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Coin basket

Juana Basilia Sitmelelene (Chumash, 1782–1838), coin basket
ca. 1815–1822
Mission San Buenaventura, California
Sumac, juncus textilis, mud dye
9 x 48 cm
Gift of Mrs. Willis Rice in memory of Dr. Arthur Horton Cleveland

The Chumash are a group of related Native peoples of coastal southern California whose homelands are centered around Santa Barbara and the Northern Channel Islands. For thousands of years, Chumash women made baskets for domestic use. There were trays, basins, and deep bowls for food preparation; large burden baskets; globular storage baskets; and jar-shaped baskets for keeping valuables. Women’s basketry hats served as a standard measure when trading acorns and other seeds. Cooking baskets, used for stone-boiling mush, were so tightly woven that they held water.

Skilled weavers that they were, Chumash women were accustomed to making baskets for sale or trade to other Native people, within their own villages or beyond. So when Spanish explorers and missionaries made their way into Chumash territory in the late 18th century, weavers were able to adapt their techniques to meet requests from the outsiders. They created oval and rectangular sewing baskets with lids, added pedestal bases to traditional bowls, and fashioned at least one basket in the shape of a padre’s hat. New design patterns included pictorial elements and inscriptions. These were all executed using their traditional weaving techniques and plant materials—juncus (basket rush) or deer-grass foundations sewn with split juncus and sumac—and largely following the traditional design layout with a border band.

The pinnacle of Chumash art was achieved in baskets into which they wove designs identical to those on Spanish colonial coins in circulation during the Mission Period. Sometimes called “presentation baskets” because one of them features an inscription indicating that it was intended as a gift, these baskets are some of the finest ever made anywhere in the world. The skill involved in creating the intricate patterns is truly unparalleled.

Only six of these heraldic design baskets are known to exist today. Three of them are inscribed with words in Spanish that had been written out for the weavers to copy as they wove. These inscriptions include the weavers’ names—Juana Basilia, María Marta, and María Sebastiana. Traditionally, weavers did not sign their baskets. That these women were asked to do so shows the high regard in which their art was held. Although this basket does not bear her name, its weaving technique and design layout are nearly identical to another presentation basket known to have been woven by Juana Basilia Sitmelelene.

—Jan Timbrook
Curator of ethnography, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

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When I first met this remarkable basket, it was like meeting an old friend, because we have almost the exact basket on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, made by the same weaver. In studying this basket, I was perplexed by the date 1711, woven around the edge of the central design, about a century earlier than it was thought to have been made. After discussing it, we concluded that Juana Basilia had copied the year from the coin she used for the design.

I appreciate the beauty, intricacy, and hard work in making a basket of this quality. It is hard on the mind, as well as the hands. Your spirit needs to be in a good place in order to create such beauty.

Although they are sometimes called “presentation baskets,” these baskets were not necessarily woven as gifts, but rather served as a means of supplementing the weaver’s income and supporting her family. Perhaps in developing her artistry, Sitmelelene was able to be relieved of her daily mission work. Also, continuing her craft as a weaver would have allowed her to return to traditional gathering places and practice traditional rituals.

—Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto (Barbareño Chumash)
Chumash elder and daughter of the last speaker of the Barbareño Chumash language

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The survival of sacramental registers allows us to reconstruct details of Sitmelelene’s life. She was born about 1782 in the ranchería (village) of Sumuawawa. The exact site and territory of this ranchería has not been determined with any certainty, but it may have been located in one of the inland valleys of the Santa Monica Mountains near the current city of Thousand Oaks. Her father had moved to Sumuawawa from Loxostox´ni, a Lulapin (Ventureño Chumash) town on the coast between Malibu and Point Mugu. Sitmelelene was born in her mother’s ranchería, reflecting the matrilocal postmarital residence pattern that was practiced by most families in the Chumash region. The year of her birth was a momentous one: In 1782 three Spanish settlements—the Pueblo of Los Angeles, the Mission of San Buenaventura, and the Presidio of Santa Bárbara—were founded within one or two days’ travel from her home territory. So during the years that Sitmelelene grew up, these colonial establishments were also developing.

While living in her Native ranchería, Sitmelelene learned the art of basketweaving, probably from her mother. Reaching adulthood, Sitmelelene married Chitchacuaha, a man from Kimishax, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Their newborn daughter Chuastimenahuan was baptized as Filotea María at Mission San Buenaventura on February 11, 1804. Two years later, in February 1806, Sitmelelene and Chitchacuaha were themselves baptized there and given the Christian names Juana Basilia and Gabriel de Jesús. By that time, the number of Ventureño Chumash affiliated with the mission had reached more than 1,150. After 1810, the only Chumash peoples who had not resettled at missions were those who resided on the Channel Islands and in the interior mountains of the Coast Ranges.

The dedication woven around the rim of one of Juana Basilia’s Spanish coin baskets indicates that it was presented by the Spanish governor of California to a friend in Mexico. A letter survives transferring certain items made by Chumash women to the governor in 1817, so it is possible that the basket was created by then. The preceding year, the mission had attained its highest Chumash population—more than 1,300 individuals—with the addition of families who had migrated from Santa Cruz Island.

Juana Basilia’s daughter Filotea María married in 1818, but none of Filotea María’s seven children reached adulthood. Throughout the Mission Period, the death rate remained high, especially among the very young. In 1824, Juana Basilia’s husband died at about age 50. The following year, she married Juan Mariano Sulupcucagele, a widower about her own age whom she had known her entire life, as he too had come from Sumuawawa. He died ten years later. In 1837, Filotea María died from complications resulting from childbirth. Having outlived all the other members of her family, Juana Basilia Sitmelelene passed away soon thereafter.

The Ventureño Chumash community continued to flourish in the years following the mission’s secularization, and the basketmaking tradition in which Juana Basilia Sitmelelene excelled was maintained by a group of skilled weavers in the city of Ventura that grew up around the former mission. The baskets made by these talented women—Candelaria Valenzuela, Petra Pico, and others—are today exhibited in museums in many parts of the country.

—John R. Johnson
Curator of anthropology, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

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I am fortunate to have been in the presence of this basket more than once. Each time I am taken by a detail that makes me think I am viewing it again for the first time. As an aspiring weaver, I am struck by the symmetry of the design elements and the perfection of the basket’s execution. Its beauty is visually arresting. The construction’s strength has protected it through centuries for us.

I can only imagine the circumstances Sitmelelene lived and worked in. I cry for her family, living in the midst of irreversible destruction. Her extraordinary work is a window into a legacy interrupted by forces of both nature and man. In the catastrophic wake of contact, her life and her genius endured. She remained true to herself as an artist perpetuating a glorious tradition.

Sitmelelene sings to me a song of resilience through her basket. She lives.

—Nicolasa I. Sandoval (Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians)
Lecturer in education, University of California, Santa Barbara

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