Completing the circle: after decades, a basket returns home


The antique basket with the curiously plain inside

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.

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.

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

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 a twist of luck or fate, I was browsing the shelves in Point Reyes Books in California before giving a 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. Knowing it had a use made me more determined than ever to find the place my basket-hat called home.

One day five years ago, Richard and I showed the basket we know knew was a ceremonial cap 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.

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. She said she’d think about it. Months later, I called again, and she gave me the names of some museums. 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 would send me a photo sometime.

I packed the hat carefully, insured it, and shipped it off to Hoopa. My heart felt lighter.

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:

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. And to me, the story of that basket-hat’s journey home is worth so much more than money.

14 responses to “Completing the circle: after decades, a basket returns home

  1. Dear Susan,
    This is a wonderful story, worthy of a wide distribution. I hope you take it to a very large audience. I can well understand that it turned up in Berkeley where Dr. Kroeber did so much work about Ishi and knew the Hoopa area well. The photo of Deanna wearing the hat is precious and filled with tradition. Thanks for your actions and for telling the story.
    Arletta

    • Arletta, Thank you. I wrote this up first on my own blog (http://susanjtweit.com) and I’m still thinking about where the story could go. I hadn’t thought about the connection with Berkeley in terms of Dr. Kroeber and Ishi, but that’s interesting. I know that both of my great-grandmothers on my mom’s side were part of the artist enclave in Berkeley, so there might be a connection there. Blessings! Susan

  2. I got to this post via a book-tied email list/community, and was fascinated by this story.

    I wonder a bit, given Arletta’s comment above, what Dr. Kroeber’s daughter, Ursula, would do with it as a story element. I also wonder if the Hoopa will tell a story about this basket, and how it came back to them–it is the stuff of legend!

    Every so often, something I have or seek is found to have a deeper story or connection, and I cherish those.
    Marina

    • Marina, I’m delighted that the story found you via your email list/community. The connections we weave fascinate me, and I’m intrigued by your comment about Dr. Kroeber’s daughter. Perhaps the story will find its way to her. I’m just feeling a deep sense of gratitude that the basket-hat is back home, doing what it was created to do with the people who cherish it.

  3. Mary Lee Fulkerson

    Susan,
    A great story, well told. Good for you for returning it to the tribe. Money sometimes has no meaning. Grace always does.
    Mary Lee

    • Mary Lee, Thank you. Your comment about money sometimes having no meaning and grace always having meaning sums up how I see it. As I said above, I am grateful to have been able to send that beautiful basket-hat home after all these years. It just feels right!

  4. Susan,

    Wonderful post (but, then, when are they not?) and set of pictures that represents the arc of your story so well.

    What a good matching of intention and action. The intention is well-worthy of you and not one that many would have. I’m glad the basket came back home.

    Janet

    • Janet, Thank you for that lovely compliment. I hadn’t thought of it as intention and action, I guess because I was operating on heart-instinct not words, but that’s just exactly the way to describe it. I believe in using my intentions to shape my every-day actions, because otherwise, what’s the point of having intentions? I am very glad the basket came home, and further, that it had a home and people to return to. Blessings, Susan

  5. Susan, Dr. Kroeber’s daughter is more widely known as Ursula K. Leguin. She looks at socities and their issues quite often in her fiction. One story you might like is called Those Who Walk Away from Omelas, and the novel, The Left-Hand of Darkness. I am finding the short story to be altogether too relevant these days.

    • Marina, Ursula Leguin is one of my writing heroes, but I had no idea she was Dr. Kroeber’s daughter. I have quoted her in some of my books–I especially love her short-story collection Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, and her novel Always Coming Home. It would be very cool if somehow this story reached her, and you never know. The internet is such a fascinatingly organic community! And yes, much of her work is all too relevant these days….

      • The “K.” in her name comes from her father’s family.

        • I figured that after you connected her with Dr. Kroeber. Funny how I never made that connection before. I guess it just didn’t occur to me to think of who she was besides Ursula LeGuin, the writer who knows an awfully lot about anthropology…. It’s obvious why now, but I just never thought to wonder.

  6. Simtple, direct, but with lots of layers of meaning – just like the basket itself. The story came at exactly the right time (not coincidentally) as I am putting together the final details of an exhibit and teaching day called Baskets, Containers and Culture for this upcoming Saturday. Learning the skills of basket making is important, but the stories of the basketmakers, their families, and cultures are what makes this simple, everyday item so meaningful. I honour you for letting time reveal the journey, and for quietly persisting in returning the basket to its home.

    • Thank you, Sharon. I am so glad you found this blog post, and that it was useful for your exhibit and teaching day. I was honored to be able to send the ceremonial cap home. To know it was had been worn felt like the circle had come round to where it belonged. A good feeling after so many decades of the cap wandering. Where will your exhibit be?

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