Western Mono Cooking Basket (Ta'-Wit) Owned by Chukchansi Woman Chalakit and Sold to Clinton Hart Merriam
Western Mono Cooking Basket (Ta'-Wit) Owned by Chukchansi Woman Chalakit and Sold to Clinton Hart Merriam

September 11, 2015: Ta'-Wit (Cooking Basket)

Artifact of the Week: Cooking Basket (Ta’-Wit)

Collected by Clinton Hart Merriam near Fresno Flat, Madera County on September 21, 1902
375 x 165 mm

Almost 113 years ago to this day, Clinton Hart Merriam was traveling the California Central Valley documenting the lives of the native peoples he encountered, where he happened upon this cooking basket. Concerning the basket he writes:

“Purchased by me from an old Chuk-chancy women named Cha-la’-kit near her camp near China Creek, 4.5 miles above Fresno Flat, Madera Co., September 21, 1902. It looks like a Paiute [basket] and I believe it is.”

Analysis of the basket today, with more complete knowledge of California’s ethnographic basketry distributions, shows Merriam to be correct in his suspicions of its origin. The leftward work direction of the basket combined with its grass bundle foundation is a somewhat unusual combination in the region and is characteristic of the Western Mono, a neighboring group. The trading of basketry was common, though, and it is not too surprising for Merriam to have found this basket among the Chukchansi.

This particular basket is written about in Clinton Hart Merriam’s travel journals and also appears in a picture he took of Chalakit near her home. In the picture we see Chalakit finishing the splitting of an acorn with her teeth as a sleepy dog lies next to her, partially obscured by a winnower and awl that seem all too arranged in their placement. A small chick stands in the foreground and a larger hen walks by in the background, giving a sense of daily motion to the otherwise arranged shot. On the right side of the frame sits our basket in question, the same chunk missing from the rim then as it is now.

In Merriam’s journal account of the visit:

“On returning [from visiting a band of Chowchilla Miwok], I walked 4 ½ miles to a Chuck-chancy camp on China Creek, but found no one at home, and followed fresh bare-foot tracks 2 miles farther, but failed to catch up with or find any Indians, making a 13 mile walk, on top of a 3 mile one (or 16 miles in all) for nothing, so far as learning anything of the Chuck-chancys is concerned.  Their camp consists of 2 rough board houses on adjacent knolls, a long rectangular…“dance” house, and 3 summer brush huts or wickiups in the chaparral nearby.  These huts are about 15 ft. in diameter by 7 in height and are completely domed and closed in … except a small opening left on one side for entrance.  They are made of tall brush… some of which is alive and growing and was simply arched over and intertwined with the rest.

In the occupied [house] were three playful puppies and many chickens.  There were both inside and out plenty of rough baskets, mainly cham’as and het-els, and 1 very old “Fresno” bowl with good design and ½ full of flour paste – which they eat in the camps till the acorn mush is ready – and afterward also for all I know… [This referenced bowl is our basket in question.]

“In the afternoon I got a horse and went back to the Indian camp and had better luck.  Found at the best wickiup an old couple of pure Chuk-chancy Indians both of whom speak some English.  They were civil and kind and became much interested as I talked to them.  The old man is known to the whites at Fresno Flat as Captain Blucher.  His Indian name is Wall-lo-ma; his wife’s name Cha-la-kit.

“She had a burden-basket full of fine fat acorns of the black oak they had gathered today, and was sitting on the ground cracking them open when I arrived.  She split the shells by hammering between two stone in the usual manner, and then invariably used her teeth to help tear the split shell open so as to get out the meat.  Probably this was necessitated by the very green condition of the acorns, as I have never seen it done before.  She allowed me to photograph her in the act of opening the acorns, and both she and the old man stood for me at the entrance of the wickiup which I took their pictures.

“I bought the old basket mentioned… and also a circular winnower and bone awl, and a soaproot brush. Nearby, in a big flattish rock near the stream are a number of mortar holes and old pestles, and the old man told me of another batch a little farther up.  He told me that the Chuk-chancys never lived in the country north of Fresno River, but south of the river inhabited a broad strip, of which his camp (4 miles above Fresno Flat) is near the upper limit.  From here they ranged down, between the Fresno and the San Joaquin (and probably further south).  They went up into the mountains to hunt and fish in summer, and moved down to their permanent camps in winter.  The Mew’-wah were their neighbors on the north.

“Within his recollection the Chuk-chancys were a numerous tribe. They kept the brush burnt out of the flat parts of the valley and wild oats were thick and tall.  Grizzly Bear and various kinds of game abounded.  Now his people have died off so fast very few are left.”

Merriam’s writings express his concern about the disappearing lifeways and languages of Native California, as well as his general concern for the people he encountered. On this visit, Merriam also collected a few pages of linguistic data from the elderly couple that he met. In terms of both basketry traditions and language, Merriam’s work continues to be a source of information about the cultures he encountered and has been used in efforts to revitalize languages and weaving practices.

Merriam’s work also shows the value of good artifact documentation. From his accounts, we have a 113 year old picture of this basket, the name of the weaver, the native name for the basket, and a variety of information surround its use and collection. So if you happen to be in a business where you collect things, take a page from Merriam’s journals and document, document, document!

Historic picture of Chukchansi woman Chalakit in 1902, splitting acorns with teeth with baskets around her
Two baskets sold to Clinton Hart Merriam by Chalakit. They are a circular winnower (CHM 830) and a cooking basket (CHM 833)
Baskets from picture on left, 113 years later. Two baskets sold to Clinton Hart Merriam by Chalakit. They are a circular winnower (CHM 830) and a cooking basket (CHM 833).


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