Thursday, September 28, 2000
It''s a little-known secret, but the upstairs floor of Monterey''s Pacific House Museum holds a treasure trove of Indian artifacts from tribes as diverse as the Aleutians of Alaska to the Plains Indians of Kansas. The state of California received this boon from the Holman family (of Pacific Grove department store fame), who bought the artwork for their personal collection during vacations. In the late ''90s, the collection was rededicated as the Monterey Museum of the American Indian. The artifacts are organized into 11 thematic sections, such as "Transportation" and "Textiles," and taken as a whole, offer visitors an enticing glimpse into the diverse cultures of Native America.
The basketry display alone, with more than 60 storage baskets, winnowing trays, hats and wedding plates would make this museum noteworthy. (Currently only about 25 percent of the museum''s 600-plus collection of baskets are on display. Next year the facility will open a new room where all the baskets will be arrayed in "visible storage.")
"Women usually wove the baskets, and it would take them more than a year to make one," says Esther Goodhue, a docent with the California State Parks, which curates the collection. "They would go meet the trains with tourists like the Holmans on them and sell the baskets for extra money."
The large Apache storage baskets decorated with designs of square-shouldered men with square heads immediately catch your eye. "Burden" baskets like the square-bottomed Apache one hanging on the wall were carried on the back for food gathering in many tribes. Four brown striped hats that resemble beanies were worn pulled down over the forehead by women of the California Hupa tribe to protect their skin from the strap used to hold burden baskets.
An Eskimo basket decorated with walrus tusk figurines of seals, birds, fish and walruses hides in the corner. A hanging Navajo wedding basket has a white flower-like design in the middle surrounded by brown pyramid designs. The basket''s opening, which goes from the flower through the border, is intended to let the bad spirits escape from the couple''s life.
The gems of the collection are the California Pomo baskets, which occupy their own platform. The Pomo practiced coiled weaving, really a form of sewing, to make these multicolored baskets decorated with black quail topknot feathers and red woodpecker feathers. The baskets'' openings are lined with abalone discs.
Across from the basketry display, block-like, multicolored Pueblo Kachina dolls representing spirits float on the wall. The brown, round-bodied Mudhead Kachina who represents the spirit of buffoonery sits on the floor.
The clothing display features deerskin robes and moccasins of the Plains Indians. The beads used to decorate this clothing came from Italy and reflect contact with Europeans.
Pottery aficionados will want to make a pilgrimage to the museum just to see the black pot with gray triangles cascading from its opening, made by the renowned Pueblo potter Marie of San Idelfanso, New Mexico. Geometric designs and earthtoned Hopi and Navajo vessels border this pot.
In front of the textiles exhibit, Goodhue points out, "The Navajos never wove blankets before coming into contact with white Americans. Originally, they wove to make their clothing." The six hanging blankets'' designs and colors echo those of the Navajo pottery.
The most interesting item in the children''s display is a baby carrier made of widely spaced woven twigs. A mother would surround her baby''s bottom with moss in this carrier making it an organic disposable diaper.
Representing the art of cool-weather cultures is a model umiak (Aleutian boat) from the Haida tribe of British Columbia. Its paddles are decorated with red and black designs, making them resemble fish. There''s also a model totem pole topped off with a bird painted in red, brown and black.
Forty-five items featuring beadwork, necklaces and a headdress make up the regalia section. Goodhue laughs as she points out war clubs whose beaded handles clearly show that they were made for tourists. She also stresses that warriors wore headdresses at dances "to get psyched up for war," but removed them before going into battle.
Headdresses would be stored in bonnet cases like the one in the warfare display. The rectangular buckskin case with dangling strings looks like a case for holding arrows, but its real use was to snugly protect a collapsible headdress.
In the food-preparation display are woven containers, covered inside and out with pitch, that were used for water storage. A burnt basket is a potent reminder that Indian women used these woven "pots" to cook with. A woman would place an acorn mush, for example, in a basket. Then she would add heated rocks to the mush and turn the mixture to cook the food. Slow mixing resulted in burnt baskets. The decorative backdrop for this display is a Navajo rug that copies a Hopi motif of alternating, elongated green stalks of corn and Kachina-like figures.
The fish trap in "Hunting" is an example of the type of weaving that men practiced. A buffalo skin "story blanket" from the Plains Indians depicts the number of buffalo killed in a hunt and the dancing and feasting afterward. The blanket is yet another cherished treasure in this museum that merits many visitors.
Monterey Museum of the American Indian, Pacific House Museum, Custom House Plaza. Admission is free. For more information, call 649-7118.