Completing a circle: an “artifact” returns home

The antique Indian basket with the strangely plain inside

(Warning: This is a long post, in part because the story takes place over decades. As one of the participants in this tale said: Everything takes time.)

When I was a child, the most fascinating artifact in the treasure-trove of exotic things that my brother and I were not allowed to touch in the Spanish Mission bungalow in Berkeley where my mother grew up was a finely woven basket with intricate geometric designs on the outside, and a curiously plain inside. It was about the diameter of a person’s head, and sat in a niche in the hall leading from the parlor to the bedrooms. I would quietly sneak the basket from its niche and carry it to a sunny spot where I would simply sit with it, admiring the detailed patterns and feeling the unusual “dimple” indent in the bottom.

The finely woven basket upside down to show the intricately detailed bottom with its indented "dimple."

That curious upside down basket came to me when I was in graduate school. I carried it home to Wyoming. From there, carefully packed inside my favorite set of mixing bowls, it traveled with us to West Virginia, on to Washington state, to Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then finally, back to Colorado when we settled in Salida. In each place, I unpacked the basket and displayed it in a prominent spot.

I figured it was Native American, probably from a California tradition, but my mother couldn’t remember anything about it.

Eventually I showed the basket to an expert in Southwest Indian basketry and to a dealer in antique Indian artifacts. The former guessed I was right about its origin but couldn’t shed any light on which group it might come from; the latter was focused on how much money an antique Indian basket might be worth. (A lot, it turns out.) I just wanted to know its people.

Inset "dimple" on the bottom of the basket, with the wooden button where the weaver anchored the fibers.

In one of those twists of luck or fate, I was awarded a writing residency at The Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. One day I was in Point Reyes Books browsing the shelves before giving an evening reading, and found a book on California Indian Basketry. I flipped through the pages, and there was a weaver working on a basket very like mine, and wearing another–on her head!

Of course! I thought, wondering why I hadn’t figured it out sooner. That’s why the inside is so plain and why it looks more natural upside down than right side up: it’s a hat.

I bought the book, more determined than ever to find the place my basket-hat called home. Only life intervened: Richard’s dad went into hospice care in Arkansas and died the next fall; Molly was diagnosed with thyroid cancer the summer after that; we moved my parents to Denver the following year….

I thought about the basket now and then, but didn’t have time to figure out the next steps on its journey. One spring day five years ago, Richard and I were telling what we knew of its story to Grant Pound, Executive Director of Colorado Art Ranch. I told him that I felt like it was time to send it home, but I didn’t know who its people were. When I mentioned the Yurok/Hoopa weaver in the book, his eyes brightened. His sister’s partner, an anthropologist, had worked with California Indian basket-weavers.

Grant called his sister, and her partner suggested contacting the California Indian Basketweavers Association. I felt a little apprehensive about calling strangers and saying I had this basket that I didn’t know anything about, but which I would like to send “home” to its people. But my inner voice was firm: it was time. So I mustered my courage. The woman who answered the phone turned out to be a Hoopa basketweaver. She was cautious but cordial. (I probably sounded pretty flaky.)

The "basket" now looking more like the ceremonial hat it is.

She offered that if I emailed her photos, she would try to figure out which tribe what I was now calling the basket-hat came from. I did, and she emailed back a few months later to say it was likely Hoopa. I asked if she had ideas about where I could send it. No response. Months later, I called again, and she gave me the names of some museums. I wrote them down, but giving it to a museum didn’t feel right. The hat needed to be in use, I felt, not in storage or on display.

While I mulled my options, life continued, and it was a while before I decided: I would give the hat directly to a Native weaver, preferably one who was both practicing and teaching. But who? The weaver who I had been in contact with seemed a perfect fit. If she didn’t want it, I thought, perhaps she’d know who might.

I contacted her again. A year or more had passed, but she remembered me. When she realized I didn’t want to sell the hat, she said she would be honored to have it. I asked only that she use it in whatever way seemed appropriate. And that she send me a photo sometime.

I packed the hat carefully, insured it, and shipped it off to Hoopa. (“You gave it away?” said the dealer I had talked to. “You might as well have burned money!”)

Deanna James participating in a Hoopa healing ceremony for a child, wearing the basket-hat.

Months later, I got an envelope in the mail containing a thank-you letter from Deborah McConnell, the weaver I had sent the hat to, along with a photo. The girl in the picture was her niece, Deanna James, said Deborah, and she was wearing the hat as she took part in her first healing dance, for a sick child.

Tears filled my eyes. The basket I had so loved as a child was back at home doing what it was meant to do: participate in the life of a culture and its people. “Seeing the hat take its place at home is worth a lot more than money,” Richard commented when he saw the photo.

That was two years ago. I imagined telling this story then, but life intervened again, most particularly in our journey with Richard’s brain cancer.

A few months ago, when I finally wrote Deborah to ask  permission to tell this story, and to use Deanna’s photograph and their names, she wrote back:

It is okay to use our names and the photograph of Deanna for your blog…. Perhaps your efforts will help people understand that the baskets are an important aspect of our culture and continue to be used today. I am once again teaching basket weaving and it feels good. Everything just takes time.

Everything does take time. Sometimes that time is exactly what is needed to complete the circle, bringing the healing home.

26 thoughts on “Completing a circle: an “artifact” returns home

    • Diana, What I love about that story is that although it took decades for the story to unfold and the basket-hat to find its way home, when it did, it was woven right back into the fabric of the Hoopa community it had left almost a century before….

  1. Very likely obvious. Still, I’ve gotta point out the cycle (hoop?) displayed here: The basket you loved as a young woman is passed along to another young woman, used in an act of love. (And, by the by, the layers of love apparent in Deanna’s part of the story are so many: Given to her aunt, in love. Passed on to Deanna, in love. The love made manifest in Deanna being included in her first healing dance; and, of course, the very obvious act of love demonstrated by Deanna’s dancing for healing….)
    “You might as well have burned money!”? Well, some things exist in such other worlds. And the knowledge and memory of where and how the basket-hat is, now, will sustain and nourish you more thoroughly and richly, and for far, far longer than what money from its sale would have brought. Gee, it’s not even a decision to have “returned” it.
    Okay, one more circle. Now the story’s been shared more broadly. Surely the plinks of storyteller stones are rippling (in circles) in pools and pools of minds. And who’s to say what those ripples will, themselves, bring to action?

  2. Eduardo, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Yes indeed, Susan’s act is much more meaningful than money or dusty museums. I don’t have to hold or see this basket in person to appreciate its cycle of love and healing. Susan’s words and the pictures are much more meaningful than a brief gaze in a museum case. You are so right – the ripples go on and on.

    • As Joyce says, Eduardo, your comments enrich the story. More ripples spreading outwards, or perhaps more fibers weaving their way into the larger world (keeping to the basket weaving theme). 😉

  3. Susan, each picture and every detail of your story is remarkable. The basket-hat made a journey from past to present, returning to where it belongs. From childhood you cherished its presence knowing it was special. As an adult you kept the basket carefully protected in travel. A valuable family treasure with a history waiting to be discovered. How beautiful to see the child wearing it in healing. Your gift lifted many spirits. It seems like it was meant to be. In healing and love, the circle continues. Thank you for sharing.

    • Isn’t that story a beautiful gift, Robin? I have to say that I feel honored to have had the basket-hat in my life for so long, and to have “way open” as Quakers say, to find its way home to its people. I can’t look at that photo of Deanna without smiling….

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this story! It is especially touching while I am in Santa Fe, looking at Native basketry everywhere, making a Korean one myself, and feeling all the varied things you feel while practicing indigenous traditions.

    • Aimee, What serendipity! I’m glad that this story reached you when you were immersed in the traditions of Native basketry. The world of styles, patterns, and materials in traditional basketry, whether for every day use or ceremonial, is just mind-expanding. Enjoy it!

  5. What a lovely, rich story–for all the reasons previously mentioned. Two other things–more personal–struck me. 1. Your listening to that insistent inner voice. As you have oft quoted: Follow your leadings, way will open. (Even if it does take time, I guess…) 2. Even as a small child you had an eye for a good hat, even if you didn’t know it was one!

    • Blanche, Thanks for those two observations, one of which made me chuckle. I do think it’s especially important to listen to that “insistent inner voice” especially when it’s not clear what to do to heed it, and/or it takes a long time for it to come real. See you soon!

  6. Good for you. The little girl was no doubt in her first Brush Dance which is one of the most moving events that I have ever been allowed to witness. It completely transformed my sense of what being a woman meant: there is the Medicine Woman in the fire pit. She’s old, “unattractive”, focused and she runs the show all night long, commanding the young men and the old men and the young women. A whole different way of being. And yet it is not a solemn thing but rather like a sporting event with cheering- even though it is a prayer ceremony for a sick child.

    Hupa is not a dead language as they were never really conquered. It is close to Wailaki which is dead but my husband and local Indians are working on reviving it. It is so deep and moving to go to Hupa for a ceremony which has been performed there for thousands of years and is still going on.

    And yes those basket hats are worth a ton of money.

  7. There are one or two basketry camps in the summer here in Humboldt County although we are some hours away from Hupa. Keeping the skills as well as the language alive. Lots of good work being done.
    Thanks for helping in the best way possible.

    • Anna, It’s lovely to “hear” your voice on this blog again! I’m sorry to be slow to respond; I’ve been on the road, escorting my dad to a family gathering, and haven’t had access to the internet and/or energy to think. (My dad is kind of a like a toddler in an 83-year-old’s body. Keeping him fed and out of trouble is a full-time job.) I hope that someday I’ll be able to attend a Brush Dance; it sounds like an inspiring and enlightening sort of event, healing on all sorts of levels. I was just thrilled to find someone who understood the basket-hat and who could bring it home in a way that completed its journey. It had been away for far too long, it seemed to me. Thanks for reaffirming my decision!

    • Deborah, Thank you for understanding that I just wanted to give that basket-hat back to those who understood it. I am grateful that you were willing to accept it and integrate it back into its home and its place in life. Words can’t adequately convey how healing that is for me, and how freeing. Blessings!

  8. Your story shows the best of intentions, but I have a couple of concerns. First, there is a possibility that the cap is not Hupa at all, but may be Wiyot. The Wiyot tribe held the land surrounding Humboldt Bay. I’m wondering if that “dimple,” as you called it, isn’t pushed into the cap, rather than being raised up out of it. The old style Wiyot caps were known for that particular feature. Many tribes of northwestern California wove twined basket caps in the general manner of this one, including Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karok, and Tolowa. Secondly, since that cap left Native hands, there is no way to know where it has traveled, nor who has handled it. For instance, if the cap had been handled by a woman who was “sick” (menstrating), then it would not be wise to allow it to be used in ceremony. Presumably, the woman to whom you gave it to did something to have the cap “cleaned” in a spiritual way… but if it had been me, I still would not have been comfortable to have it used in any way but as a display piece.

    • Thank you for your comments. My interest was simply in giving the cap to someone who would appreciate it and use it in a way that would be beneficial, in whatever way they determined was appropriate. The native basketweaver who I approached about the cap recognized it from the detailed photos I sent, and had plenty of traditional knowledge. Since some months passed between the time when the cap went back to northern California and the time it was first used ceremonially, I would guess that it went through a thorough spiritual cleansing. It has gone on to a life of being used in workshops and ceremonies. Since the cap went directly to very experienced native hands, I certainly did not feel it was my place as a non-native to question how the people who received it used it and whether they knew what they were doing. It was a gift, which meant when it left my hands it was given to others to use as suited their needs and their understanding of the piece and the complex ecosystem where culture and history and life in the everyday world intersect. It’s a living cap, used with appreciation and understanding by living people.

    • Thanks, Velma. It felt like the right thing to do at the time, an what I’ve heard since conforms that. I’m glad to think of the cap living on with people who appreciate it and can use it as part of their culture and heritage.

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