From the Desk of Linda M. Waggoner: The Year of the Basket Maker

Author's photo, Linda WaggonerLinda M. Waggoner is an independent scholar specializing in Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) history and a Native genealogy and research consultant for tribes and museums. She is the author of Fire Light: The Life of Angel De Cora, Winnebago Artist and Starring Red Wing!: The Incredible Career of Lilian M. St. Cyr, the first Native American Film Star (Bison Books, 2019).

1910: The Year of the Basket Maker

In the fall of 1909 Red Wing, born Lilian St. Cyr on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska, left New York City for sunny southern California to an unprecedented career as the first Native American silent film star. By the end of 1910 she helped establish Pacific Coast Studios, the western division of France’s Pathé Frères film company. However, many are unaware that she was a skilled beadworker. During the same year, Red Wing’s cousin, Angel De Cora, ascended to become known as “greatest” Native American artist while she managed Carlisle Indian School’s new “Native Indian” art department. In this capacity, she popularized indigenous design elements across the U.S.

Red Wing and De Cora are remarkable in their age as Native women with prestigious and creative careers. Having written both their biographies, I learned a lot about occupations open to Native women during the first decades of the twentieth century. By 1910 many like Red Wing and De Cora had been trained for domestic service in Indian schools across the country. While most white women in this decade were limited to housekeeping, factory work, teaching, nursing, and domestic service, an overwhelming proportion of Native women were domestic servants, albeit some held jobs as nurses or teachers as well as service in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

By 1910 white women had gone mad for Native made items to embellish their homes, and this “Indian craze” allowed more Native women to enter the national economy. George Wharton James, who introduced “Indian Basketry in House Decoration” in the September 1901 issue of The Chautauquon, contributed to this movement. “Surely, then,” he wrote, “the use of those articles with which the intimate and inner life of our predecessors in the possession of the soil we now call our own is inseparably connected, will appeal to the man of culture, refinement, and fine sensibilities. And basketry is widespread; it is interesting evidence of the earliest development of the useful faculties and gave the first opportunities for the exercise of the dawning esthetic senses.” James’s notion of aesthetic primitivism not only fueled the desire for Indian baskets, it granted popular recognition for Native woman as artisans (if not fine artists, like De Cora). It also conveys the “colonial desire” for the products of the so-called vanishing Indian, whose “soil we now call our own.” Consequently, the 1910 federal census list the occupation of basket weaver for nearly 800 Native women.

Thirty-five percent of these basket weavers inhabited California, but let’s look more closely at some of the women who held the occupation. Lake County in Northern California provides a particularly concentrated area of noted weavers. The indigenous population of this area, which centers around Clear Lake, was predominantly Pomo with some mixture of Wappo, Miwok, and more northern California peoples. However, it was the highly coveted Pomo basket most weavers produced regardless of their origins.

Waggoner_jkt.inddAnthropologists Sherrie Smith-Ferri (Dry Creek Pomo) and Sallie McClendon have carefully documented the making, collecting, and marketing of Pomo Indian baskets in Lake County and surrounding areas. They teach us that basket weaving fell within the traditional division of labor for Pomo women. Smith-Ferri, who comes from a family of basket makers, is determined to give a weaver’s name for surviving baskets (often held in dusty back-room museum collections). Her approach undercuts previous ethnographic scholarship that as Patricia Albers explains, “objectified and commodified work activity in American Indian communities” and “embodied labor in its products,” rather than in its people. Smith-Ferri’s work directly confronts the ideological bias prevalent during the classic basket era when objects “were appropriated and consumed as ‘trophies’ of colonial control and domination.”

The 1910 federal census clearly demonstrates the Indian craze in Lake County’s economy. It also reflects the indigenous tradition, basket making—which entails a spiritual affiliation to gathering, sorting, designing, and weaving—that sustained the community. Out of 423 men, women, and children, identified as “Indian,” fifty-eight women (13.71%) are enumerated as basket “weavers” or “makers.” Eight of these women were seventy years or older, with the eldest, Susie Johnson, ninety. Four were under eighteen, with the youngest, Eva Leon, only six. However, the number of concurrent weavers was even higher. For example, no occupations were listed for known weavers Minnie Boone, Jennie Fisher, and Mary Posh that year. Renowned Pomo basket makers Sallie Burris and her daughters, Rosa Smith and Mandy Pumpkin; Lydia Thompson Sleeper and her daughter, Leta Thompson; as well as Ellen Posh and Suzannah Graves are not enumerated in the census at all. Notably, only four other occupations were recorded for Native women: three washerwomen and one transplanted Cherokee woman worked her own farm.

The 1910 census demonstrates a peak in basket weaving as well as a significant rise in federally recorded female income earners. By 1920 the market for baskets had waned, but we know scores of women were still weaving and selling their wares. However, the 1920 census for Lake County, which lists 300 individuals as “Indian,” shows only three women with occupations, “washerwomen.”

Since Angel De Cora died in 1919, we cannot see how her occupation was listed for that year. Red Wing, whose film career waned, lived with her brother in Omaha, Nebraska where her occupation is listed as “none.” However she was as skilled a beadworker as the Lake County women were in basket weaving. In 1925 she moved to New York City and after one small film role, she supported herself through creating beadwork and regalia. Upon her death the quarterly for Museum of the American Indian recognized her talent, stating, yes, Red Wing “was well known as . . . the leading player in . . . the first feature-length film to be made in Hollywood,” but that, “an even more memorable quality was her fine craftsmanship—she was an excellent beadwork artist.” Like the Pomo weavers, Red Wing earned a living through her creative talents, but like them she also sustained a deep spiritual connection to her Native traditions all of her life.

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