When California was Spanish

Juana Basilia Sitmelelene, an Indigenous artist

Juana Basilia Sitmelelene, Coin (Presentation) Basket, Chumash, Mission San Buenaventura, c. 1815–22, sumac, juncus textilis, mud dye, 9 x 48 cm (National Museum of the American Indian).Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker

Key points

  • Presentation baskets were commissioned and given as gifts to officials in Mexico City to demonstrate the good work the Catholic missions in California were doing in converting and “civilizing” the Native American tribes in the area. This ignored the often difficult conditions for Native Americans in the missions.
  • The imagery on the basket is the Spanish coat of arms, taken from a colonial Spanish coin. The coat of arms is repeated six times, and gives the design a sense of movement.
  • Women were traditionally basket makers in Chumash society, and they were accustomed to making baskets for exchange, both local and long-distance. Their baskets were highly esteemed, and were so tightly woven that they were nearly watertight.
  • This basket was made in a time of great political and social transition. In 1808, Charles IV of Spain was deposed by Napoleon; in 1813 his son Ferdinand VII was restored to Spanish throne. At almost the same time, from 1810–21, the Mexican War of Independence was being fought. The basket represents loyalty to the Spanish crown at a time when Mexico was gaining its independence.

Go deeper

This basket at The National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution

“A Song of Resilience”: Exploring Communities of Practice in Chumash Basket Weaving in Southern California, Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology

Chumash history, from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians website

A Maritime People: The Chumash Tribes of Santa Barbara Channel at KCET

Spanish colonial coin at the British Museum

Life in the California Missions at the Library of Congress

More about the California Missions at the Library of Congress

Documents relating to the Mexican War of Independence at the Library of Congress

More to think about

Baskets like this one were used as evidence of the good work of the California missions, and were presented to officials in Mexico City as gifts. What do you think these government officials thought of these baskets? How would their ideas about and stereotypes of Native Americans have informed their reception of these works?

Chumash women used imagery from a different culture (Spanish) to decorate these baskets. What other examples can you think of where one culture has used another culture’s imagery to decorate objects? Where does this practice turn into cultural appropriation?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.