Women's Work

Indians didn't have plastic containers

Gloria Castañeda. When her relative Petra started making baskets, sumac was the weft, and the bundle was made of deer grass, but the overgrazing of the late 1800s took away the deer grass.
  • Gloria Castañeda. When her relative Petra started making baskets, sumac was the weft, and the bundle was made of deer grass, but the overgrazing of the late 1800s took away the deer grass.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Winter surf was pounding the eroded shoreline of Chapultepec, Ensenada, on the day I interviewed Gloria Castañeda. Fog was rolling in and we didn’t have as much time; Castañeda and her son Gregorio had to make the long trip home to the reservation. Castañeda is Kumeyaay Indian and lives on the reservation San José de la Zorra in the Guadalupe Valley, which lies between Tecate and Ensenada. She has children and grandchildren, and from this I deduce her age to be mid-50s. Her hair is curly, reddish-brown brushed with grey, she wears a brown-and-white print dress that doesn’t seem warm enough for this weather. Her business card declares her a Kumeyaay artisania. This is my first meeting with Castañeda, though for some time I have had a pato, a woven duck, in my living room that she made. The duck is constructed from the leaves and boughs of a willow shrub. Its back is hollowed out to serve as a container. I fill it with sage sticks to bum away the evil spirits or the evil smells that sometimes enter my house; the sage sticks are also made by the Kumeyaay.

The interview took place in the home of Norma Muñoz. We were surrounded by artisan products that Muñoz has collected: baskets with intricate designs, pottery hardened and blackened by fire, a long cylindrical carrier used for gathering honey, a bow and arrow, and hand-woven blankets. Norma Munoz is similar to the women we will meet later, women who made it their business to support and strengthen the ability of indigenous people to survive in Baja, Mexico, and Southern California. Munoz has been involved with the indigenous people of Baja California for over ten years. She served as a volunteer for an organization that seeks doctors to treat indigenous peoples and monies to buy medicine. Her current objective is to help Castañeda sell her products and become self-sufficient.

Through Muñoz’s window I could see two wild dogs that had curled themselves against one another for warmth. They had limped into view earlier in the day, covered with sores and sickeningly thin. Since dropping their exhausted bodies into the sand, they had barely moved. One dog seemed healthier than the other and went on short surveillance runs, presumably for food or water. When it returned it covered the older, sicker dog with its body. I had always thought of dogs as rogues dedicated to themselves or as slaves devoted to their humans. It surprised me to see the healthier dog lie on top of the sicker dog to keep it warm.

I have been fascinated by the Kumeyaay ever since realizing they were the Native Americans who lived in the mountains that I love, the Cuyamacas. Later I learned they inhabited the entire region, extending north and south of the border, including my hometown, Chula Vista. I remember learning something about the Kumeyaay at sixth-grade camp, though I can only retrieve the name, Kumeyaay. And I remember as a young adult hiking in the Cuyamacas and coming across rain-filled mortars, which sent my mind to fantasizing and romanticizing a distant way of life. When I was a teenager my parents always camped in Alpine, and we children would take excursions onto the reservation adjacent to our campground. But these distinct experiences never coalesced into a whole picture. In retrospect I see how odd it was to track a living people through history and relics; it’s like going to a seance to speak with your aunt who’s living in a nearby city. As an adult I read the autobiography of Delfina Cuero by Florence Shipek, which I purchased at the San Diego Museum of Man. This small book brought me closer to the present. The book documents the difficult life Cuero had and, by extension, that the Kumeyaay still have. Two things rattle around in my brain from the book. One, that Shipek lost her first baby because the priests had forbidden the rituals surrounding pregnancy and birth, the rituals that passed on vital information. Second, the effect of the border on the indigenous people. On the Mexican side of the border, Delfina Cuero’s relationship with family members was severed, just as Castañeda’s relationship with family members has been limited until just recently. The autobiography of Delfina Cuero ends with these words: “Is there room for us in America? Can we come home legally?”

Castañeda is multilingual. She speaks Kumeyaay, Spanish, and a dialect called Kautl. She was born on the reservation San José de la Zorra. According to Castañeda the reservation she lives on has changed little since she was a child—with the exception that now the people who live there eat everything that everyone else eats. When she was young, she says, there was no store to walk to and microbuses were nonexistent. The government forbids hunting now, which is one of the factors that has altered their diet. Her small house is home to 12 people: her husband, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.

Castañeda told me one of her daughters, Marta, spends her days in Ensenada studying English. It is their hope that an English speaker in the family will facilitate Castañeda’s new business. At one point, the difference between Castañeda’s reality and my reality became apparent. I said, “Oh, I watch two novelas a night to help me with my Spanish. The actors speak very clearly, and the plot is always easy to follow. Some cad is always off with the other woman, while the good woman takes care of business in between tears. Tell your daughter to watch some American soaps; I’m sure they will help her English.” It was then that Castañeda gave me the “you’ve been foolish” look and said, “We don’t have televisions. We don’t have electricity.” She says the Mexican government requires a certain number of people in a given area to justify bringing in electricity. The community of San José de la Zorra numbers around 70, apparently not enough to warrant the expense. The criminality of this dictate was about to be revealed, though not before I waxed foolish once more.

I tried to put a happy face on the lack of electricity by describing how fast and hard city life was, how beautiful the night sky is without lights. It was then that Castaneda told me her six-year-old granddaughter had just been through a series of operations due to burns she’d received from standing too close to a lamp that exploded while her mother was filling it with kerosene. Not only do they not have light, they must carry in drinking water, and there is only one telephone, which the government installed in the center of the community. If you call, whoever is closest to the phone answers, then through relay the recipient of the call is notified.

In the past, people have visited the reservations and purchased whatever items the Kumeyaay were making: baskets, pots, incense, necklaces. The men who came to buy were for the most part white; they bought cheap and sold high. But Castañeda is ambitious. She is using her skills to improve her family’s situation. Now that Castaneda has become her own agent, she is receiving $18 for the ducks she weaves, as opposed to the $8 she received from the visiting entrepreneurs.

Castañeda told me that baskets became necessary because “we didn’t have plastic containers to carry things in, or keep things in; we needed to make our own containers.” It took about a half a year to learn to weave something that was not feo (ugly). Her mother taught her the craft when she was about ten years old. Nowadays, she says, they are teaching the children at around eight years old. She weaves variously shaped and sized baskets out of the branches of a tree called sauce in Spanish or willow in English.

The process for making a pato, a woven duck like the one I have in my house, is complicated. First Castañeda has to walk a distance to the willow shrubs on the reservation. From the willow shrub, she cuts two types of boughs, the strong ones that have leaves and are the substance of the basket, and the thinner, weaker ones, which she uses like thread to hold the shape of the basket. She carries the boughs back to her house and lays them out to dry for one day. On the third day she weaves them into forms. In one day she may weave one, possibly two baskets or ducks. A lot of work for $18. Because she is working with nature, there is another obstacle in her production process. The boughs of this tree are only usable from May through November. While the tree is dormant she uses another plant called junco in Spanish, juncas in English, to weave necklaces, barrettes, and smaller, tighter baskets. This material, too, is subject to the whim of nature. According to Castañeda, the junco can only be cut on the night of a full moon; when the moon is full, she says, the air is more humid and the reed is easier to pull out of the ground. If you are given to fancy, imagine that the necklace you wore or the barrette you clasped your hair with was laced with the power of the full moon. I wore one of these necklaces for luck during the three months I worked on an important poem, as it turned out a lucky poem; of course, that’s just incidental, not integral to the crafting.

I had the opportunity to meet with Castañeda and her mother, Celia Silva, soon after our first encounter. Deborah Dozier, the next woman in this weave, had been looking for places for Castaneda to sell her baskets. A student in an American Indian Studies certificate program, Pat Cooley arranged for them to sell at a Catholic church in Fallbrook. The priest had requested the parishioners buy the wares of Native Americans as Christmas gifts. The process for making this happen was as layered as the process for weaving a duck. Norma Munoz drove Gloria, her mother, and her wares from San José to Encinitas. Pat Cooley kept them overnight. They had their best sales ever at the church. I played a small part of the process: picking Castaneda and Silva up at Dozier’s and driving them back to the border on Sunday. The last part of their journey was the most arduous, the bus ride to Ensenada and the series of microbuses to the reservation where they would arrive home late into the night. Gregorio, Castaneda’s son, would be waiting for them in an old pickup truck that isn’t registered and cannot leave the reservation. He would drive them the rest of the way home.

After the long day of selling, their wares in Fallbrook, Castañeda and her mother were ready to go home. Dozier asked them if they were hungry, they had not eaten lunch. They both shook their heads and said they were fine. Dozier, nevertheless, assembled huge turkey sandwiches (it was the weekend after Thanksgiving) and packed them several bottles of water for the long trip home. As soon as we got into the car Castañeda and her mother began to devour the sandwiches. On the way to the border Castañeda told me that though the trip home would be long, vale la pena. It was worth it. As she munched the sandwich she said she was happy with the amount that she sold and happy to eat mucho pavo (turkey) in the last day and a half. This odd cosmic wink of turkey and Thanksgiving and Castañeda and her mother in my car was not lost on me. Castanñeda spoke to her mother in Kumeyaay about the various things we passed, in particular the Coronado Bridge. Their language seemed totally foreign; I could not pick out one familiar sound, yet I was deeply contented that my car was filled with the breath of this ancient language. I had a check for Castañeda for $18 because I sold one of her ducks to a colleague. I told her the check was not made out to anyone. “Oh,” she said modestly, “because you couldn’t remember my name.” But the truth was that I didn’t know if she had an account or if I should cash the check and give her cash.

I know little about sewing and less about weaving. I had to look up the words “warp” and “woof’ in the dictionary. Warp was not helpful at all — to arrange (yam or thread) so as to form a warp. Only with the addition of woof — the threads that run crosswise in a woven fabric, at right angles to the warp threads — was I able to comprehend these words that had been abstractions. Many writers have applied the words warp, woof, or weave to the act of writing as well as the writing product. In this way I can apprehend in a tactile way the difficulty of weaving raw material into the shape you hold in your head. The warp of this essay, the leafy substantive part, is Gloria Castañeda, her culture, and her craft, but the ties are various strands of work done by women to aid the whole in materializing. Though I hold all of what wants to be said about this process in my head, I proceed with fear; there is so much, I’m afraid the seams might split. And those two abandoned dogs introduced in the beginning—they trouble me because I know I should excise them, but they keep insisting on being included. I want to be faithful to the subjects and the people. How I envy Castaneda’s ability to produce something symmetrical, beautiful, and useful.

Deborah Dozier told me the first time she visited San José de la Zorra she was taken back by the stark beauty of the place. It was so silent you could hear the blood run in your ears. She was amazed by the lack of anger. Dozier teaches Native American studies and is finishing her doctoral dissertation, called “Kumeyaay Basketry: Resource Management as an Economic Strategy.” I can’t imagine anyone more perfect for this project. With a deep scholastic research and a rich background in the subject matter (she holds an MFA in fiberstructure and interlocking, an MFA in museology, and a master’s in cultural anthropology), Dozier brings passion and integrity to her work. I was compelled to read all 320 pages of her dissertation because it was fascinating and well written. Dozier told me that her relation to Castaneda and her craft are integral and personal as well as academic. She says she was supported and taught by the same kind of system that Castaneda has today. She was taught to braid before she was 5, could sew so well by the age of 10 that she could look at a garment and know how it was made, and that by the age of 17 she hand-crocheted designer clothing. In the introduction to her thesis she writes, “Until this day I struggle to pass a knotted waste of string. My fingers itch to untangle these messes; my brain desires order.”

The first day I phoned Dozier we spoke for three hours. For starters, she told me the indigenous people of California used four basic types of baskets: the seed beater, the burden basket, the sifter, and in lowland areas where bedrock mortars were not used, a mortar hopper was used to save seed. Sixty percent of the objects in a typical family’s house would be basketry. She opens the abstract of her dissertation this way: “The Kumeyaay basketmakers who live in Baja California, Mexico, are links in an unbroken chain of mothers and grandmothers who have taught the craft to their children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, and nephews.”

I had to laugh out loud at myself when I read one of Dozier’s arguments for why basketry had been ignored and undervalued for so long. I fancy myself mildly intelligent with feminist leanings, but I often fail to question established ideas and received information. Dozier takes on the supposition that the Paleolithic cave art at Lascaux, France, is necessarily male. The context for this discussion is that “artistic hegemony and sexism are the barriers that stand between the title of genius and Indian basketmakers.” As Dozier points out, art and art history is riddled with bias. Gardner's Art Through the Ages states, “Like Adam, Paleolithic man gathered and named animals, and the faculty of imagination came into being along with the concepts of identity and meaning. In that remote time... man made the critical breakthrough and became wholly human.” Dozier notes that “man” is specific because Gardner also employs other generic phrases like “cave peoples.” One of Dozier’s counterarguments is that the caves are filled with images of fecundity. While Gardner speculated that the paintings of pregnant animals were an attempt to magically control reproduction, Dozier suggests that stands in opposition to what we know about reproduction and the role of women. She asserts, “I know of no culture where men naturally fell into the role of midwife. This switch from women to men assisting at the time of birth has occurred only in our own time.” But Dozier does not fall into the trap Gardner did; she does not insist that the cave paintings are female, only raises the possibility, for as she states, “No one alive today was in Lascaux at that time, nor did the artists leave any positive indication of their gender.”

In order to place the Indian basketmakers in the category of genius, Dozier needed to discuss some of the parameters for genius as well as for art. One of her touchstones for the discussion of art was a quote by Marcel Duchamp:

“In the creative act the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the aesthetic plane. The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization…in other words, the personal 'art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.”

Dozier makes the case that “a genius basketmaker would create baskets that express a very high correlation between intention and expression, and any unintended expression would reinforce the perceived expression of intention…the greater the skill of the weaver, the more able she is to produce what her mind conceives.” Because I am too distant from the tactile arts, I had never thought about how the artist’s hands have to follow the invisible pattern invented somewhere in the left side of the brain. But I have always been interested in, and angered by, the gap between the beautiful, seamless, entity I have in my mind and the cobbled Frankenstein that reaches the paper.

Dozier’s research also brings to light a fascinating personality, Constance Goddard DuBois, and a dazzling quote by DuBois that contributes to the discussion of aesthetics and to our appreciation of Kumeyaay basketry. DuBois, an anthropologist and romance writer, came to San Diego around the turn of the century to visit her sister. According to Dozier, while here, DuBois became involved with the Indians of Southern California. When she saw the conditions that the indigenous people were living in, she formed the Indian Support League. She went on a buying mission, purchasing blankets, feather skirts, twine sacks, lace doilies, and as many baskets as she could. She took lantern slides of the reservations and gave lectures about them, after which she would sell the things she had purchased. The women of the reservations were paid outright from the sales, and the money also went to supply rations to the old and indigent. Dubois is responsible for the first wood stove in 1904 that the Kumeyaay owned. Prior to that, people were eating raw flour and getting sick. She also wrote a novel entitled Soul in Bronze about a Native American and an Anglo woman from Southern California who fall in love. The following DuBois quote extracted from Dozier’s thesis is long but rich, beautiful, and rewarding:

The white women who are employing their leisure hours in making what they call Indian baskets are interested in copying Indian designs.... No Indian woman ever copied anything. She worked from Nature and evolved forms from her own intelligence, but the result was never a copy.

We cannot do anything without copying. All our education is based upon this very thing. In law we have rule and precedent In art we have schools of instruction. A designer who has never copied a line would be laughed at. So we have absolutely lost the power of individual expression. And that is why we live all our lives surrounded by ugly and meaningless things.

“An Indian always has a reason,” said one of my Indian friends to me, and this is literally true. The Indian basketmaker had a reason for every line of what we consider the decoration on her basket. The result is what is called symbolism. Symbolism, in this connection, may be defined as a decoration with meaning.

If you would realize the contrasted status of the modern and the primitive woman…put one of the makers of our so-called Indian baskets out in a desert cañon in the California backcountry. Show her (for a white woman would not find it by observation) the shrub Rhus trilobata, which when properly prepared, furnishes the material for the splint to be wound about the coil of grasses.... Point out to her the plant whose root will make the dye, and the rush whose tender brownish base furnishes the shading of that color.... Give her some reddish splints from the Manzanita bush, which combine so artistically with the black made by soaking.... If after a year or two she masters the technique of preparation, splitting, smoothing, drying, and the stitch, let her make her basket according to her innate sense of form and proportion and ornament it with a design which shall contain the symbol of an idea distinctly present to her mental consciousness. Give her three months in which to do the work, and let her as an example of the art training of our civilization stand or fail by the result. Meantime, let her be half starved; housed in a shelter of boughs; have her heart wrung by gnawing grief, see her daughter with a young baby lie dying on the ground on a bed of ragged blankets soaked by a sudden cloudburst; have shapes of want and misery constantly before her eyes; and let her still evolve out of the indwelling memories of sacred myth, tribal tradition, or long past event, the commemorative design, the symbol of what is to her an imperishable truth. This is the way a genuine Indian basket is made at the present day.

This breathtaking quote from almost a century ago speaks as much to the present as it does to the past. In spite of being compelled to concede the idea of genius to basketweavers, I had to ask Dozier why the baskets Castañeda and her family makes are so plain compared to some of the elaborate baskets I have seen in museums. She said that the slate of the Kumeyaay was practically wiped clean by a number of factors — some of which brought her to tears during her research.

Historically, Dozier said, most of the baskets used daily were plain, the fancier ones were something akin to a prayer. “The arena has been obscured regarding these baskets. ... They were mostly all burned, so the weavers wouldn’t have anything to model after.” Among the Kumeyaay there was a ceremony called ke-ruk, which was held one year after a person’s death. During that ceremony all the personal possessions of the deceased were burned. Also an effigy of the deceased, decorated perhaps with seashell for eyes and teeth, would be burned. It’s her theory that fancy baskets, prayer baskets, were made for this ceremony, and were burned in this ceremony, which is why there is not a trace of them today.

Next she told me something serendipitous, one of those invisible threads running through this story. She said she found a basket in the Museum of Man made by Petra Cuero Moreno, related both to Castañeda, Silva, and to Delfina Cuero, whose autobiography I mentioned earlier. She said when she told Castaneda and Silva about the basket, they were excited and wanted to know if it was a fancy tamul basket. They were disappointed to find out it was only an open twined berry-gathering basket. They also want to know what the warp and weft were made of. Dozier says she presumes when Petra started making baskets, sumac was the weft, and the bundle was made of deer grass, but she said the overgrazing of the late 1800s took away the deer grass. She has seen mother and daughter devour photos of old baskets, trying to get back some of the cultural knowledge that was severed in so many harsh ways.

What brought Dozier to tears and rent the veil of my illusions that the indigenous people of California were treated differently than, say, the Plains Indians or the East Coast Indians, was all the historical data Dozier unearthed * about this area. The central tenet of Dozier’s dissertation is that basketry has long been an economic strategy for the Kumeyaay. What surrounds and contextualizes this idea is the desperate conditions of the Kumeyaay. Under the Spaniards they were robbed of their beliefs, forced to labor for the priests, and exposed to diseases that decimated their numbers. They fared no better under the Mexican government Dozier cites one example in which California soldiers brought the first Mexican governor, José Maria Echeandia, ears of the Indians by way of demonstrating the work they had done that day.

After the United States took over Alta California, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed Mission lands to the Indians, but they were dispossessed of the land by Anglos and became virtually homeless. In the next period a number of ugly things took place. Indian labor was needed to build the new empire. In San Diego a man named Jessie Hunter was appointed as the first Indian agent. According to Dozier, “Hunter was raised on a slave plantation and brought slave laws wholesale into Southern California.” This meant that indigenous people were not allowed to congregate in groups or they would be jailed and held without bond or bail: if they were found idle they were fined and jailed and could not be released until a white person paid their fine; if they were caught drunk they were subject to immediate arrest and put into the slave-labor system. There was a slave market for Indian people (as well as African-Americans) in Los Angeles until 1860. It fed the labor demands of San Diego. As late as 1875 in San Diego there was the McCain massacre of 15 Kumeyaay. I used to think that the Kumeyaay ended up on one side or another of the border by chance, according to their migrations and where they were when the international border was introduced But Dozier gave me to understand that many of the indigenous people in Mexico fled there from the United States because the alternative was annihilation.

This historical material suggests why Dozier had to go across the border to find a basket-weaving community and why the current baskets are simpler than those made by Kumeyaay ancestors. The tradition of basket weaving survived with Castaneda and her group of Kumeyaay because they were improvisers. When the deer grass could no longer be used, they turned to other plants to make their bundles. Ultimately they used the juncas that we see in their basketry today.

What I found fascinating was that basketry was also eroded on the United States side of the border by the introduction of lacemaking. Around the turn of the century, a wealthy Philadelphia widow, through the agency of the Episcopal church, started the Indian Lace Association as a means for various tribes to enhance their precarious financial situation. “Lace was stylish at that time — there were lace edgings on baby hats, collars, sleeves, everything.” Dozier documents that several thousand dollars were made by the sale of specifically Kumeyaay lace. The lace then took the place of basketmaking, though lace making was brought to an end with the loss of material, linen thread, due to a World War I embargo. By this time the average age of the basketmaker was 60, and the craft would have died out completely except the Mission agency in 1935 sent indigenous basketmakers to various reservations to reintroduce the skill.

I asked Dozier what evidence she had to support the idea that basketry was an economic strategy, part of what supplemented the Kumeyaay economy. She said there are many letters to the Mission Indian Agency asking Indian women for baskets; letters from the Kumeyaay women saying, “Please send the baskets or the money home to us.” In her thesis Dozier tells a story about a certain Owas Lopez. She hated to make baskets; her husband wrote a letter saying she hates to sit still that long. During the time that there was work building the railroad, she chose to do laundry for the workers rather than make baskets. Her husband’s letter says, “I’m sending you a basket made by Owas. There’s no more work.”

It’s a strategy and a strategy that continues across time and borders. Besides helping her large family, Castaneda hopes to make enough money to buy a car. Her life would be so much easier if she didn’t have to conduct all her business by microbus or rely on Norma Munoz to drive her everywhere. She dreams also of helping her son Gregorio make videos about the life of the Mexican Kumeyaay. He has studied the craft, but he doesn’t have the equipment or the money to rent it. But underneath the large dreams are the basic ones. With the first bit of money Castaneda’s son was able to put in a cistern to water the garden and a cement floor in the house, a vast improvement over the dirt floor. Still, there is more worry. Before, they were helped with doctors and medicine; Castaneda told me the people of San José had just been told that the money has practically run out; for now they can afford to help only the young children and infants. Castaneda also said this recent sale happened just in time; in the winter the rains make the road in and out of the community impassable. “We’re going to have to buy a lot of rice and beans to last,” she said.

One of the possibilities Dozier toys with for the future is staying on the reservation of San José and helping the people wrestle utilities from the Mexican government. Dozier’s talents are many and her future is open. She has already published one book entitled The Heart Is Fire: The Contemporary World of the Cahuilla Indians of Southern California. Her thesis is such a wealth of local history and so readable I hope she publishes it as well. On March 16 Dozier gave a lecture on “The Genius of the Kumeyaay Basket Weavers” at Southwestern College. Her lecture was be followed by a demonstration/lesson in basket weaving given by Gloria Castañeda and her mother Celia Silva. I whiled away the evening with all of these women, including Norma Muñoz, who will have driven Castaneda and Silva from San José de la Zorra to Chula Vista. Norma who was, by way of conclusion, able to save one of the two abandoned dogs.

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