Arts / Basketry

Photo courtesy of Riverside Metropolitan Museum

A Luiseño basket more than 100 years old took a place in philatelic history when it was featured on a United States postage stamp.





Plants & People
from Heritage Keepers Newsletter Volume 2, No. 3 © Dorothy Ramon Learning Center
Coiled and woven into baskets, then used for every purpose
by Michael K. Lerch

reproduction rights

Deer grass in San Bernardino National Forest by Pat Murkland

Long before there were Tupperware containers, Revere Ware pots and pans, cast-iron skillets, or even painted ceramic ollas, there were baskets. People have made containers out of plants for thousands of years. Baskets more than 11,000 years old have been recovered from dry caves in the high deserts of the Great Basin. Along with baskets, plants also were used to make sandals, cradles, and various types of matting and bags, as well as hats, seed-beaters, and even water jugs sealed with pine pitch. Here we focus on basketry trays and containers made by the Native peoples of Southern California during historical times, building on a tradition that undoubtedly had ancient roots similar to those of their desert cousins.

Baskets can be made by twining or coiling, and it is the latter method that made Southern California Indian baskets, historically known as Mission baskets, prized by collectors in the early twentieth century. Among the many types of traditional forms were flat trays used for parching seeds with hot coals; large, flare-sided baskets used for cooking and storage; large flat-bottomed, cone-shaped burden baskets; and small, globular baskets used as gifts. The acorn granary made of wormwood, arrowweed, or willow was itself actually a very large basket.
Coiled baskets were made most often of three important plants — deer grass, rush, and sumac — shown here

Scientific name
Common name Serrano Cahuilla Luiseño
Juncus spp. Rush huaac seily shoila
Muhlenbergia rigens Deer grass utsuts suul
Rhus trilobata Sumac huuts selet shoval




The foundation of the basket was made of deer grass, around which splints of other plants such as rush or sumac were coiled. Deer grass has a tough straight stalk somewhat like oat straw. Basket weavers used a portion of the stem above the uppermost joint, which sometimes reached a length of about eighteen inches. This material was gathered and tied in bundles for later use. Several species of Juncus were used to wrap the coils, including the aptly named J. textilis, and J. acutus. Both seem to have the same Native name. However, another species, J. effusus, was known to the Serrano by a separate name, máhwatshr. The color of the Juncus ranged from deep rust brown at its root to a light straw color at its tips.

The weaver split the rush with fingers and teeth into three equal portions, rolled it into coils, then stored until needed. The Juncus splints were dyed black occasionally by using solutions containing elderberries (Sambucus mexicana) and stems, or in later times, rusty nails, in which the coiled, prepared materials were soaked. They could also be buried in the sulphur mud of hot springs. Sometimes the splints were soaked in a yellowish-brown dye produced from the dalea (Dalea emoryi).

Another plant also used for wrapping was the sumac, Rhus trilobata. The new shoots of the sumac were gathered in the early spring, split into three equal sections, and with the aid of a sharp stone or knife, scraped to remove the outer brown bark. Most often, the sumac splints were left their natural white color. The Serrano called this material yeranka, which means “white one.” Sumac splints also were dyed black by soaking them in an elderberry solution. Other sources of basketry material included the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), called mámau’tsh in Serrano and maul in Cahuilla, and the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), chermatshr in Serrano. Fan palm leaves provided white splints in basket-making, and Joshua tree roots were used to make a dark, reddish-brown design in the finished basket.