Renowned Pomo weaver Elsie Allen (1899–1990) is credited with saving Pomo weaving from cultural extinction by breaking with tradition and teaching the traditional basket weaving techniques to non-Indians and native individuals outside her immediate family.
Elsie Allen was born September 22, 1899, amid the neat rows of a hop field outside what is now Santa Rosa, California. Her parents were George (of the Ukiah Pomo) and Annie (of the Cloverdale Pomo) Comanche. Allen's father died when she was just a girl; at age eight she went to live with her maternal grandmother in the village of the Cloverdale Pomo. This early phase of her life was idyllic. One website dedicated to Allen's history painted a picture of a little girl who "made dolls for herself of cattail grass … [and] gave bushes, trees [and] willows names. They were persons and playmates in her imagination."
Pomo weaving skills were essentially matrilineal—passed down from mother to daughter. Men wove fish traps, infant cradles and other rudimentary items, but it was the female tribe members who raised the skill to an art form, producing elegant and vibrant baskets that proved as functional as they were beautiful. Allen learned basket-making basics from her grandmother and her mother, spending her days steeped in the traditions of her people and speaking only the native Pomo language. Allen's mother, Annie, remarried a man of half-Pomo heritage named Richard Burke and bore him a son and a daughter. After her mother remarried, Allen moved with these new siblings to the village of the Hopland Pomo, but by then the encroachment of white culture was actively pushing the Pomo ways aside. Parents hid their children in fear of abduction in the name of cultural assimilation when whites visited, and most families, Allen's included, worked as laborers on farms owned by non-Indians in order to survive.
The days of innocent hunting and gathering had long since passed for the Pomo, however, and Allen was no exception. She began working as a field hand at the age of ten. At age 11 she was forced by authorities to attend a boarding school for Indians in Covelo, California, more than 80 miles from her home. The months that followed were some of the most miserable in Allen's long life. The artist's biographical entry in Notable Native Americans explained how "her inability to speak English—the only language spoken at the school—made life there very difficult. In addition, soon after arriving in Covelo, Allen lost all her belongings in a fire. Forced to wear boys' clothes, perform seemingly meaningless activities, and abandon her native tongue, she had little incentive for learning." Allen left the boarding school as soon as she was able and returned home to attend a local day school in her village, where she learned to read, write and speak English. At 18, Allen moved to San Francisco and took a job as a domestic maid, a position in which she experienced her share of racial discrimination. She worked her way into a custodial job at St. Joseph's Hospital in 1918, thanks to a labor shortage at the close of the World War I.
Allen married Arthur Allen of the Pinoleville Pomo tribe in 1919. They had two girls and two boys. In 1924 Allen's grandmother died and the family's baskets were buried with her according to Pomo tradition, leaving Elsie Allen with few materials and samples to work from. Allen's mother, however, continued weaving and used her own determination and hard labor to build the family basket collection back up throughout her own lifetime. A website that chronicled Allen's life quoted Allen as she describes the frustration she experienced at the hands of the Pomo burial traditions, "In the first few years of my married life … I made a basket that was buried with my grandmother. My next basket was buried with my great uncle. A third basket was passed all around to relatives … [and was finally] buried with my brother-in-law. I didn't have a good feeling about making baskets after that."
Allen's disappointment was understandable, considering that most baskets took years to make. Time had to be spent trudging through marsh and muck to gather plant materials like willow, sedge roots, bulrush roots, and redbud bark, and then more time was spent to cure and prepare the materials. All this preparation was then followed by hours of weaving that could stretch into months and even years before the work was complete. To make matters even more difficult, by Allen's time the plants used for traditional basket making were considered weeds, and often aggressively eradicated by pesticides as the California land was developed. As a result, weaving materials became increasingly scarce.
The Pomo were one of California's biggest, most celebrated tribes, with lands that spread across modern-day Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties. The tribe's main foods were acorns and other seeds gathered by women in baskets they wove according to a traditional method. Baskets and weaving were essential to the Pomo, who did not have access to clay for pottery. They made and used giant baskets on stilts to store acorns, woven seed beaters to thrash seeds loose from wild grasses and grains, and baskets with head straps to gather them. Acorn meal was mixed and cooked using hot stones in water-tight baskets with exceptionally snug weaves that allowed them to withstand both the heat of the stones and the moisture. The men also hunted using fish traps of woven willow. Even the houses were woven around bent pole frames and were said to have looked like upside-down baskets. When they traveled to gather food, they wove great mats that they attached to poles to create temporary shelters. The woman's skirts were often made of woven rushes or shredded bark, and they wove reeds to make rafts that they used on the lakes and rivers for crossing and fishing.
Mary Worthylake's book The Pomo explained how "Pomo basket-makers were unusual in their use of twining and coiling. The finest baskets, made for show or for gifts, were coiled…. Thirty wrappings to an inch make a fine basket, but Pomo baskets sometimes had sixty or even more wrappings. The variety of patterns, the feathers and beads, and the fine workmanship show that Pomo women were excellent artists." The Pomo also played a game—later called lacrosse by French settlers—using sticks with baskets at the end for catching and throwing a ball.
When Allen's mother, Annie Burke, was on her deathbed she ignored the fact that tradition insisted a Pomo woman be buried with the baskets she had made, and demanded that Allen keep the family baskets so that Pomo artistry would not die out. Allen's biographical entry in Native American Women stated that her mother promised that keeping and sharing the baskets would "take Allen traveling, bring people enjoyment, and create an understanding that the Pomo weren't 'dumb.'" In 1962 Allen respected her mother's dying wish and loaned the family baskets to the Mendocino County Museum in Willets, California. The collection was named the "Elsie Allen Collection," and displays 131 baskets made by Allen and her relatives.
Pomo culture honored and respected female authority, traditionally placing a female chief in charge of women's concerns. Allen maintained aspects of this dynamic through her work in women's groups like the Pomo Women's Club (founded in 1940 and disbanded in 1957), which successfully fought prejudicial bans against Indians sitting on the main floors of local theatres, and the Hintil Women's Club, which dispensed charity and provided financial scholarships for local Native individuals. Allen made and sold baskets to help raise funds for these organizations, as well as lending her voice and valued opinion on important matters.
Allen spent most of her life unable to find enough time to gather materials or do a significant amount of weaving. She cared for her family and remained socially active in the affairs and wellbeing of her people in a time when racial prejudice was rampant in California. It was not unusual for establishments to post signs declaring that dogs and Indians were not allowed. When Allen turned 62, her children had grown and she was free to return her attention and skills to basket weaving. She remembered her mother's dying wish, and regularly demonstrated the traditional Pomo weaving methods she had learned in her youth for substantial audiences. Her book, Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art for the Weaver , was published in 1972 and introduced a wide readership to the art of Pomo basket weaving. Allen's book is described by reviewer Paula Giese as "a Native woman's personal history woven into … an art and a craft that is more in harmony with nature, more environmentally-centered—because of its use of living plants—than any other." Giese claimed that "The Pomo basketmaker is, of necessity, a natural scientist, and the necessities of the late 20th century force her to be an environmentalist too, if her art is to survive."
As if in support of Giese's claim, Allen also spent three years (1979–1981) as a valuable consultant to the Warm Springs Cultural Resources Study, a Sonoma State University project with the goal of detailing the history and cultures of the Dry Creek and Cloverdale Pomo tribes. The reason behind the study lay in the U.S. Army Engineer Corps' intention to build a dam at Warm Springs that would create Lake Sonoma by flooding a valley in which a large majority of weaving plants grew wild. Allen and other concerned experts were consulted about the native plants in the area, and they succeeded in organizing a re-planting of endangered plant species that would be destroyed by the building of the dam. In a somewhat hollow victory, a fraction of the flora was transplanted while the rest was drowned in 1985.
Elsie Allen died on the December 31, 1990, at the age of 91. Her daughter, Genevieve Allen Aguilar, maintains the family basket collection, honoring her mother and grandmother's desire to make them available to future generations from all cultures as a testament to Pomo artistry. Allen's grand-niece, Susie Billy, apprenticed with Allen for years to learn the art of Pomo weaving well enough to teach it to others and continue the new tradition of passing the artistry and culture down to future generations. A website chronicling the Allen basketmaking family quoted Billy: "Through basketry, I feel I have made connections with something very ancient within myself and from my people." The work Allen did to maintain her cultural heritage was as important as her own personal artistic contributions, and her dedication was rewarded with the title of "Pomo Sage."
Notable Native Americans , edited by Sharon Malinowski, Gale Research, Inc., 1995.
Worthylake, Mary M., The Pomo: A New True Book , Children's Press, 1994.
"Elsie Allen: Pomo basket Family," Native American Arts , http://www.kstrom.net/isk/art/basket/elsieall.html (December 28, 2006).
"Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art for the Weaver," Native American Arts and Crafts Book Reviews , http://www.kstrom.net/isk/books/art/art2032.html (December 28, 2006).