Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Linda Yamane kneels in the sedge bed and closes her eyes. A cicada holds a long, low note behind trilling songbirds and croaking frogs; a gentle wind rustles the lichen-draped oaks. She begins to sing in a soft, clear voice:
“Shuururu xuyxuy, shuururu xuyxuyta, ishak xuyxuyta shuururu, shuururuuu.”
She opens her eyes and smiles. “I was just saying thank you. Thank you, sedge. Thank you, Big Sedge Place.”
She pats down a small patch of disturbed soil and pulls a tangle of slender sedge blades back over it.
“I have to close what I opened. Because to me, it would be very ungrateful to open up the ground and just leave it to dry up,” she says.
The November sun settles lower against the horizon, casting golden light on the rolling chaparral of the former Fort Ord. Yamane gathers up her harvest, a handful of rust-colored sedge rhizomes she’ll spend months processing and cleaning, eventually weaving them into a ceremonial basket honoring her Rumsien Ohlone ancestors.
Linda Yamane explains the detailed nature of making a basket.
The Rumsien are native people of the Monterey Bay area who belong to the larger Ohlone linguistic group, generally spanning from northern San Francisco Bay to south of Carmel and east toward the Central Valley. But with a drought of knowledge about the culture even here – the heart of Ohlone territory – historical institutions are increasingly honoring Yamane as a rare living resource.
“She makes baskets that will make you cry. The stuff she does is so exquisite,” says Cabrillo College emeritus historian Sandy Lydon, who’s been collaborating with Yamane since the 1980s. “It is just magic what she has taught herself to do.”
She’s been called the last Ohlone basket weaver. But Tim Thomas, Yamane’s husband and a local historian formerly with the Monterey History & Maritime Museum, says it may be more accurate to call her the first – at least, the first in centuries.
Yamane is busy these days with two intricate feather-and-olivella-bead Ohlone baskets. One is a commission for the Oakland Museum of California, and the other, funded by a Creative Work Fund grant, will be on temporary exhibit at the planned Big Sur Land Trust visitor center in Carmel Valley. She’s already put more than a year of work into the pair, and doesn’t expect to finish for about another year.
The Seaside artist also sings, writes, draws, paints, builds traditional tule canoes – and may be the first speaker of Rumsien since 1939.
“She went back into the anthropological records and reconstructed a language,” Lydon says. “She’s probably too modest to say this, but she may in fact be the only Rumsien speaker on the planet. She sings songs that, were it not for her, would never be sung again. And what’s cool about this is, it’s all based on the most intense and careful scholarship. She’s not making stuff up.”
Yamane bends over a 6-inch circle of woven willow and sedge, and pokes through a stitch with a metal awl. The Rumsien people of centuries ago would have used an awl made of deer bone – she has one for her twining baskets – but the piece she’s working on now uses a more tedious coiling technique, and she’s glad to have the more modern tool.
“The tradition of Ohlone basketry had almost died, but it’s something that Linda Yamane has almost single-handedly revived.”
The disk will eventually form the base of the Oakland Museum basket; a foundation for the Creative Work Fund piece lies beside her on the couch. Both are ceremonial bead baskets woven from willow and sedge she’s spent countless hours harvesting from Ford Ord, Carmel Valley and her own Seaside yard.
The prep takes even longer. She splits the sedge down the center, bends it and removes the bark, lets the threads dry for at least six months, then manicures them to a uniform thickness – shaving off the bumps and pulling the threads through a hole in an abalone shell to remove the rough fibers.
“Otherwise the stitches will look uneven in the basket,” she says. “That’s the key to clean weaving.”
She also scrapes the willow shoots to a uniform diameter. “It’s shocking how long that takes.”
She decorates the baskets with dyed-red chicken feathers – a substitute for the traditional acorn woodpecker scalp feathers – and disk beads made from olivella shells she collects at low tide from a local beach.
No Rumsien elder taught Yamane this craft. She learned basic twining and coiling techniques in her 20s, but not specifically native basketry. In her late 30s, two women who’d studied under an elder Pomo basket weaver taught her how to gather and process sedge and willow in the Bay Area. It took years for her to find the wild plants locally, so she planted them in her yard.
Yamane later refined a weaving technique more specific to her heritage through intense study of rare Ohlone baskets. (She estimates there are fewer than 40 left in the world, many of them outside California.) The feather-and-bead geometry of her current pieces, however, is her own design.
“I want to use a certain amount of creativity, but within traditional parameters,” she says. “I’m not replicating the old baskets, but I’m making ones that are similar within the same tradition.”
She had no idea how to estimate the hours she’d need to put into the pieces – a requirement of her proposals – so her son Robbie, a 27-year-old structural engineer who lives in San Jose, made an Excel spreadsheet using a formula based on the baskets’ truncated cone shape. They came up with about 2,500 – 3,000 hours per basket.
“I thought it was neat how old technology and new technology came together,” she says.
Behind the couch where Yamane sits is a photo of her as a young mother with baby Robbie, along with a picture of her great-grandparents from the late 1800s and several framed illustrations of Ohlone culture. An abalone necklace hangs over her colorful patchwork shirt; matching earrings iridesce in her feathery, gray hair. The shells, she says, are powerful Rumsien symbols of protection: “I wear abalone every day.”
Abalone makes another appearance in her side yard, dangling from a ceremonial basket she painted on the wooden fence. Stacked triangles of alternating red and white represent the feathers and olivella disk beads; pendants of actual abalone dangle from the wood. In front of the painting, a bench in a patch of sedge invites passersby to take a moment of rest.
She remembers watching Robbie’s baseball games in the mid-1990s and working on her first native basket, a teacup-sized piece woven with willow, sedge and bulrush and rimmed with quail topknot feathers. “When I look at that basket I see nothing but flaws,” she says.
Yet it’s one of her most precious: Inside is a photo of her late grandmother as a pretty, solemn teen with dark eyes that issue a challenge to look deeper.
Beatrice Barcelona Reno was born in 1894 to a Spanish-Basque father and a Rumsien-Spanish mother. In her later years she lived with her son, Robert Gonsalves, in San Jose. Linda, her granddaughter, was often her caretaker.
Yamane knew about her Carmel-area native heritage and had ancestor names back to 1770 on her father’s side. “There is something powerful and potentially shaping in that, to grow up having seen these names and knowing the connection,” she says.
It was Rumsien tradition to burn a person’s belongings when they died, which left few local artifacts for the historical record.
But while Reno imparted to her granddaughter a strong sense of family history and knowledge of medicinal plants, she didn’t know the Rumsien language, songs or stories. In fact, Yamane didn’t hear the words “Rumsien” or “Ohlone” until she was in her 30s. She certainly didn’t learn about local native people in school, where California Indians were usually referred to in the past tense, as primitive people just barely surviving on the land.
“I grew up knowing where I came from, but not really being able to relate with anything tangible. It was all abstract,” she says. “It’s kind of like having a hole in your heart. Everyone I met had similar holes in their hearts for things we longed for in order to make us complete.”
But she couldn’t find the history she was looking for in books. The last of the Rumsien viejas – a small group of elder women who spoke the Rumsien language and knew how to weave Ohlone work baskets – were born and raised at the Carmel Mission, but most had passed away by the turn of the 20th century. “The Carmel Mission scarcely even mentions the native people, which I thought was sad,” she says.
A key piece of Rumsien history came to Yamane by way of a long-passed elder: Isabel Meadows, a Rumsien-British local born on July 7, 1846, the day the American flag was raised over Monterey’s Custom House. When Meadows was in her 80s, she and another Rumsien elder, Manuel Onesimo, told ethnographer-linguist John P. Harrington about native life and language before the Spanish came to the Monterey area.
In the mid-1980s, Yamane discovered Harrington’s notes messily scrawled in an old dialect of California Spanish, archived at the Smithsonian and duplicated on microfilm at a San Jose State University library. She procured a microfilm reader and, collaborating at times with Manuel Onesimo’s grandson, Alex Ramirez, painstakingly translated Harrington’s notes into English – yielding info on Rumsien stories, songs, dances, basketry, history, genealogy and traditions that had never before been made available to the English-speaking public.
Harrington’s notes inspired Yamane to write and illustrate a children’s book of Rumsien Ohlone creation stories. It also cemented her credibility with Lydon, who’d studied the same records on microfilm at UC-Santa Cruz.
“She was the only other person I had ever met who had slogged through those microfilm rolls,” he says. “She’d done her homework. That gave us common ground.”
The two have been collaborating for the past two decades, bouncing their theories on Ohlone history off one another.
“We know quite a bit, but the prisms through which the Rumsien have been seen shifted so often and sometimes so dramatically that you have to know how to interpret and re-interpret before you can even say anything,” Lydon says.
The pioneers from the Eastern U.S. who traveled westward across the continent in the mid-1800sfound Californian natives very different from the horseback-riding Plains Indians, he explains. The California Indians lived in small tribal groups, usually consisting of three to five villages.
“On first appearance they didn’t seem to have much going for them,” he says. “They’d had a cultural wrenching at the hands of both the Spanish and the Mexicans. Next to a Cheyenne on horseback, the people the Yankees encountered in the 1850s and ’60s were dispirited.”
Most subsequent histories replicated these early impressions, characterizing the Ohlone as “diggers” with little or no developed culture – a version Yamane has flatly rejected.
“What she’s doing stands all of that on its head,” Lydon says. “It proves they had a hell of a lot more going for them than anyone imagined. They were much more skillful. They managed the landscape.”
Yamane’s curiosity about her ancestors went beyond the history. When Robbie was a toddler, she started studying the Rumsien language, using vocabulary lists ethnographers had compiled at the turn of the 19th century.
“I remember sitting awake in bed late at night,” she writes. “It was the only time I had to myself, and I would sit there with these ancient words in my lap, poring over them in my mind, feeling shy to say them out loud.”
In the mid-’90s, she turned up another gem at UC-Berkeley’s Hearst Museum: anthropologist Alfred Kroeber’s wax-cylinder recordings, made in 1902, of two more Rumsien elders, Viviana Soto and Jacinta Gonzales, singing traditional songs and telling part of a coyote story. She obtained a cassette tape of the recordings and transcribed them, syllable by syllable through static. Then she typed them up, learned their meanings and passed the songs and words on to other Ohlone people.
She later arranged a gathering with Soto’s great-granddaughter and Gonzales’ great-great-granddaughter in Big Sur. The fatefulness of it still makes her a little giddy. “It’s neat how all these threads pull together,” she says. “That they connect and listen to their great-great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother singing together is so cool!”
The Oakland Museum of California has commissioned Yamane for $80,000 to make one basket, due in September 2011. The Creative Work Fund granted her $40,000 to complete another three months later; that basket will be loaned to the Big Sur Land Trust’s new Carmel Valley visitor center.
Yamane says the fully taxed income – mostly doled out in monthly payments over a two-year period – adds up to about what she earned as a graphic artist for Whole Foods, allowing her to work full-time on the labor-intensive pieces.
The Creative Work Fund grant required the artist to work in partnership with a nonprofit, so Yamane linked up with the Big Sur Land Trust, which had acquired property near the mouth of the Carmel River, where Yamane’s Rumsien ancestors once lived.
Frances Phillips, the fund’s program director, says the combination of heartfelt language and attention to detail in Yamane’s proposal impressed the selection committee. “For the panel, it was exciting to revive a basket-weaving tradition that had essentially died out and is being revived by descendants of the tribe the tradition came from,” she says. “And she’s very conscientious about getting it right.”
The land trust is working to build a public program around Yamane’s basket, to teach people about native culture and its connection with the landscape.
The Oakland Museum basket, meanwhile, is intended as a feature in a newly renovated California history exhibit. “As I was trying to gather representative artifacts from each of the California tribes to put into our new gallery, it became very clear there was an absence of Ohlone baskets,” says Christiaan Klieger, the museum’s former senior curator.
Klieger approached Yamane, who’d served on the museum’s Native Advisory Council and consulted on its basket collection. He pitched the idea of commissioning her to re-create an Ohlone ceremonial basket, and eventually won approval and funding from museum officials. As part of Yamane’s contract, she’s leading more than a dozen public weaving demonstrations at the museum over two years.
“The issue is that there are very few Ohlone artifacts in any collection – particularly Ohlone baskets – and here we are in Ohlone territory,” says Louise Pubols, the museum’s chief curator of history. “The tradition of Ohlone basketry had almost died, but it’s something that Linda Yamane has almost single-handedly revived. This is the first time a basket like this has been made in 250 to 300 years.”
Both the museum and the land trust projects will include video components by filmmaker Chris Angelos, who lived on the Monterey Peninsula for 25 years before recently moving to Ojai.
He describes the two short films as “parallel projects” with some similar footage but different storylines. The museum version will probably focus more on the technical elements of basket weaving, he says, showing the baskets’ monthly progression as a sort of time-lapse, possibly with a voice-over by Yamane.
The land trust film, on the other hand, will take advantage of the visitor center’s location in the midst of willow and sedge habitat.
“The basket will complement the surroundings,” Angelos says. “For thousands of years, people were standing where we are now, and they looked at their surroundings in a very different way than we do.”
“She makes baskets that will make you cry. The stuff she does is so exquisite.”
There is some irony in the fact that Central Californian native baskets are such a rarity here. It was Rumsien tradition to burn a person’s belongings when they died, Yamane explains, which left few local artifacts for the historical record. And the European visitors to California often traded for some of the intricate baskets, taking them back to Europe.
That’s why, over the past four years, Yamane has made several trips just to visit the far-flung Ohlone baskets.
One tour took her to a Smithsonian facility in Maryland and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “I looked, I photographed, I studied and measured, I magnified – one basket after another,” Yamane writes in a recent issue of News from Native California. “I counted the number of stitches per inch, coils per inch, and examined the olivella disk beads.”
Last April, she traveled further – to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and The British Museum in London – to study three Ohlone feather-and-olivella-shell baskets, which would serve as the “teachers” for her two ceremonial basket projects.
“During a quiet moment alone, I introduced myself to my basket-sister in my Rumsien Ohlone language,” she writes of The British Museum artifact, “telling her of her home in California, that she had been missed all these years and that I was happy to meet her.”
Yamane may have single-handedly resurrected the art of Ohlone basketry, but at 61, she worries the craft could die with her. She’s teaching her weaving techniques to a small group of Ohlone descendants, including a friend’s 10 – and 16-year-old great-nieces. “My hope is resting on these two girls, but I don’t want to pressure them too much,” she says.
Yamane hopes her basketry will help reunite the Ohlone people who have been scattered by history. “We all had our cultural identities through our families, but we didn’t really know each other,” she says. “Now, over the past 25 years, we’ve had the chance to be a community again.”
On a broader scale, however, she’s using her baskets as a teaching tool for the larger public, particularly on the Central Coast – cultivating more awareness and respect for Rumsien history.
“So often people look at so-called ‘primitive cultures’ and fail to realize that people in those times were the same as we are, with the same innate intelligence. They just had different tools to work with,” she says. “I realized that this was such a great way to honor my ancestors, because then people could relate to them as human beings who were creative and resourceful.”
Lydon sees the value of Yamane’s work in more visceral terms.
“If someone gave me two wishes, one of them would be to be taller, and the other would be to have a time machine,” he says. “She’s giving us that. Something that was happening 400, 500, 600 years ago – it’s happening now. We are so lucky to have that woman in our midst. Any time you have an opportunity to see her work or hear her sing, go there. Just go there.”