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Volume 3 Issue 7

It Takes a Year to Make a Basket

by Lee Davis

Hupa basket weavers tell their young apprentices, “It takes a year to make a basket.” They mean that a whole year before weaving begins, the many plants that make up a basket must be collected, each plant at its own time of year and in its own location. Gathering the plants takes longer than weaving the basket. The knowledge of plants and their uses has been passed down from generation to generation. Stories say this process goes all the way back to the time when the Kixunai Immortal Beings taught the first people in Hoopa Valley. And so it continues year in and year out. Children learn the skill of plant gathering and the art of basket weaving from their parents and grandparents.

Today the young people at Hoopa continue to go with their families up into the hills and creeks of their reservation. In these mountain forests, they learn how to find the grasses, tree roots, and ferns that their mothers and aunts and grandmothers will weave into beautiful baskets. Hupa baskets are used to prepare or serve food, like dear meat and acorn soup. Other baskets are made to cradle babies. The finest baskets are woven into caps which women wear at religious ceremonies.

The gathering year begins in late February, when willow roots and willow sticks are collected along the shores of the Trinity River in Hoopa Valley. In spring, the hazel sticks and spruce roots are ready for gathering. But the most social gathering activity takes place during the summer.

After school is out, the summer temperature can rise to over 100 degrees in the valley. Women friends pick up their children and grandparents and drive up into the hills for family outings. They go to swimming holes up along the streams where the basket plants are ripe for collecting. The women, the girls, and even some of the boys happily pick the bear grass, maiden-hair ferns, alder bark, and by late summer, woodwardia ferns as well. Sometimes the boys fish in the creeks while the women gather. At Hoopa, basket weaving is something the women do. Men are allowed only to make a few loose weave baskets, such as the basket traps they use to catch eels in the river. For this reason, some of the boys do not like to gather the basket plants, although they are welcome to help. No child at Hoopa is forced to do anything. Children are encouraged to do the traditional tribal activities that they enjoy. The elders - parents and other adults of the tribe who are expert in various traditions - encourage children to learn by watching adults work. In the summer gathering camps, the children begin to learn by being close by when others collect plants. While in the hills, the women teach by telling stories about each plant, showing where it is located, explaining how to tell when it is ripe, and describing how to prune off what is needed without destroying the plant. They point out medicine plants like mountain balm, food plants like clover tea, and plants for decorating clothing and jewelry like juniper seeds. They tell tales about the animals in the hills and stories of tribal history. The families laugh and gossip. Then the women say, “Listen to us gossip. We’ll get Xonischwen all over our baskets.”

When the women have finished collecting plants, they lay out the picnic they brought along, while the boys and girls swim in the creek. The women bring what the children like best. Hot dogs are a summer favorite.

At the end of the day, the families, tired and happy, head back down from the hills to their homes in Hoopa Valley. In each woman’s home, there is a corner where she keeps her basket plants. The old people see the stacks of basketry materials and say, “That is like the old houses.”

All year the children look forward to spending the summer with their families, swimming and picnicking and gathering plants along the cool creeks. Summer is a relaxing time for families to come together by returning to the landscape of streams and hills. The grandparents remember the family camps of their youth. It makes them happy to see the traditional activities of plant gathering and basket weaving continue. They tell the young people that the most important basket of all, the Jump Dance basket that comes out every two years in the World Renewal Ceremonies, is the symbol of the Hupa family. The Jump Dance basket came into existence at the dawn of time, and if the children listen and watch and learn, the Hupa family will go on. Then these children will grow up, and someday in the same hills, by the same streams, they will tell their own children and grandchildren, “It takes a year to make a basket.”

Lee Davis is the Director of California Studies at San Francisco State University and has worked with the Hoopa Valley Tribe for over 20 years.

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