Exploring the Culture of Sonoma County Native Tribes through Basket Weaving

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Since 1990, November has been recognized as Native American Heritage Month. According to the National Congress of American Indians, the month is “a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories and to recognize the significant contributions of Indigenous peoples.”

The colorful heritage of the indigenous peoples of Sonoma County – namely the Pomo, Miwok, Wappo, Wintun and Patwin tribes – have often been seen through traditional artwork and stories displayed in museums, cultural sites and local festivals.

In the fall of 1970, the Council of American Indians of Sonoma County held a festival to commemorate American Indian Day, according to a September 18, 1970 Press Democrat article. Sonoma County American Indian Council President and Pomo member Genny Marrufo said in the article that she hopes the fair’s events and display of art representing different tribal cultures will help foster a better understanding of the local tribes.

Two local basket weavers attended the 1970 fair to exhibit their world famous basket weaving: Elsie Allen and Laura Somersal.

Elsie Marie Allen was a legendary Pomo basket maker and tribal scholar who taught and preserved the Pomo art of basket weaving, in addition to recording and preserving various Pomo dialects.

Allen was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution for her mastery of basket weaving and honored by the Women’s Foundation of San Francisco in 1986 for her achievements in preserving the Pomo culture, according to a January 4, 1991 Press Democrat article announcing her death. Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa, established in 1994, was named in her honor.

Laura Somersal, of Wappo and Dry Creek Pomo ancestry, was another prominent basket weaver. According to an October 23, 1980, Press Democrat article, she taught the art of basket weaving for years, and many of her baskets are on display in museums and collectors’ homes around the world. Somersal’s 1990 obituary noted her role in teaching and preserving the Wappo Pomo language in local schools and universities, and she was a basket weaving consultant for the Smithsonian.

Pomo baskets, while beautiful with surprisingly intricate designs, were largely utilitarian, as they were strong enough to be used for cooking and woven tightly enough to hold water. In a Dec. 9, 1982, Press Democrat article, Somersal said the process of making a basket can take years; even a small thimble-sized basket can take at least a week.

Pomo healer Mabel McKay, known as one of the nation’s top Pomo basket weavers, made the world’s smallest, pinhead-sized basket that you had to see under a magnifying glass to see the patterns woven.

McKay was the “spiritual sister” of another famous local basket weaver: Essie Pinola Parrish, spiritual leader Kashia Pomo, physician and native lore scholar. In 1968, Parrish hosted Senator Robert Kennedy as he visited the Kashia Pomo Reservation, according to a Fort Ross Conservancy report. Parrish presented Kennedy with one of his most treasured baskets, which ended up at the Smithsonian after his death.

Learn about California’s Native tribes and cultures, including local tribes such as the Graton Rancheria Federated Indians, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians, and the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. ‘Pomo Indians of Stewarts Point Rancheria. the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa.

See the gallery above for photos of local Native American art and basketry.

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