Quillwork in Native American Baskets from Northwest California

The Native American Room exhibit “Quillwork in Native American Baskets from Northwest California” opens Sunday, October 9, 2016. Curator Ron Johnson will be present from 2 to 4 p.m. for an opening reception honoring some of the weavers, exhibit consultants and object lenders. EXHIBIT EXTENDED TO SEPTEMBER 3, 2017!

Nearly fifty baskets and objects from the collections of Clarke Historical Museum, Fort Jones Museum, Karuk People’s Center, Ron and Melanie Johnson, Michael Minor, John Rauzy, Sue and Philip Sanders, Nancy Steele, Jan West and Trinidad Museum Society will be on view. In addition, a newly acquired 42-inch porcupine “study skin” installed in a redwood and acrylic case donated by Dr. Steve Ruth will be part of the exhibit.

Ron Johnson explains in the color catalog, co-authored by Coleen Kelley Marks, which accompanies the exhibit:

“Quillwork was a notable Native American tradition varying across North America. Among Woodland tribes porcupine quills were inserted into birchbark baskets without flattening the quills, although they were frequently dyed. Among Plains Indians quills were dyed and flattened, then wrapped, sewn, or plaited. Quills were wrapped around rawhide and especially applied to bags and moccasins and flattened quills were sewn into clothing. Plaiting was primarily applied to pipe stems twisted over sinew and was a type of braiding. The introduction of glass beads began replacing quills by 1800. Northwest California is unique in weaving with porcupine quills. Porcupines were the main provider of quills since each porcupine has approximately 37,000 quills. The thinner and longer quills were preferred to be gathered in the winter. Bird quills were used by California Indians, but not in Northwest California.

In Northwest California, quills could be added to any type of basket except utility baskets. Quills increased the value and prestige of any basket. Most quills were dyed yellow with staghorn lichen or orange-yellow with Oregon grape root, but aniline dyes and a few other plants were occasionally used.

Exactly how or when adding quills to baskets first appeared is not known. It is probably a post-contact practice not becoming frequent until the twentieth century. “Made for the Trade” baskets in the form of covered bottles, tea cups, pedestal baskets, and the most widely adopted fancy or trinket baskets seem to have preceded the introduction of quillwork. Alexander Brizard, who owned several stores that traded in baskets, does not list quills among the materials used to weave baskets, nor does he advertise baskets with quills in his pamphlet from 1902, which is the first of its kind. Alfred Kroeber wrote in the Materials section of his “Basket Designs of N.W. California, ‘Porcupine quills dyed yellow are rarely used.’ Neither porcupines nor their quills appear in Hupa, Karuk and Yurok myths suggesting their late introduction. Quills in baskets became the equivalent of gold in color and of high value.”

The work of Yurok basket weavers Ada Charles, Jeanette Eberhart, Amy Smoker, Queen James, Lena Reed McCovey, Ella Johnson, Carrie Roberts, Minnie Frank, Kateri Masten and Shoshoni Gensaw Hostler are included in the exhibit along with Karuk weavers Daisy Jacobs, Florence Harrie, Frances Fanny Effman, Nettie Ruben, Madeline Davis, Elizabeth Hickox (Karuk-Wiyot) and Louise Hickox. Hupa weavers include Emma Dusky Frank and Lorencita Carpenter. The work of unknown weavers also will be on view.

This first of its kind exhibit will remain on view until March 8, 2017. Copies of the catalog are available for purchase for $20 each. UPDATE: 8 baskets will be returned on April 1 and 4 from the TMS collection will replace them; the exhibit will remain open until September 3, 2017.