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MendoThrowback: An Interview With a Pomo Basket Weaver—The ‘Best Baskets Are Buried With the Dead’

Combing newspaper archives, MendoFever’s MendoThrowback hopes to remind residents of days long gone.  

Clara Williams, 73-years-old in this picture, was taught the craft of Pomo basket weaving as a child [Photograph from the Ukiah Daily Journal]

On July 20, 1955, the Ukiah Daily Journal published an article written by Joyce Barkley entitled “Hill Top Home at Talmage Headquarters for Last Of Pomo Basket Weavers”.

The subject of the piece was then 73-year-old Pomo Indian woman Clara Williams, born in 1883 on the Ukiah Rancheria. Williams said she grew up sitting outside watching her great-aunts and other elders weave baskets.

She would grow to be a basket weaver, adept at both the “one stick” and “three stick” method of weaving. She spent time searching for willow reeds, redbud limbs, and swamp plants that she would dye for a variety of colors.

At the turn of the century, Williams remembered taking her two-year-old son to New Mexico for basket weaving fair. She remembered placing her little one in the Pomo baby basket called a “hikatulle” and putting the conveyance on display in a tepee. Her boy in that basket proved the star of the show. “Patrons from as far away as New York came to see the show and the baby.”

The reporter got to handle a “hikatulle” basket describing it as “strong, yet with lots of resilience.” Williams recalled a time when she was driving to Lake County when one of the car doors suddenly opened and a baby in a basket flew out onto the roadway. The child would walk away with nothing but a few scratches, a testament to the quality of her baskets.

Pomo baskets photographed by the Smithsonian in 1846

A few weeks prior, Williams had made a “hikatulle” for her granddaughter but was disappointed because she could not find the correct length of reeds to design it as she wanted.

Thinking back over the broad span of her life, Williams lamented that “Nowadays, the Indian Girls do not seem to care so much for these old-fashioned carriers.”

When Clara was 13, “she was given in marriage to an ‘old’ man of 30 or so.” She bore six children. Williams said the marriage did not last so she married again. This time, she bore nine children for a total of 15. At the time of the interview, she said that only six of her children were still alive.

All of those children were bored by a midwife, her mother’s brother’s wife, who Williams determined was 112 years old when she passed away.

At home, Williams uses the basket as food and liquid storage in her kitchen. To achieve a drip-free basket, Williams said a tightly woven basket is filled with water and “allowed to stand until the reeds have expanded out so no water will ooze out.”

Indian custom dictates that many of their most beautiful baskets, beads, and other crafts are buried with the dead. Her husband had died five years before and she had placed a “partly finished boat basket in his coffin.”

In Williams’s childhood, she remembers that her grandmother was dying and wanted to see her grandchild, her son’s firstborn. Indian custom dictates that parents do not bring infants out “into the open” until the babies are at least a month old. But, exceptions were made and grandma got to see her grandson. The old woman held the child and said an Indian prayer for fertility and healthy, long life.

Indian life was heavily influenced by migrant farm work. Williams remembered traveling from Mendocino County to Sonoma to Marin, chasing the hop harvest. She dug potatoes, often not returning until Thanksgiving or later.

The reporter noted that despite Clara Williams’s years, her daughter’s children filled the home with the “patter of little feet” and her fingers were strong and nimble, continuing to keep the basket tradition alive.


Editor’s Note

For over a century the Ukiah Daily Journal has been documenting life in Mendocino County. Even today, UDJ reporters are working hard to keep their newsroom fresh and relevant while honoring decades of tradition and practice. Please, support local journalism. Subscribe to UDJ and help keep a Mendocino County institution alive.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. My best friend is full blooded Pomo and lives at pinoleville. Her daughter and granddaughter are currently learning how to weave baskets they seem to enjoy it. I myself have had the fortunate opportunity to enjoy some of the old traditions of the promo past thank you for the article

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
Picking Brains—Baring Bones—Playing it By Ear: I'm a reporter in Mendocino County and the Founder of MendoFever.

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