Sacred Texts  Native American  California  Index  Previous  Next 

Ethnography of the Cahuilla Indians, by A. L. Kroeber, [1908], at


The basketry of the Mission Indians is well known, and that of the Cahuilla has been described in detail. 11 Considering its importance in the life of the people, it is remarkable for the small number of weaves, forms, and materials to which it is confined. The ordinary materials are not more than three: a grass, Epicampes rigens, for the warp; and for the woof either a reed-grass, Juncus robustus (or lesenerii), or sumac, Rhus trilobata. The fibre of the palm, Neowashingtonia filamentosa, is also sometimes employed today, but its former use is doubtful. There appears to have been only one dye in common use, a black which is produced either from the elder or from a species of Sueda. Yellow, red, brown, and even greenish shades are ordinarily all obtained by using different portions of the stem of the Juncus, which between its root and top passes through several quite different colors. All the ordinary forms of basketry

p. 42

are coiled on a multiple foundation of the Epicampes grass. Juncus is occasionally substituted.

Twined weaves are used only in rude openwork baskets, so far as known. The Chemehuevi make conical carrying baskets (Pl. 1) and caps, in the diagonal-twined or double-warp weave so characteristic of the Shoshoneans of the Plateau. A basket made in this way may occasionally be found in the possession of the Cahuilla; but they appear not to have practiced the weave themselves.

The Cahuilla openwork baskets (Pl. 1) may appropriately be described as irregular in technique, rather than as strictly in the simple single-warp twined weave. The simplest form of twining predominates, but in all specimens examined is more or less interspersed with double-warp twining and twining on zigzagging warp. Two warp strands are frequently treated for awhile as a unit; then they may diverge and each be twined around independently; or, one may be bent to the side, be wound with the adjacent warp rod for a course or two, and then return to its former neighbor. Sometimes this alternate zig-zag warp twining is carried out fairly regularly over a considerable part of the basket, but this is unusual. The principal attempt seems to be to get the interstices in the basket about equally far part, and to accomplish this end warp stems are united, separated, and reunited at will. Hence the invariably ragged and rough appearance of these baskets.

Coiled weaving on a definite three-rod foundation of woody stems, and similar coiling on single rods,—the two most important coiled `weaves of northern California,—are not used at all by the Cahuilla or other Mission Indians.

Large granaries for storing mesquite are a conspicuous feature of the surroundings of a desert Cahuilla settlement. (Pl. 2.) They are from three to six feet across, without top or bottom, placed on a layer of brush, and covered with the same. They are sometimes set on the ground, but more usually raised on a rude scaffold of poles. These granaries can be called baskets only by courtesy, as they show no distinct weave, slender branches being simply intertwined as in a bird's nest. The material used in them, given by Dr. Barrows as Artemisia ludoviciana,

p. 43

is similar to the plant used by the Mohave, Pluchea sericea, commonly called arrow-weed. Many Mohave and Cahuilla granaries are identical; but when a number of each have been seen, it becomes apparent that the Cahuilla show more tendency to make baskets of smaller diameter and relatively greater height narrowing toward the top. The more frequent Mohave form has the shape of a cylinder, perhaps twice as great in diameter as altitude. Like the desert Cahuilla, the Mohave set their granaries on a layer of brush on the ground, or on a scaffold. The granaries of the mountain Cahuilla, says Dr. Barrows, are usually on tall bare rocks.

The basket mortar, or rather hopper of the stone mortar, is still used in many households among the San Gorgonio pass Cahuilla, but no specimens were seen in the desert. Stone mortars are rare in the desert, and it is not certain that they were used with the basketry rim. The Banning Cahuilla say that they attach the basketry rim to the stone with gum from a bush. Asphalt is however the most common material, as numerous remains from Southern California attest. The mortar basket calls for no particular description, being identical with a common form of Cahuilla basket except for lacking a bottom. Believing that it might be possible that these baskets were made from such complete baskets by cutting out the center, the Indians were questioned, but stated that this was not the case, the mortar baskets being begun around a hoop. This is obviously the easier as well as the quicker method of manufacture in coiled basketry. Among the Yurok of Northwestern California, whose mortar baskets are twined, the basket is begun as if it were to have a rude bottom, and only when ready for use is the central portion cut out.

The basketry cap of the Cahuilla (Pl. 7), is like that of the other Mission Indians, and of a type extending at least as far north as the Yokuts of central California. It is rather large, flat-topped, and of coiled weave. Its general appearance is that of the frustum of a cone, horizontally corrugated. It is not worn habitually, as are the basketry caps of northernmost California and Oregon, but only in carrying burdens. The load is contained in the carrying net, the strap of which passes over the forehead.

p. 44

[paragraph continues] It is as a protection against this band that the cap is worn. The caps are made perfectly round, so that they do not fit the head well. Only one specimen in the Museum collections has been flattened, apparently by use, to the oval shape of the head. Most of the caps seem unnecessarily large for the head. The pattern ornamentation is simple, and sometimes wanting. One or two of those obtained show signs of having been used for other purposes, such as parching or holding liquids. 12

The Chemehuevi cap is of a different type, being twined instead of coiled, somewhat peaked or conical instead of flat-topped, and lighter and more flexible than the thick coiled Cahuilla cap. One of these Chemehuevi hats, which the owner was unable to part with, was ornamented with a red and black design resembling a basketry pattern, but painted on. A similar cap, also in diagonal-twined weave, was obtained from a Cahuilla family at Alamo. (Pl. 7, on right.) This piece, however, had the design worked into the basketry. This Chemehuevi form of cap is of the type found among the Shoshonean tribes of the Great Basin, and the piece here mentioned could be practically duplicated by Ute specimens.

While the basketry cap is characteristic of many parts of California, it is not found over the whole state. In the region in northernmost California in which twined basketry is exclusively used, caps are habitually worn by the women, whether carrying loads or otherwise engaged, and are apt to be the most highly ornamented and carefully made articles of basketry. In the northeastern corner of the state, as among the Modoc, they have the shape of a truncated cone. In northwestern California, among the Yurok and Hupa, they are lower and somewhat rounded, but all the better made ones are flat-topped. South of this belt across northernmost California, beginning with the region in which coiled basketry first appears, and extending to beyond the latitude of San Francisco, basketry caps are not made. The Pomo, Wintun, and Maidu 13 of the coast and Sacramento

p. 45

valley, and the Miwok and probably other tribes, do not use caps. With the Yokuts of the southern San Joaquin valley, and among the neighboring Shoshoneans such as the Mono, the Tübatulabal, and those of Inyo county, is found the large flat-topped coiled cap worn only to protect the head in carrying, and this form continues to be met with southward over most the remainder of the state. The peaked diagonal-twined Shoshonean cap characteristic of the Great Basin, is distinct from both the northern and southern of the California forms, and occurs only in the easternmost parts of the state.

A twined water-basket of jug shape, coated with pitch or asphalt, of the type used by the Paiutes and other Shoshoneans, and on Santa Barbara Channel, is said to have been made by the Cahuilla in former times. 14 Such water-baskets have entirely disappeared. In fact there seems some reason to doubt their ever having been made by the Cahuilla, who had pottery which was fully as suitable and much more readily manufactured.

A leaching basket is mentioned by Dr. Barrows, but none was seen, and no definite description could be obtained. Possibly the twined openwork baskets of juncus answered this purpose.

The seed-beater (Pl. 3) may appropriately be included under the consideration of forms of basketry, although the Cahuilla seed-beater, which is nothing but a frame of a few sticks, presents but little appearance of basket work. The specimens obtained have the sticks wound together with strips of cloth. Either strips of bark or string might have been employed for this purpose in former days. In size and shape the Cahuilla seed-beaters resemble those used elsewhere in California, but they are made of an unusually small number of sticks and are peculiar in the parallel arrangement of these along the middle of the encircling hoop. The seed-beater of most California tribes is made in circular openwork twining on radiating ribs.

All the foregoing forms of basketry serve some special or limited purpose, and, as has been said, to several of them the term basketry can be applied by courtesy rather than in fact. If all these special forms are excluded, and consideration is given

p. 46

to the ordinary types of basketry serving a wider and more general function, it is apparent that the Cahuilla show a limitation in the number and variability of forms that is as striking as is the confinement of materials to three or four plants. In brief, the types of the ordinary baskets of the Cahuilla and other Mission Indians are only four. These may be described as the flat basket, the shallow basket, the large deep basket, and the small globular basket. These are all executed in the same materials, weave, and fineness of technique, with similar patterns. The constricted or bottle-necked basket of the San Joaquin valley, the oval basket found here and there among many tribes, the feather or bead-ornamented basket of the Porno, the conical carrying basket of California in general, are all absent. That certain of these forms, such as the oval basket, are found at the present day, seems to be due to the stimulus of basket buying by the whites, as no oval baskets have been seen in use among the Indians. The uniformity in size of each of the four classes of baskets that have been enumerated is also quite striking. The smallest pieces have half or more the diameter of the largest specimens of the same class. Among other California tribes baskets of the same shape range from a few inches to nearly as many feet.

The flat basket, or chipatmal (Pl. 4), is most commonly something over a foot in diameter. Its curvature is very slight. It is employed as a plate or tray, and for winnowing, and has also been described as used to gather the seeds struck down on it by the seed-beater.

The shallow basket (Pl. 5) is deeper than the preceding, but flatter than the large deep basket. It is called sewhalal, according to Dr. Barrows; or kaputmal, the same as the deep basket. It has about the same diameter as the flat basket, is some three or four to six or eight inches deep, and has the form of a shallow flaring bowl. The bottom is nearly flat. The sides usually rise in a gradually ascending curve, or more rarely meet the bottom at a distinct angle. The uses of this form of basket naturally shade into those of the flat basket. It is a convenient receptacle for food. It is also used for parching corn or seeds. A specimen may occasionally be found of which the interior is entirely charred.

p. 47

The deep basket (Pl. 6) is much like the shallow one except that its sides rise more steeply and to a greater height. Its usual shape is that of an inverted truncated cone, of which the altitude is equal to the smaller diameter and about half that of the greater diameter. Besides being used to hold food and other articles, this flat-bottomed coiled basket is the substitute of the Cahuilla and Mission Indians for the pointed twined carrying-basket found elsewhere in California. It is not so shaped that it can be properly carried on the back merely by means of a strap passing around it and over the forehead. With the Cahuilla form of basket this strap becomes part of a net, in which the basket rests. In reality it is this net and not the basket that is the burden-carrier: the basket is only a secondary receptacle for objects that the meshes of the net will not retain.

The carrying net is not confined to Southern California, but it is only there that the shape of the burden basket makes it a practical necessity. In central California the net is rather a convenience, and the basket is often used without it.

The small globular basket (Pl. 7) is the least common of the four types. It serves to keep small utensils and trinkets. The diameter is usually somewhat greater than the height. The mouth is of the same size as the bottom, or sometimes smaller. No attempt is made to form a neck or constriction that will produce a lip, or an urn-shaped vessel. Occasionally one of these small globular baskets is found with a thong across its mouth by which it can be suspended. All baskets of this type that have been seen are ornamented; but the design is like that of other shapes, except in more frequently presenting a vertical arrangement instead of a disposition of the pattern in a horizontal band.

All the Cahuilla basketry that is made for use is coarsely constructed. The wrapping of the woof is never close, and at times is very far apart. The baskets are not intended to hold water, and it runs through them readily. Upon being thoroughly wetted they are probably more nearly water-tight, but it is apparent that the use of pottery renders attention to this quality unnecessary. The same coarseness which characterizes the woof extends also to the warp. While the warp material is the same as that used by the southern San Joaquin valley tribes,

p. 48

the coils are much thicker. This is equally true of the four principal types of baskets and of the caps. Of over fifty pieces of basketry in the Museum collection the finest has only six coils or courses to the inch, the coarsest four. This uniformity is remarkable in being maintained in all classes and sizes of baskets. In baskets made for sale, where attention is given to appearance, finer work is occasionally found. Especially the woof wrapping is brought more closely together, giving the impression of neatness and good work which is so characteristic of most California basketry, although wanting from the typical Cahuilla work. The size of the warp foundation is less often reduced, but occasionally a particularly well made basket is offered for sale, in which the coil is no thicker than in an ordinary good Yokuts basket.

In regard to designs a great difference exists between baskets made by the Cahuilla for their own use, and those made for sale to the whites. The latter are most always made of stems of juncus of varying shades, presenting a mottled appearance. This effect is pleasing, and such baskets bring the readiest sale. In baskets made by the Cahuilla for their own use, this mottling is much less pronounced, and the shade of the juncus used is much lighter, being whitish rather than olive green over the body of the basket. To bring out definite patterns, as distinct from the more or less mottled surface of the basket as a whole, the Cahuilla use the yellow, red, and brown shades of this juncus as well as its black-dyed form. In baskets made for use the pattern is almost always quite simple. In those made for sale it is in most cases quite elaborate. Figures of men, lizards, snakes, birds, and animals are frequently woven in such baskets, and still more frequent are diversified, branching, or otherwise elaborate figures of non-realistic import. In their own baskets the Cahuilla rarely put more than one or two simple bands or radiating figures. The simple stripe; the short bar, vertical or horizontal; the rectangle, either standing alone as a bar or combined into a series of steps; triangles, usually in series; the diamond or hexagon repeated into a horizontal band; and the simple zigzag, constitute the great majority of patterns. A striking but uncommon design is the fret. (Pl. 6.) Occasionally a design is in two colors, most often black combined with reddish or brownish yellow. At other times the two colors occur on different parts of the same basket.

p. 49

The prevailing arrangement of the pattern in typical Cahuilla baskets made for their own use is a horizontal one, in most cases a continuous band encircling the basket. Even where a diagonal, vertical, or zigzag pattern arrangement occurs in flat or shallow baskets, it usually produces the effect of forming a band, which in baskets of this shy pe is the equivalent of a horizontal arrangement. In deep baskets there is scarcely an exception to the prevalence of the horizontal band, and in caps it is also usual. Only in the small globular basket is the horizontal arrangement lacking. There seems to be a desire to have the pattern on such baskets extend from top o bottom. Consequently vertical designs are most common on them, and zigzag arrangements of next greatest frequency.

In the prevalence of horizontal patterns, especially of the band type, with a secondary tendency towards vertical designs, the Cahuilla agree with the other Mission Indians, and in fact with the tribes of all that part of California south of the latitude of San Francisco. 15

The small globular baskets are exceptional in another respect than their pattern arrangement. In all flat, shallow, and deep baskets, as well as in caps and mortar baskets, the direction of the coil, as one looks into the basket, is from left to right, or clock-wise; in all globular baskets it is from right to left. A somewhat similar difference has been noticed by Dr. Dixon among the Maidu, 16 except that among these Indians flat baskets run from right to left. Mr. S. A. Barrett has noted that among the Porno the coil is always clockwise, whatever the shape of the basket. These striking differences, which evidently are typical of tribes, and the reason for which is unknown, have led to an examination of all the coiled basketry from California in the University Museum, with the following results. In all cases, whether the basket is used with bottom down or with bottom up, and whether the pattern is on the inside or on the outside, the direction of the coil is observed as the hollow of the basket is looked into.

The coiled baskets of the Wailaki and of the Yuki all run

p. 50

anti-clockwise. Those of the Porno run clockwise. Among the Maidu the direction is clockwise, except that flat baskets run anticlockwise. Among the Miwok, where a large series of baskets was examined, the same arrangement was found as among the Maidu. Among the Washo, the baskets examined, which were all bowl-shaped, showed a clockwise coil. Among the Yokuts the coil in flat baskets is clockwise; in the so-called "bottle necks," forms showing a distinct shoulder and constricted neck, always anticlockwise; and in bowl-shaped baskets, variable, though in the majority of cases clockwise. Among the Mono and other Shoshoneans of central California the direction is clockwise, except again in the case of bottle-necks. Among the Mission Indians, Luiseño and Diegueño as well as Cahuilla, the direction is clockwise except in the small globular baskets. Among the Chemehuevi flat and bowl-shaped baskets usually run clockwise, though a number of exceptions have been observed. The Chemehuevi also make urn-shaped baskets approximating bottle-necks, but the direction of the coil in these is not known. 16a

It thus appears that other than among the Wailaki and Yuki the normal direction of the coil in California basketry is clockwise, except that in three groups of tribes certain classes of baskets, and those only, also run anti-clockwise. Among the Maidu and Miwok it is the flat baskets that are exceptional, among the Yokuts and Mono the bottle-necks, among the Mission Indians the globular baskets. The differences in shape between the baskets that are thus made an exception of, render it difficult to conceive a technological reason for the turning of the coil in the unusual direction. It can be imagined that it might be easier to make a basket with constricted mouth by working in one way than in the other, and that the Maidu and Miwok choice of the unusual direction for their flat baskets was due to their holding such baskets inverted during the process of manufacture; but

p. 51

such guesses are in greater need of verification by observation than of further discussion. It is not unlikely that the selection which governs the direction of the coil among different tribes is dependent primarily on custom or tribal habit.

The prevailing clockwise tendency in California seems to be replaced by the opposite one elsewhere in North America. In the great majority of Southwestern baskets the coil is anti-clockwise. This is true of all the ancient baskets examined and of most of those made by Indians of the present day. Among the tribes of Washington and the Alaskan Eskimo the anti-clockwise direction also prevails.


41:11 Barrows, Ethno-botany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California, 1900, 40; Schumacher, in Putnam, Wheeler Survey, VII, 247.

44:12 Barrows, p. 44.

44:13 Professor Dixon Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. XVII, 162, 1905, states that the northern Maidu women formerly wore basket hats; but no specimens have been seen by him or by the author and none appear ever to have been collected.

45:14 Barrows, 41: called kaputil. The stem of this word appears, with the diminutive suffix -mal, in kaput-mal, obtained as the name of ordinary bowl-shaped baskets, as given below.

49:15 Present series, II, 150, 1905.

49:16 The Northern Maidu, Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., XVII, 146, 1905.

50:16a Since this paper was put in type, Dr. C. V. Hartman, Curator of Ethnology and Archaeology in the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburg, writes as follows regarding a collection of Chemehuevi baskets in that museum: "Of the flat baskets, ten have the coils clockwise, ten anti-clockwise. Of the more or less cylindrical baskets, five have the coils clockwise, fifteen anticlockwise. Mr. C. P. Wilcomb has verified the observation." It thus appears that the Chemehuevi follow no consistent rule, but that the prevailing tendencies among them are the same as the rule of the Yokuts and Mono.

Next: Stone Implements