Darlene Murphy weaves willow baskets to keep the traditions of her family alive. Murphy’s descendants from the Western Shoshone tribe came from Death Valley, where her great-grandmother was a basket weaver, and throughout Nevada including Round Mountain, Austin and Ash Meadows, which is a wildlife refuge.
It was Murphy’s aunt Maggie Decker Darrough, whom she called Grandma Maggie, that made
cradleboards for Murphy and her eight siblings that were used by her mother to carry her babies for their first year or so. The cradleboards have a sturdy, willow rod backing with either canvas or hides wrapped around the front.
But Murphy didn’t start basket weaving until after she retired from a 25-year career as a civil engineer at the Nevada Department of Transportation. In 2005, she took a basket-weaving class with her cousin in Carson City and was hooked.
“After retiring, I needed to do something and have always been a bit self-motivated. My grandma always had willows that we gathered and cleaned, but other than that we were never really exposed to basket weaving,” she says.
Murphy began designing and constructing willow coil baskets with beaded exterior adornments, generally sold to fellow basket collectors and displayed in museums.
Native American Weaver’s Market
Aug. 26 | 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Gatekeeper’s Museum | Tahoe City
“Europeans buy them and sell them for triple the amount, because they don’t think there are any Native Americans around anymore,” she says.
Native Americans used handwoven baskets to carry utensils, cook with and gather food. Bigger cone-shaped baskets called burden baskets were used to carry pine cones and small woven baskets were used for acorn gravy and soups and to gather pine nuts. Murphy shows off a winnowing tray and displays how it’s used to clean pine nuts out of their cones by shaking them out and allowing the nuts to fall between the cracks of the willow rods.
At home, Murphy grows purple willows and sage root bush to create baskets. She also accompanies other Native American women who’ve found places where willow still grows wild. It can only be harvested in the autumn, after the first freeze when the leaves fall off.
“Most native women want all natural stuff, not the reed you buy at the store,” Murphy says. “You have to know what type of willows to get, too.”
She is a fan of red bud willow that grows like a bush on the western side of the Sierra Nevada, like on the roadsides in Red Bluff of Northern California. She loves the work of the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association, whose members have better access to it.
Murphy usually gathers 200 to 300 willow branches at a time and brings them home to size and keep in water. She cleans them by scratching off the red and purple and puts them in bunches wrapped in cloth to restore their color.
“The brighter the color, the newer the basket,” she says. “The older the basket is, the yellower it gets.”
Murphy employs different styles of weaving to bring a basket together, such as the brick stitch. Then she’ll bead a drop stitch design on the first roll and keep doing designs on the exterior part of the basket to create a heavy, sturdy and beautiful piece.
She says that between gathering the willows, weaving and decorating, making a medium-sized basket can take up to a year — a smaller one can take two to three weeks. After harvesting the strands, Murphy keeps the willows in warm water to keep them pliable and a sponge to soak them and keep them smooth.
She also makes necklaces, baby rattles, beaded earrings and small, beaded coil baskets.
“Beading is my favorite part,” she says.
She will often attach a woven baby rattle to the hood of the cradleboards she sells.
“Baskets have always been around me all my life,” Murphy says. “This is all dedicated to our grandmothers, past relatives and ancestors. Without them we wouldn’t know how to do this.”The Carson City, Nev., resident will be among the featured artists at the Native American Weaver’s Market on Aug. 26 in Tahoe City. | Gatekeeper’s Museum on Facebook