The Basket Maker

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Home of Mary Hunter Austin, Independence, California.

As I periodically return to savor the language and ideas found in Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 classic ‘The Land of Little Rain’, an extended meditation on life as she observed it over the years in the Owens Valley below the eastern slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada range, I have marked certain passages as my favorites. These are taken from the chapter entitled ‘The Basket Maker’, about an Indian woman named Seyavi, widowed young with one child, who makes her living weaving baskets. And by way of explanation: the word ‘campoodie’, which Austin frequently employs, refers to a small encampment or village of Native Americans in that part of the world and at that time in history.

‘”A man,” says Seyavi of the campoodie, “must have a woman, but a woman who has a child will do very well.”‘

‘To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year.’

‘In our kind of society, when a woman ceases to alter the fashion of her hair, you guess that she has passed the crisis of her experience. If she goes on crimping and uncrimping with the changing mode, it is safe to suppose she has never come up against anything too big for her.’

‘Every Indian woman is an artist,–sees, feels, creates, but does not philosophize about her processes.’

‘…but Seyavi’s baskets had a touch beyond cleverness. The weaver and the warp lived next to the earth and were saturated with the same elements.’

‘Oppapago looks on Waban, and Waban on Coso and the Bitter Lake, and the campoodie looks on these three; and more, it sees the beginning of winds along the foot of Coso, the gathering of clouds behind the high ridges, the spring flush, the soft spread of wild almond bloom on the mesa. These first, you understand, are the Paiute’s walls, the other his furnishings. Not the wattled hut is his home, but the land, the winds, the hill front, the stream.’

‘These he cannot duplicate at any furbisher’s shop as you who live within doors, who, if your purse allows, may have the same home in Sitka and Samarcand. So you see how it is that the homesickness of an Indian is often unto death, since he gets no relief from it; neither the wind nor weed nor sky-line, nor any aspect of the hills of a strange land sufficiently like his own.’

‘Indian women do not often live to great age, though they look incredibly steeped in years. They have the wit to win sustenance from the raw material of life without intervention, but they have not the sleek look of the women whom the social organization conspires to nourish.’

‘But suppose you find Seyavi retired into the privacy of her blanket, you will get nothing for that day. There is no other privacy possible in a campoodie. All the processes of life are carried on out of doors or behind the thin, twig-woven walls of the wickiup, and laughter is the only corrective for behavior. Very early the Indian learns to possess his countenance in impassivity, to cover his head with his blanket. Something to wrap around him is as necessary to the Paiute as to you your closet to pray in.’

‘So in her blanket Seyavi, sometime basket maker, sits by the unlit hearths of her tribe and digests her life, nourishing her spirit against the time of the spirit’s need.’

 
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