A Landmark “Fancy Basket” Enters the Collections

Wutoni (Wee doo nee, Wi to ni, Weton., Tina Charlie; Kootzaduka’a [Mono Lake Paiute], 1869–1962), Opo (basket), 1928–29. Sedge root, dyed bracken root, redbud, and willow; h: 25.4 cm., diam.: 50.8 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Wutoni / Image courtesy of the Heard Museum. Photo by Craig SmithThe Museum recently acquired an exceptional basket produced by perhaps the most famous Mono Lake Paiute artist, Wutoni (Tina Charlie). This basket is thought to be the artist’s first “fancy basket”—a larger basket with more complex designs than those typically produced by artists in the region.

From around 1890 to 1908, Paiute basket makers from the area of Mono Lake, California, began to make baskets specifically for sale to Euro-Americans at Yosemite National Park, producing works with significant innovations in shape, size, and design by adopting techniques from other Native traditions, borrowing designs seen in needlework and embroidery pattern books and other Euro-American sources, and inventing new approaches to catch the eye of prospective buyers. Access to metal needles and other sewing equipment also resulted in more densely and finely woven baskets.

This basket was constructed from a foundation of split willow shoots (the variegated tan color) interwoven in sets of three with bracken fern (black) and redbud (red) to delineate the  geometric motifs. The weaving developed in a leftward coiling direction from a clock-spring start, while the rim involves a whipstitch finish. The weaving is meticulous and dense, with eighteen stitches and five and a half coils per inch. Two repeating geometric designs of Wutoni’s invention alternate three times, collectively forming a hexagonal design.

Front row, left to right: Wutoni (Tina Charlie), Carrie Bethel, Alice Tom James Wilson, Leanna Tom, and Maggie Howard, Yosemite Indian Field Days, 1929. Image courtesy of the US National Park Service, 1031 Yosemite Historic Photo CollectionWutoni garnered recognition as an innovative and exceptional basket maker in the 1920s, in part through her participation in the Yosemite Indian Field Days. The Field Days were a combination of rodeo, Indian pageant, and craft fair developed by the National Park Service, purportedly to foster Native communities’ interest in their own traditions. Yet the timing of the fairs in the late summer also served to extend park visitorship past the high season by offering white tourists an “authentic” and “safe” Indian experience. The experience was carefully staged, however, accommodating white tourists’ stereotypes of “Indians.” Plains tipis were erected and local participants were encouraged to wear Plains Indian costumes. Although the Field Days’ basketry competition was intended to encourage the production of modest, cheap baskets tourists could purchase as souvenirs, many basket makers instead created fine and highly innovative works. Wutoni’s entries in the Field Days competition in 1925 and 1929 were prizewinners. The basket acquired by the Museum was her winning submission to the 1929 competition and is thought to be the first oversize “fancy basket” created by any Mono Lake Paiute artist. Ella Cain, a local teacher and store owner, purchased this basket around 1929 directly from Wutoni. Cain’s parents regularly traded baskets with Mono Lake Paiute artists for goods from their store in Aurora, Nevada. Ella kept the best of these baskets and grew the  collection by buying other existing collections, trading goods for baskets in her and her husband’s dry goods and grocery store in Bridgeport, California, and purchasing exceptional baskets directly from their makers. Cain’s collection exceeded five hundred baskets by 1940. At that time, she indicated a hope that the collection would ultimately reside in the Yosemite Museum such that the local Natives could have access to the work of their ancestors. Her plans changed, however, and she established her own museum in Bodie, California, in 1942.

Select works from the collection continued to be displayed over the following decades in the Cains’ Bodie museum and subsequently in the Mono County Museum in Bridgeport and the Yosemite Museum. The collection remained in the Cain family until it was auctioned in 2005; this particular basket sold for a world-record price for a Native American basket.

The Museum remains dedicated to sharing with the public exceptional Native American art while collecting such materials in an ethical manner. Wutoni’s prizewinning basket was produced for competition and ultimately for sale; as such, it both accords with these goals and exemplifies how Native artists ingeniously adapted to new, complex contexts for artistic production. In this case, Wutoni also resisted the call to accord with white stereotypes and provide modestly priced tourist curios, instead creating an innovative masterpiece.

Bryan R. Just
Peter J. Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas