The soul of the weaver, Pomo Baskets

Pomo Women in dance costume. Lake County California. Photograph by O.E. Meddaugh.” Courtesy, Brooklyn Museum

The Pomo are an indigenous people of Northern California. The name pomo meant “those who live at red earth hole”.  It may have referred to local deposits of the red mineral magnesite, used for red beads, or to the reddish earth and clay, such as hematite, mined in the area. By 1877, the use of Pomo had been extended in English to mean the entire people known today as the Pomo. 

Edward S. Curtis, Pomo Baskets, Mortar and Pestle; Yokuts Basketry Designs (a) and By the pool – Tule river reservation, 1924

Women traditionally wove Pomo baskets with great care and technique. The three different techniques of Pomo basket weaving are plaiting, coiling, and twining. One drying method was wrapping maiden fern in blue clay and placing underground for several days. This prevented fading in the sun or when cooking mush.

Pomo baskets made by Pomo Indian women of Northern California are recognized worldwide for their exquisite appearance, range of technique, fineness of weave, and diversity of form and use. While women mostly made baskets for cooking, storing food, and religious ceremonies, Pomo men also made baskets for fishing weirs, bird traps, and baby baskets.

There are many different designs that are woven into the baskets that signify different cultural meanings. For example, the Dau is a pattern woven into a basket by creating a small change in the stitching to create a small opening between two stitches. The Dau is the design that is also called the Spirit Door. This Spirit Door allows good spirits to come and circulate inside of the basket while the good or bad spirits are released.

Making the baskets required great skill and knowledge in collecting and preparing the needed materials. Materials for weaving baskets changed with the seasons and years, so did the materials used for the baskets. The Pomo usually covered a basket completely with the vivid red feathers of the pileated woodpecker until the surface resembled the smoothness of the bird itself. With the feathers, 30-50 to every inch, beads were fastened to the basket’s border and hung pendants of polished abalone shell from the basket itself. Pomo women sometimes spent months or years making such gift baskets.

The materials used to make the baskets—including but not limited to, swamp canes, saguaro cactuses, rye grass, black ash, willow shoots, sedge roots, the bark of redbud, the root of bulrush, and the root of the gray pine—were harvested annually. After being picked, the materials are dried, cleaned, split, soaked, and dyed. Sometimes the materials are also boiled over a fire and set in the sun to dry.

Although baskets were made for decorating homes and as gifts, they were centrally used in Pomo daily life as well. Basket weaving is considered sacred to the Pomo tribe and baskets were produced for a variety of purposes. Pomo children were cradled in baskets, acorns (a major food staple to the Pomo) were harvested in great conical burden baskets, and food was stored, cooked, and served in baskets—some even being watertight. There were even “baskets” that were made as boats to be pushed by men to carry women across rivers. – Pomo. (2021 March 19). In Wikipedia.

The Elsie Allen Basket Collection

Elsie Allen

This group of Pomo baskets “reflects a multigenerational family effort – mother to daughter to granddaughter – to collect and preserve the work of relations, friends, and unknown weavers whose baskets were somehow “special”. To date, 26 of the native weavers whose baskets are in the collection have been identified, a remarkably high level of documentation.” (Remember Your Relations – The Elsie Allen Baskets, Family, and Friends, by Suzanne Abel-Vidor, Dot Brovarney, and Susan Billy)

For centuries, when a Pomo woman died, her baskets were burned or buried with her. As a result, new weavers were unable to refer to their predecessor’s baskets for inspiration and instruction, and the people were losing their legacy as fewer and fewer people learned basket weaving.

Elsie Comanche Allen (1899-1990), was born in Sonoma County and was a longtime resident of Ukiah in Mendocino County. She began weaving as a child, but only devoted herself to weaving and teaching full time until retirement age. It was a passion she shared with her mother, Annie Ramon Burke (1876-1962), the originator of the Allen Collection, who defied Pomo tradition by asking her daughter to promise not to destroy her baskets when she died.

Elsie took her mother’s request to heart and worked tirelessly to change Pomo burial traditions and add to the basket collection, which eventually grew to 131 baskets. It is the largest collection in existence with an exceptionally high level of documentation, and it is the only Pomo Basket collection known to have been formed by a weaver. Over 90 of the baskets in the collection are documented to 26 Pomo weavers, with about 30 attributed to Elsie Allen’s immediate family. The baskets in the collection date from the late 19th century to the 1980’s.

This extraordinarily beautiful collection contains both functional and gift baskets, and reflects the masterful skill of some of the greatest basket weavers in the world.

This historically important collection was acquired by the Jesse Peter Museum in 2003.

Excerpt from interview and demonstration at Ya-Ka-Ama in 1980.

Visit the the Elsie Allen Basket Collection at the Jesse Peter Multicultural Museum

The life and work of Alice Elliott, a Pomo Indian who continues the tradition of making baskets in the Pomo style.

Long form articles:

Pomo Basketmaking : A Supreme Art for the Weaver

Elsie Allen

Published by Naturegraph Publishers, Incorporated

ISBN 10: 0879610166 ISBN 13: 9780879610166

Pomo Indian Basketry (Classics in California Anthropology)

Barrett, Samuel A.

Published by Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthr (2006)

ISBN 10: 0936127074 ISBN 13: 9780936127071

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s