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Weaving pikyav (to-fix-it): Karuk Basket Weaving in-Relation-with the Everyday World


This dissertation research addresses the question of how basketry is a vital, living part of Karuk culture. Basketry is intertwined with nearly every aspect of everyday life, including Karuk onto-epistemology, traditional ecological knowledge, Karuk language, familial and community relationships, identity, and social memory. This research looks toward practices of weaving, allowing for understandings of baskets in broader social and historical contexts. Underscoring the vitality of basket weaving to everyday life, this research promotes the Karuk ontological view that baskets are living beings.

Tracing the history of the Karuk Tribe through multiple lenses, I investigate the ways in which Karuk peoples adapted to the devastating consequences of contact with non-Indians in 1850. This history highlights the genocide of the Karuk peoples and the laws set in place that were designed to eradicate Native peoples, who were considered to impede the development of the rich resources of the Klamath River region. Differences in worldviews underscored the battleground over natural resources. However, according to Karuk onto-epistemology, these natural resources, as well as objects such as basketry, are a part of a complex network of social beings, ikxaréeyavsa, who inhabited the world before humans. Evidenced in myths, stories, and the Karuk language, basketry is made for specific purposes and peoples, and are members—agents—of Karuk communities, who are born, participate in social life and mediate the moral relationships between people and objects.

A mere forty years after contact with non-Indian settlers, the national craze for handcrafted goods fueled a burgeoning tourist trade. Karuk women wove baskets by the thousands to satisfy the demands of collectors and connoisseurs, while at the same time anthropologists amassed well-worn examples of basketry to grow their museum research collections. Through sale, theft, coercion, and bartering, both new and old baskets left the Klamath River.

Many of the baskets sold during the height of the Arts and Crafts movement made their way into museum collections. The documentation of one such collection at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History provides a unique understanding of the everyday negotiations weavers took in order to provide for their families. In her discourse about this collection, Phoebe Maddux (Karuk) expressed evocative details about the baskets from her perspective, resisting a classificatory approach to understanding the meaning of these baskets. Instead, her notions reinforce Karuk ways of knowing about basketry.

After the amplification of basket weaving for the Arts and Crafts market, buyers, collectors and museums lost interest in collecting Native American works. For this reason and others, fewer and fewer Karuk peoples wove. The racism that had endured since the gold rush era made weavers conceal their weaving. The impact of boarding school inculcation meant that few girls picked up weaving when they returned to Karuk homelands. The impact of land restrictions and fire suppression meant that weavers had little access to weaving materials. Additionally, the impact of the sale, theft, gift, and barter of baskets meant that there were scarcer representations of basket designs and styles available to weavers from which they could garner inspiration. But despite these negative consequences on Karuk basket weaving, it did not become a “lost culture.” A small number of weavers nurtured basket weaving, sharing their knowledge with others and continuing to maintain the understanding that baskets are relations-alive.

By the 1960s, weavers who had cultivated Karuk basket weaving knowledge through creative undertakings simultaneously taught classes, opened stores to sell their work, participated in weaving demonstrations at different events, and developed relationships with the US Forest Service to bring back the practice of prescribed burning. In the 1980s, Northwestern California Indian weavers were interviewed by Coleen Kelley Marks, who asked them to reflect on different aspect of basket weaving, from teaching and selling baskets to gathering and weaving techniques. Focusing on teaching and gathering, weavers revealed their frustrations and concerns about their ability to weave and pass the knowledge to the next generation. Weavers who shared their knowledge of the weaving culture with students felt deeply the responsibility as Karuk peoples to pass basket weaving to the next generation, thereby perpetuating the practice.

Contemporary Karuk weavers, though few, are persisting despite the lack of social and economic support, as well as the limited natural resources available to them. Combined with interviews with weavers from the 1980s, I discuss how today’s weavers embolden their relations with the natural resources they rely on for weaving materials; with the ancestors to carry forward the tradition of weaving to the next generation; and with the world to assist with reaffirming their Karuk identity through the principles of pikyav (to-fix-it).

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