J.E. has three American Indian baskets, one at 13" diameters, the other at 7", and the smallest at 4". Her family passed these down from her great uncle, who was a well-known California antique dealer, active in the 1940s. Back then, the pickings were excellent.
I find researching the origins of these treasured pieces of cultural anthropology a challenge. We can take a few clues from what we know about J.E.'s uncle's "picking" style. He collected objects for his shop from all over California. He picked in the Fresno area as well as Carmel and Mendocino. This is an important bit of information.
But even then, these pieces are hard to place in relation to a tribe.
Unlike many other old objects, these objects have a meaning beyond their important cultural identity. If they, at one time, contained acorns or held water, they also contained a unique way of life, for which J.E. is respectful. She asked me about cleaning these. If she can dab them with slices of white bread, that's about as far as I would go. Yes, the bread will gather up some of the grime.
The first peoples of California used baskets, which were generally preferred to the rarer pottery forms. Baskets were constructed out of many things, but here we see cedar bark, pine needles and yucca root. The middle-sized basket is waterproof, and may have held one small meal of acorn mash heated with hot rocks. Accurately identifying the natives who made this one is tricky, because if it is from the Central Valley, the natives' cultural heritage was, in some significant ways, shared. This unique style of living was called a "moiety" system, meaning cultural identity was linked. The style of making and designing basketry was therefore also linked, with some recognizable tendencies, however, which experts have spent lifetimes figuring out.
I suspect the middle-sized basket to be Yokuts/Western Mono, or even Pima or Pomo, originating from a grouping of dozens of territorial groups of natives in the San Joaquin Valley.
From the Central Valley, trade relations with other peoples, sometimes hundreds of miles away, were healthy and robust. The maker of the middle-sized basket might have traded with the "Tokya" (literally, westerners), namely, the Costanoan, Salinan and Chumash tribes.
The location of each Central Valley village was originally ordained by Eagle, who, as first chief, placed a man and a woman in a certain place, creating an emotional connection with "home." This connection, however, did not exclude other people with blood ties. A good example, referring to the Yokuts, is that all cousins were referred to as brother and sister in the same place. Even third cousins. One did not consider even that distant relation "marriage material." Contrast that with late 19th century European royalty who intermarried cousins repeatedly.
The middle-sized basket, with a continuous geometric design, of Central Valley origin, is coiled into a bowl form. Because of the relatively pale condition of the undyed grass, accented with devil's claw in black, I put the bowl perhaps around 1920. The thickness of the coil indicates a three-rod support under the grass wrapping. The value of this is $400.
The smaller one, perhaps a gift basket, is tightly woven and also Central Valley in origin, perhaps Pomo, late 19th or early 20th century, with a running symbol of lightning radiating from its center. This fine little piece is worth $600.
The largest basket, however, is Southwest, in the form called "wedding tray," usually a treasured post-nuptial housewarming gift of great size. This is a large piece, and older than the other two baskets, with a linear zigzag that tells an interesting story. American Indian baskets, across the culture, often respect the great creator by allowing that the work of human hands is never perfect. Therefore, if you see a continuous design, you will often see a break in that design, a "spirit break," an opening in the flow. The value of this basket, because of its imperfect rim, with rodent gnawings, is $750. In this type of object, the value of even a damaged example will continue to increase in meaning and cost, because of the cultural history that these represent.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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