumeyaay used to go to the mountains to collect acorns in late October and early November. The women collected the acorns in baskets and used a mesh bag to carry the acorns home.
Once back in their colonies, the acorns were stored in attics usually made of willow trees. These granaries were large, often taller than humans. To ensure that food remains safe from animals, the Kumeyaay have placed the granaries high up. In addition, natural chemicals in plants, such as willow, prevented insects from eating the food stored in the baskets.
The process of making Shawii was long and arduous. Acorns contain tannic acid which can be harmful to digest and therefore requires leaching, a process by which the tannic acid has been removed. First, the acorn shells were cracked. Then, to remove the thin layer of skin found on acorns and other foods, the Kumeyaay used the process of winnowing. During this process, the acorns were rubbed into the tray to loosen the skins. The acorns were then tossed into the air and the wind blew away the loose skins, leaving behind the heaviest part of the acorn. Finally, using a pestle and mortar, the acorns were crushed into a meal and rinsed in both cold and hot water to make paste for Shawii and other breads. The important role the baskets played throughout this process cannot be underestimated and required significant skills.
A tradition that continues
Basket weaving continues today in many Indigenous communities in the United States and Mexico. To learn more about modern basket weaving techniques in Southern California, please visit the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association website to learn more about them and their mission.
Each fall, the Imperial Valley Desert Museum hosts Traditional Craft Days where pendant weaving is featured. IVDM showcases the pendant in honor of the Kumeyaay and other indigenous groups, recognizing their competence in this centuries-old tradition. One of the most difficult crafts taught by IVDM, pendant weaving requires patience and attention to detail. Be sure to come visit IVDM to learn more about the history of this great practice.
The Imperial Valley Desert Museum is located in Ocotillo. It is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.