While beautiful basketry has been practiced, traditionally, throughout the West, the indigenous people of California were preeminent basket makers. In the historic period, after Native economies had been completely disrupted and destroyed, some women were able to move basket making into a commercial skill. The process was helped along by some American art dealers and trading companies.
Baskets were used in a wide variety of ways --- for carrying burdens, carrying infants, dry storage, water storage, winnowing, catching seeds, sifting ground meals, cooking, eating, gambling trays, caps, and even traps of different kinds. Shape, style, materials, and designs all varied, depending on the intended use. Design traditions also varied from one part of the state to another.
There are many fine basket collections open to public view throughout the state --- The Southwest Museum (Los Angeles), CA State Indian Museum (Sacramento), Oakland Museum (Oakland), Desert Museum (Palm Springs), and others. In all of these it is possible to see traditional baskets as well as the newer designs that were evoked, early this century, by the commercial market.
There are two basic basketry styles, twining and coiling, determined by the orientation of the warp. In twining, the warp strands radiate outward, 360 , from a central point; in coiling, the warp strands wind in expanding concentric circles. The weft, or threading strands, fill the space between the warp foundation, hold the warp strands together, and create the basket's final shape. California basketmakers could weave weft-and-warp so tightly together that a basket was able to hold water, being used for cooking and eating. Water storage baskets, however, were usually treated with something (asphaltum or pine pitch) to make them permanently water tight.
Twining was practiced almost exclusively in Northern California. Coiling dominated the state from approximately Sacramento area southward, but southerners also did some twined baskets. A fine example of twining is this Hupa woman's cap on exhibit at the State Indian Museum. While coiling can be done equally fine, twining always appears smooth and flexible like this cap. Notice that, in a twined basket, what we see is the threaded weft moving in concentric circles around the basket. In a coiled basket, the reverse is true; that is, the major impression is the movement of the weft between coils, usually making the coils stand out clearly. Note the differences shown by this coiled storage basket on display at the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, CA. See also a Cahuilla coiled basketry tray(also at Bowers Museum), a Miwok coiled cooking basket(exhibited at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, Volcano, CA.) and a Chemihuevi wicker winnowing basket (exhibited at the San Bernardino County Museum, Redlands, CA.) The Pomo Indians are famous for extremely fine basketry work and colorful designs, using feathers and shells. Here is a small Pomo presentation basket (Bowers Museum).
Steatite (soap stone) was quarried in various parts of the state but the largest deposit was on Catalina Island in Tongva (Gabrielino) country. The Chumash and Gabrielino were preeminent steatite carvers and made everything from fine pipes to small effigies of fish, whales, birds, snakes, etc. A fine example of steatite carving is this Woman's face exhibited at the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, CA). See also a fish and a whale both exhibited at the San Bernardino County Museum, Redlands, CA.
I have been investigating various sites in Owens Valley, approximately half way between the towns of Lone Pine and Bishop. It is an area in which there was good water; in fact, some irrigation was practiced. Waterfowl were abundant in fall and winter. Deer also came down from the Sierras in the wintertime. While there were no oak trees to provide acorns, the main staple of California, there were extensive stands of pinon pines, to provide pine nuts.
One site that I have a special interest in is well up on the west-facing slope of the Inyo Mountains. It was created by erosion out from under a hard plate of lava flow in a small draw. As you approach, the ceiling and gravelly floor are obvious, as in this picture of the site. The interior is large enough to stand up inside and offers a spectacular view back toward Owens Valley and the Sierra. There is a flat basaltic rock with a grinding slick on the ground, approximately fifteen feet southeast of the shelter.
The most interesting feature of this site is the large amount of pictographic material on its ceiling. Pictographs are paintings on rock, as contrasted to petroglyphs, which are etchings into the rock surface. Pictographs are much less common in this area of the Great Basin. Some fine examples of petroglyphs can be found, further south, in Renegade Canyon, on the US Navy property at China Lake.
Anasazi Pueblo Ruins (Bandelier National Monument, NM)