Working Baskets

Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, and Wiyot women of northwestern California produced baskets of exquisite design and flawless construction.  Ceremonial caps for women and intricate dance accoutrements for men represent the culmination of this art.

But from a broader perspective, basketry was the technology underlying much of the culture.  Fishing, hunting, gathering, transporting, storage, many techniques for making clothing, furnishings and tools, as well as all aspects of food preparation, involved basket techniques and materials.

Intimate knowledge of materials, when and where to collect them, how to process them, are critical.  Lengthy experimentation with forms and functions led to an amazing array of specialized baskets.

These “Working Baskets” are at the core of Northwest Coast cultures.


Most of the food resources in the area appear seasonally: herbs, berries, grasses, fish, shellfish, nuts, bulbs. All were collected in huge quantities and stored. Similarly, the best materials for basketmaking and many other purposes, were available only at specific times, and had to be gathered at that moment. Firewood however, was collected continuously year-round.

Most gathering was done with strong, lightweight, openwork burden baskets. These were conical in shape, usually with a leather strap which transferred the weight to forehead or shoulders. Tightly woven baskets were used only for tiny things, like seeds.

Storage required many large baskets (see top shelf)and lots of room. In the Yurok house, the fire pit and living area were below ground level. A generous balcony surrounded the open area below and held the family’s supplies of food, materials, clothing, tools etc.–stored mostly in baskets. Large gathering baskets might serve later as lids for large storage baskets (see top shelf, right.)

Acorn Processing

Acorns–the staple food of the Northwest Coast–require long, hard work before they are edible.

First, the nuts are shelled by cracking them open with an acorn pounder (or the teeth) and removing the kernel.

Next, a hopper,–a sturdy, flaring basket with a hole in the bottom,–is positioned on a stone mortar. The kernels are pounded to a finely ground meal using a heavy stone pestle, while the hopper prevents the acorns from scattering in the process. The woman sits on the ground and holds this whole assembly in place with her legs, as she pounds.

Then, a flat, reinforced “flour sifter” is used to swirl the meal and separate out the finer particles, sifting them onto a broad, shallow “flour tray.”

Finally, the flour must be “leached” to remove the bitter tannic acid from the acorns. Traditionally, this leaching was done in a sand basin at river’s edge, and required many hours of carefully pouring water over the
acorn flour, before removing it–even more carefully–from the sand.


Cooking was done in a variety of ways–on open fires,in fire pits–but the signature method of this area was cooking in baskets! No, the basket was not put on the fire. It was filled with acorn flour and water. Smooth stones, heated in an open fire were transferred to the basket. Quickly, carefully, the stones were stirred with a wooden paddle, never allowing them to settle and burn the basket. But sometimes the cook got distracted and these old cooking baskets show the results: burned spots, even holes.

Cooking baskets were sturdy, with hazel sticks added to the exterior to support the weight of the heavy acorn mush and water mixture.


Simple baskets were used twice a day for family meals. These baskets had little decoration, since the addition of overlay materials to the basic twining reduced the water- tightness of the basket. The eating basket would hold acorn mush, the staple of the diet, often flavored with fish oil. As the fish cooked, the oil was collected in a steatite stone bowl.

Additions, depending on the season, were many: fresh meat, fish, shellfish, greens, seaweed, berries, nuts, seeds. Dried and smoked foods were stored for later use, with seaweed and smelts providing reliable winter nutrition. In addition, various roots (cattail), bulbs (Camas–“indian potatoes,” wild onions, Lillies) were dug, dried and stored.


Examples include: spruce root, spruce root split, hazel sticks, Nootka rose roots, woodwardia fern (undied), porcupine quills dyed with staghorn lichen, red alder bark, maidenhair fern (black); collected and prepared by Kateri Masten.

Exhibit curated by Jill Mefford and Kateri Masten, with help from Alexandra Cox and Bill Snell