Learn about this beautiful basket—a luxury item made by a Chumash woman in California (then, New Spain) at the time of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain—with motifs derived from Spanish coins.
Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, looking at beautiful basket that has quite a reputation, and for good reason. This is a basket that was produced by a Native American woman in California where the city of Santa Barbara is now.
[0:17] It was produced at an interesting historical moment.
Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:20] This basket by this Chumash woman was made in the very early 19th century.
Dr. Zucker: [0:24] It’s important to remember that California at this time was part of New Spain, it was a Spanish colony. California was not part of the United States, and what we have is the traditional Native American cultures that are there that are responding to the incursion of these Spanish colonialists that are coming up from Mexico.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:44] You have all these missions that are being built. Here, at this particular one in Southern California, you have Chumash women creating these amazing baskets. They were very well known for their expertise in creating these baskets made of sumac fibers.
Dr. Zucker: [1:00] Sumac is a weed-like tree, but here the fibers are incredibly fine and they have been woven together so tightly that these baskets are reported to almost be watertight.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:12] There are six repeating images around the basket, and what they are is the Spanish coat of arms, taken from these coins that the artist was using as a model.
Dr. Zucker: [1:22] You can see that there’s a crown on top, and then there are four interior spaces. For instance, on the upper left, you can see a castle; on the upper right, a lion.
[1:31] It’s so interesting to think about a Native American woman who’s producing this kind of basket, which is known as a presentation basket, that would then have been exported from southern California down to Mexico City and used as evidence of the good work that the mission is doing among the Native populations — that is, the Christianizing — and that this is an area that is now firmly under the Spanish crown.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:55] There are only six of these baskets that survive, and three of them are signed. This one itself is not signed, but we can identify the specific artist. Some of them also have inscriptions along the interior, and these really were a type of luxury object that’s being made by these Chumash women.
Dr. Zucker: [2:12] I’m interested in what this represents politically. This basket we think was made between 1815 and 1822. Charles IV had actually been deposed by Napoleon when Napoleon invaded Spain, but this basket was made just as the Spanish were reclaiming the throne, and so this would’ve been very potent symbolism.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:32] If we think about California at this time being part of New Spain, we’re also at a really important moment there because the War for Independence begins in 1810, and they’ve gained independence from Spain in 1821. Depending upon when this basket was made, either right before or just after independence, there are a lot of changes going on in this region.
Dr. Zucker: [2:53] It raises questions about what this basket meant, to be made by an Indigenous, Indian woman in what is now California. Speaking of loyalty to a European monarch by way of Mexico at a moment when that entire system is being challenged.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:09] This basket is beautiful. It has a very reduced color palette where we have this heraldic imagery taken from the coin. The artist has given us a dark background and then woven the imagery in this lighter tan color. It gives us this beautiful play of dark and light across the inner and outer surfaces of the bowl.
Dr. Zucker: [3:27] The repeated motifs in combination with the circular ribbing of the bowl creates this real sense of energy and movement and spinning, so that the entire interior and exterior surfaces are set in motion in a visual sense.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:41] What’s also amazing is that we are able to associate this basket with this core group of women based on the style of it. Women were used to creating baskets as export items. They were often creating them and then trading them with other people in the local area, or even beyond that.
[3:57] We have women artists who are producing these objects that were so highly valued and being sent across these large distances.