These days, people might think of a woven basket as a container for fruit or a decorative item. But anyone who enters the Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum will uncover the basket’s wide range of uses by Native Americans of the western United States.
The Steinbach collection includes baskets used for transporting infants; gathering, preparing and storing food; hunting; spiritual ceremonies; and funerary offerings. Some baskets were made to show off the skills of their weavers. The museum, part of the Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City, California, has a collection of more than 900 baskets from 85 North American tribes.
Steinbach Museum Coordinator Javier Rodriguez moves slowly through the museum, past shelves of baskets displayed in glass cases.
“We are talking about 950 stories here,” he says. “A basket is more than a utilitarian thing. It is a part of the culture.”
Rodriguez stops in front of a basket adorned with black geometric patterns. It is a degikup of the Washoe, a tribe indigenous to the Lake Tahoe and Great Basin region of California and Nevada. Degikup baskets are decorative, created purely to show off the artistry of the weaver.
“This is a textbook example of degikup,” Rodriguez says. “It leaves no doubt what it is used for—to show off.”
Rodriguez moves to another display case that holds a large basket almost a meter (3 feet) high. He identifies the item as a Miwok chef’s basket.
The large basket was used for cooking by the Miwok people, a Northern California tribe. The chef would fill the basket with water and whatever he or she was planning to cook (such as vegetables and meat) while heating rocks in a nearby fire. The chef then used a willow stick with a loop at the end to put the hot rocks directly in the basket, heating the soup. A Miwok chef’s basket functioned like a modern-day cooking pot—except the heat was directly in the pot rather than warming it from outside.
Nearby is a narrow, tall basket that looks like a small tower. It is actually a Pomo woodpecker trap. The Pomo, another Northern California tribe, knew woodpeckers can’t walk backwards. Their trap is ingeniously designed so a woodpecker can walk in and not be able to turn around and back out. Pomo hunters affixed these traps to tree-holes created by woodpeckers for their nests, and waited for the birds to wander into them.
The museum also features so-called burden baskets, which were used for moving food and firewood. Cradle baskets were used for transporting and protecting infants. Other items on display include hats and woven duck decoys made of tule reeds.
Most of the collection’s baskets were made from plant materials available where the tribes resided. Strands of willow, sumac, or twisted sections of marsh plants frequently served as a basket’s foundation. The sewing strands were shoots or roots.
Washoe baskets, for instance, were typically made of willow, bracken fern, reeds, and, to a lesser extent, bear grass, Rodriguez says.
“Anything they could find in the Tahoe Basin and Carson Valley region,” he says.
The museum’s impressive collection is the result of one woman’s passion.
Marion Schlichtmann Steinbach grew up appreciating art. The Schlichtmanns were known for their collection of antiques, art, and historical documents—some of which were donated to the Yosemite Museum in Yosemite National Park and the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.
Steinbach purchased her first basket from a weaver in Lee Vining, California, in the eastern part of the state, when she was just 16 years old. By the time she was in her 40s, living in Palo Alto, Steinbach had become a collector, dealer, and expert in Northern California baskets.
Steinbach traveled all over the western United States for baskets to purchase, and she sought out Native American weavers so she could learn how the items were made. Afraid that people were losing basket-weaving knowledge, Steinbach began teaching weaving classes herself.
Steinbach died in 1991 and requested that her baskets remain together as a single collection. Her husband, Hank Steinbach, worked with the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society to build the museum that now houses the collection.
“Over six decades, she built an entire addition to her house for the collection,” Rodriguez says, “so her passion was quite enormous!”
Baskets of Money
Washoe basket-weaver Dat-so-la-lee began selling her baskets at Tahoe City’s Cohn’s Emporium Co. for $2.50. Now the same baskets are worth as much as a home.
to decorate or add beauty to.
load or weight to be carried.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
object used to attract an animal or other organism.
intricate, non-utilitarian, spherical basket produced by expert weavers from the Washoe community of Northern California and Nevada. Also called a basketry bowl.
material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.
having to do with ceremonies surrounding a funeral or burial.
employing or having to do with clear, rectilinear or curvilinear design.
enormous watershed region in the western United States with no drainage to the ocean, including most of the state of Nevada, and surrounding areas in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.
characteristic to or of a specific place.
space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.
person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.
grass with tall, strong stalks that grows in marshy ecosystems.
to live in a place.
part of a plant that secures it in the soil, obtains water and nutrients, and often stores food made by leaves.
newly sprouted plant or plant growth.
having to do with religion or faith.
to move material from one place to another.
large wetland plant (sedge) native to freshwater marshes of North America.
practical or useful.