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Oakland Museum honors Ohlone basket weaver and culture

on July 30, 2012

Over 500 people showed up for songs, dances, and storytelling during the Ohlone Basket Welcoming Celebration held in the gardens of the Oakland Museum of California on Saturday. The museum offered free admission all day for the event honoring Ohlone artist and scholar Linda Yamane for her crafting a ceremonial replicate Ohlone basket, the first of its kind to be made in almost 70 years. The event also celebrated the 25th anniversary of Heyday, the nonprofit publisher of quarterly magazine News from Native California.

Taking over three years to create, the Ohlone basket features 20,000 individual stitches and thousands of bird feathers, and is adorned with 1,200 red and white handcrafted Olivella shell beads. Yamane was commissioned in 2010 by the OMCA to design the basket to enhance the Museum’s Native American historical artifacts collection.

Many Native Americans that identify as Ohlone tribe members live in the geographic area consisting of the Counties of Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey.  Their basket traditions had essentially vanished as a result of missionization and the cultural changes that followed. After a hiatus of 40 years, these traditions have been revived by a number of men and women from Bay Area tribes, including – but not limited to Linda Yamane.

The ceremonial Ohlone basket sitting by the center stage. (Photo by Spencer Whitney)

The welcoming ceremony involved presenting the basket as part of a procession symbolizing the culture of the Ohlone community. Yamane spoke briefly about her work and the significance of preserving the tradition of basket weaving. Yamane is among other Native American basket weavers who have been working to revive the traditions as well. During the ceremony, the basket was presented to the audience as traditional folk music played, and was placed by the podium on the center stage until the festival ended.

Hosted by Jennifer Bates, president of the OMCA Native American Advisory Council, those in attendance had the opportunity to try traditional Native American foods while listening to speeches from educator and Ohlone culture-bearer Rico Miranda on the state of Native American affairs.  Beaded jewelry, prayer bracelets, decorated gourds and clapper sticks were just some of the items vendors had to offer during the festival. (Clapper sticks are the customary rhythm instruments to accompany song and dance for many California tribes.)

“We’ve been working with Heyday on this event for six months and, judging from attendance, we would like to make this an annual event,” said Cynthia Taylor, assistant director of public programs for the museum. “This is the first of its kind and we decided to add elements of a “Big Time” [pow-wow] gathering. … This event is truly empowering to the community.”

Leah Mata of the (yak tityu tityu) Northern Chumash tribe has been creating traditional beaded jewelry for over a decade and came to the festival to sell her merchandise. Mata said her inspiration comes from stories she heard as a child from her tribe. “I try to include different elements that are associated with my tribe such as the bear, and stars that are carved from shells and different minerals,” said Mata. “It’s important that Native Americans get to share these aspects of our culture so that the traditions live on through awareness.”

The museum’s celebration also featured a special dance ceremony courtesy of the Elem Pomo Dancers from Clearlake, who were adorned in traditional clothing. Each wore a beaded head dress and bird feathers that covered their waists and lower backs. The dancers moved in synch with the constant beat of drums being played.

When the festival ended, members of the Ohlone community led a basket processional into the museum where the basket will be preserved in OMCA’s Gallery of California History.

“Indian people are trying to maintain and revive our traditions and culture,” said Kimberly Cunningham-Summerfield of the Cherokee tribe, who participated as a storytelling while her husband Ben Cunningham-Summerfield played the flute. “The stories and music we share with the audience are considered part of our spiritual being.”

Notice:  Corrections were made to this story regarding the location of the Ohlone tribe  as well as Leah Mata and Kimberly Cunningham-Summerfield’s tribe. Oakland North apologizes for any confusion this may have caused.

See our previous coverage: Native Americans work to revitalize California’s indigenous languages.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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