History of the Panamint
There is a branch of Shoshone in Californian known as the Panamint, and they made the desert land their home. They lived in Southern California by Death Valley, an area known for its harsh environment. At first glance it’s practically unbelievable that people like the Panamint could have lived and thrived in the remote desert of Southern California and Nevada, particularly around the mining camps, where water was often found. They lived around the availability of their food sources, which required constant movement and flexibility throughout the valleys and mountains. Hundreds of years of desert life had shaped the Panamint into people with an inherent sense of resource and population management. An average village would be the size of a family.
It was during their yearly migration to their winter camps that women would gather the supplies necessary to construct baskets. The making of the baskets was often based with willow and yucca root, other materials like unicorn plant, bulrush root and roots of a Joshua tree which often provided the color for the designs. Baskets were an absolute necessity for the Panamint; it provided the tools for the harvest, cooking and for carrying goods. [i]
Life changed for the Panamint in the mid 19th century, when Anglo settlers from the East moved into the area in search of gold and silver. This change forced the Panamint to adjust to a new culture, economy and lifestyle. The Panamint became people of two worlds, and life became a balancing act between the Native and white cultures. Oddly enough, weavers found themselves on the brink of a new economy. The craft of basketry transcended from tool to art, and baskets became a new collectible to the Anglo. Weavers like Isabel Hanson, Mary Wrinkle, and Maggie Joaquin lived in and around Darwin during the first half of the 20th century and became well known for their baskets.
Grandma Ness, Panamint Shoshone Weaver
Around the same time that these weavers were gathering and selling their baskets, so was the native weaver known to her family as Grandma Ness. Ness, a Panamint Shoshone, was a single mother raising two sons and her sister’s three children. Judie Cutter remembers her grandmother and the baskets she made fondly. “I learned to appreciate those baskets day one” says Cutter. It’s an appreciation so evident that it can still be seen in the condition of the baskets today; the family has shown personal and cultural respect for the craft now for three generations.
This collection not only features the work of Frances Ness, but that of her friends. Baskets made by well known Panamint weavers like Isabel Hanson and Mary Wrinkle are also featured in this collection, as well as baskets made by possible family members of Sarah Hunter, Maggie Joaquin, and Mamie Gregory. It wasn’t uncommon for weavers to gather together to trade their baskets with other another, hence the stunning variety of this collection of work.
Grandma Ness and her weaver friends were there to witness the cultural shift that occurred in the Darwin area at the turn of the 20th century. Ness wasn’t very trusting of white settlers, so she would spend the majority of her time with her fellow Panamint. Despite the changes, Ness persevered and continued to live the Panamint lifestyle by weaving baskets and giving them to friends and family members. In her youth, Cutter visited her grandmother, who would often have made a basket for Cutter to deliver to the family. These baskets are more than decorative art; they are pieces of history and a reflection of Frances Ness, the woman and weaver. Ness would tighten each strand with her teeth and her hands intertwined with natural materials to create the baskets. Every fiber of this woman went into the making of these baskets and each basket meant something special. [ii]
The baskets have two strong themes, nature and geometric design. These women wove images of animals— including butterflies, big horn sheep, and birds—into the baskets as animals were an everyday sight in the area around Death Valley and necessary resources for Panamint survival. [iii] Several of the baskets also have strong geometric designs that reflect sacred patterns used for ceremonies. [iv]
These baskets are pieces of the past and hearken back to a time when basketry was an all-too-important skill necessary for survival. Yet, these baskets also reflect a shift in Native culture, when life became a balancing act between two worlds. We might live in a different world now, but these baskets serve as a tribute to Panamint women who were just trying to live the way they knew how in a changing time.
[i] Johnson, Anne. Panamint Indians. Supplement to Inyo Register-Independent. Mono Herald Union. October 6, 1983.
[ii] Cutter, Judie. Personal Interview. February 2, 2013.
[iv] Wade, L. Edwin. The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Tradition in Evolution. P. 86. Hudson Hull Press Inc. 1986.