It is a wintry morning at the Delta’s edge, and a man wearing a blue baseball cap is on his knees.
He moves in a place of wildness, nearly encircled by blackberries and cattails. A few steps away, the Mokelumne River glides past, the sun glimmering off its surface.
Above the man the intertwined branches of Valley Oaks and Cottonwoods form a green and yellow canopy.
The place is lush, so lush. Like so much of the San Joaquin Valley was hundreds of years ago.
A woodland primeval.
The man reaches through green blades below him, feeling the ground. He is searching here, searching through the green blades, his fingers caressing the earth.
Searching for treasure, of a sort.
Finally, he looks up and smiles.
“Yes,” he says. “I think I have it.”
Lodi, where Miwok flourished
Through the years, farmers east of the Delta have unearthed artifacts. A stone pestle. Arrowheads. A mortar stone. A smooth slice of stone with a small hole drilled through it, a fishing weight.
They are reminders of a people who once inhabited the region in substantial numbers.
What is considered today as the “heart” of the Delta was not inhabited by Indians, as it was underwater twice each day at high tide.
But on the Delta’s periphery, native people flourished.
For 10,000 years or more, the people enjoyed a rare bounty of materials with which to make tools and build shelters.
And food, an unmatched bounty of food. There were deer, elk and antelope for the taking. Berries, nuts, roots and acorns from the soil. From the water, salmon and perch, trout and sturgeon. From the skies, waterfowl so thick they could darken the skies.
The people, some of whom are now known as the Miwok, thrived.
By some estimates, the region from roughly Modesto to Sacramento, veined with rivers and creeks and bursting with life, once nourished the highest density of Indians in the United States.
Where there are vineyards and homes and shopping centers now, there were native people then.
People who danced and sang and who, in the long winter darkness, echoed stories passed down by ancestors.
People who gathered food and hunted here, gambled and played games, raised children and felt joy.
Then, in a relative blink, they all but vanished.
Fred Briones is evoking the spirit and culture of California Indians. He is the man in the red cap, kneading through the blades of sedge, seeking the perfect roots with which to make baskets.
Briones, 40, was raised in Isleton, the son of a Filipino father and a Pomo Indian mother. After high school, he lived on a Pomo rancheria near Clear Lake. He worked as a water treatment chemist there, and was inspired to learn basketmaking by his grandmother, Priscilla Ballente, a tribal elder, who passed away in 2017.
Later, he worked with native peoples in Hawaii and New Mexico before moving to Lodi four years ago with his wife, A-dae, daughter Arsenia, 12, and son Lanai, 4.
Briones holds a bachelor’s in chemistry and an MBA from the University of Hawaii. He is a consultant for the First Nations Development Institute, based in Virginia, which supports tribal economic and agricultural development. Briones evaluates proposals, basically matching worthy projects with grant monies.
He also makes baskets, and has for 20 years.
There is no more enduring symbol of California Indians than their basketry. They are objects of profound beauty, created with varied techniques and diverse patterns.
Some say they are the finest and most beautiful ever made, anywhere.
In a sense, they are the tapestry binding all the native people of California. From the Shasta and Modoc to the far north to the Paiutes and Kumeyaa of the south, all made baskets.
Baskets vary by tribal group and region. Materials reflect the diversity of flora in California, from tules and pine needles to willow and sedge roots. Some are festooned with tiny clam shells, others with feathers or bits of abalone shell.
They range from thimble-sized to massive. In the Huntington Library photo collection is an image from the early 1900s of a girl sitting in an exquisitely woven Pomo basket the size of a small wading pool.
The girl is Briones’ great aunt, Grace Elgin.
He learned basketmaking from his Pomo elders, especially his grandmother and aunts. It made him feel connected, grounded.
Briones has a gentle, thoughtful manner. He laughs easily and has a boyish sense of whimsy. He speaks of basketweaving in ethereal tones.
“When I make baskets, I think positive thoughts. I look into the basket and I see my ancestors.
“To be a good basketweaver, you must be a visionary. You must have a vision for the basket, and a vision for the future, too.”
During the pandemic, basketweaving has given him a sense of spiritual and mental refreshment.
“Weaving allows you to get out of your surroundings to a place that’s positive and healing. It is a form of meditation.”
In Pomo culture, a weaver’s first basket must be given away as a gift. Baskets are often bestowed as a token of love, appreciation or friendship.
“My first basket was covered with bluebird feathers, blue like the sky. I gave it to my grandmother to show how much I loved her,” he said.
Baskets can take months or even years to create, and scholars are increasingly recognizing them as examples of fine art.
Kathy Grant, Lodi’s watershed coordinator, has studied basket weaving and knows something of its attractions.
“It harkens to a slower time,” she said. “People sit around, talking and working and laughing, and the kids are running around. It’s all so much richer than Netflix.”
Baskets woven in earlier days were wonders of both construction and intellect: There were no patterns to follow, no YouTube instructional videos.
Basketweavers learned from other weavers, keeping the details of craft in their head, figuring the geometry of each three-dimensional creation, weaving with surgical exactitude.
Even in the years of calamity, the weavers, against great odds, would not let their art – their culture – perish.
A reign of chaos
The arrival of Europeans brought chaos for California Indians.
In the late 1700s, Spanish missions began rising in Coastal California, with their tanneries and shops, their vast fields and orchards.
To persist and expand, missions needed laborers, thousands of them. Indians would supply that muscle, including the Miwok of San Joaquin County.
For generations, California’s textbooks depicted mission life as benign or even pastoral for the Indians.
In reality, is was brutally oppressive. Most Indians were paid little or nothing for their work.
There were bloody uprisings against the Spanish authorities, and the Miwok of the Lodi area were known for their resistance against the mission system.
Yet by the 1830s, options for food, for shelter – for survival – were narrowing.
The baskets are exquisite, in part, because of abundance.
In Northern California, the natural landscape before European contact was so productive Indians did not need to range over great distances for food or shelter.
“They were largely settled. They had their homeland, and they knew their homeland quite well,” said Sherri Smith-Ferri, former curator fo the Grace-Hudson Museum in Ukiah and a member of the Dry Creek Pomo tribe.
Perhaps the most difficult part of creating basketry, she said, is gathering and preparing the materials.
“You can’t just take a walk outside in nature and find everything to create a basket,” Smith-Ferri said. “In a sense, the Indians were cultivating what they needed. They were trimming and digging and burning. They were gardening.”
Harvesting for a single basket might require several seasons, depending on which plants are needed.
Then comes the processing, which might require cutting, drying and dyeing.
It is quite daunting.
“To be good at basketmaking, it doesn’t hurt to be a little obsessive,” Smith-Ferri said. “The materials begin rather rough and tumble. Over months, they have to be made absolutely uniform; the width and thickness and length must be perfect.”
Because of their rich environment, the weavers had time to create such painstaking masterpieces.
In some tribes, including the Pomo, both men and women make baskets.
The men’s baskets were mainly for hunting and fishing and were less intricate than most other baskets. A long tunnel-like basket baited with seeds would ensnare quail. A wide basket open at both ends would be quickly dropped over fish in the shallows, with the captives pulled up and out through the top.
The men also made “baby baskets,” to mark the birth of a child. An infant would spend much of their first few months in baskets crafted by male relatives.
Baskets were integrated into nearly every aspect of Indian life.
Attached to a sturdy wooden frame, baskets were used to carry infants.
They were essential tools, used for storing and gathering, for cooking, for carrying water.
“In those days, they were our Tupperware,” said Jennifer Malone, a master basketweaver and member of the Wukchumni tribe.
Scenes of apocalypse
The Miwok tribes of San Joaquin County were close to the Delta, with its vast mosaic of ponds and marshes, so abundant with game and fish.
The wetlands were also infested with mosquitos.
When the first trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company ventured to the region in 1832, they brought malaria with them.
An outbreak exploded through the Miwok tribes. They had no immunity to the disease and no medicine to combat it.
In just months, malaria claimed up to 80 percent of the region’s Indian population.
Trappers passing through in 1833 reported scenes of an apocalypse: villages turned to silent, eerie graveyards, large numbers of skulls and bodies strewn under trees, ashes from funeral pyres.
As their numbers dropped and their villages were decimated, Miwok resistance to the missions faded. Once they had entered the system, they were bound to the padres, their armed enforcers, and their lives of forced labor.
Those who fled, or tried to, were hunted down by military troops.
“The Plains Miwoks were by no means willing converts,” wrote A.L. Kroeber, the founder of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley, in 1952.
Historical records show that 2,100 Plains Miwok entered the system before Mexican authorities dissolved it in1834.
An estimated two-thirds of the Indian babies born at the missions died in early childhood, according to David R. Stuart, former director of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum
“The effect of the missions on native people in the Lodi area was devastating,” he said.
A treasure of green
Since the 19th century, the raw materials for basketmaking in California have become increasingly scarce.
When Briones discovered the abundant sedge growing along the Mokelumne in the Lodi Lake nature area, he felt he’d found a bonanza.
Briones organized a group of weavers, including Malone, to come to Lodi and gather a small amount of the precious sedge. The group, supported by Grant, the watershed coordinator, filled out the necessary waivers and promised to gather only a moderate amount of the plant.
A director of the California Indian Basketweavers Association, Briones hopes to organize more such gatherings, to raise awareness of basketweaving and all it represents. He has used modern media to celebrate basketweaving, creating a video with the California basketweaving association posted on Facebook. As well, he is working with local video producers on a short documentary on gathering and weaving.
For tribal members, it is not merely about the weaving. It is about the gathering, a process that can be social and bonding.
Yet collecting the natural ingredients for baskets has become more difficult, Malone said. The Indians are no longer welcome in many places that are their ancestral lands.
“Some places we gathered years ago have been built over. We’ve been kicked out of places where my grandmother once gathered. We’ve been stopped by people who said we needed permission to gather now,” she said.
The expanse along the Mokelumne is a welcome discovery, she said.
“I was in heaven there, gathering, with friends and family,” Malone said. “Digging for the roots is healing. You feel you are touching the earth, healing it, and it heals you, too.”
And so in October, a remarkable scene unfolded: Native people gathering the ingredients for baskets below the oaks and the cottonwoods, next to the glistening river, perhaps for the first time in more than a century.
Murder and mayhem
The stories are told of John Sutter, the creator and commander of Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, 35 miles north of Lodi.
Sutter held up to 300 Indians to carry out the drudge work on his varied holdings. One pioneer later observed the Indians were, “in a state of complete slavery … (fed in) troughs … like so many pigs.”
The Miwok leader Maximo helped provide labor to Sutter. That is, until Sutter had a dispute with Maximo’s son, Raphero, ordered him killed, and displayed his head at the entrance to the fort.
It is the same fort, largely restored, which typically hosts thousands of California schoolchildren each year.
Sutter’s treatment of Indians was not unique.
In Stockton, Charles Weber, pioneer landowner and businessman, cultivated generally positive relations with the Indians who toiled for him.
But in 1848, he led a punitive attack on what historians believe was a Miwok village in the foothills, killing most of the men.
After subjugation by mission authorities, after the devastation of disease, many of the Miwok and other native people of the Central Valley became the equivalent of serfs on the farms and sprawling ranchos of the Central Valley.
There was simply no reprieve for native people. The Gold Rush unleashed what historians increasingly decry as a genocide against them.
According to research by Stuart, miners murdered at least 200 Miwok from 1847 to 1860. Throughout the state during that time, there may have been up to 100,000 California Indians killed.
Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote: “The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability. It can boast, however, a hundred or two as brutal butcherings, on the part of our host miners and brave pioneers, as any areas of equal extent in our republic.”
By the late 1800s, the Miwok of the Lodi area, part of a place that once nurtured perhaps the most robust concentration of Native Americans in America, had been largely annihilated.
Most of those who survived fled, seeking higher ground in the foothills and mountains to the east.
They left behind only remnants, like the stony bits of arrow and pestle.
Weaving hope and love
Gently, slowly, Briones, the man in the red baseball cap, pulls up the slender length of sedge root.
“This would be good for weaving,” he says, holding the sedge up to the morning light. “It is long enough, and straight, and flexible.”
For Briones, weaving transcends the creation of a physical object.
It is the weaving of Indian cultures; of the past, present and future; of friendship and love; the weaving of hope and perseverance in times of hardship.
When he gathers sedge and other plants, his family joins him.
“I want my children to know how to gather and how to weave, to know their ancestors, and carry this into the future,” he says.
He pauses, gazing beyond the sedge, beyond the oaks and the Sycamores to the river beyond.
“Our Indian people were in this place. I can feel it,” he says.
“They made baskets here 10,000 years ago. And 10,000 years later, we are still here, and we are still weaving baskets.”
Rich Hanner may be contacted at email@example.com.
Learning about Indian basketry