On a lovely autumn afternoon, people filter in and out of Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City. Many are admiring the building, especially its proximity to the lake. But inside, there is a wealth of historic artistic beauty in the woven basket collection. At any given time, the museum has 270 baskets on display made between 1890 and 1940 out of North Lake Tahoe Historical Society’s collection of 700 woven relics.
Perfectly preserved in glass cases, the woven baskets range from tiny baskets given as gifts to large functional baskets used for cooking, carrying food or babies and in ceremonies. Some feature intricate designs of people or animals. They are made from indigenous willows, redbud, bracken fern root and other strong, natural threads.
Many of the baskets in the Gatekeeper’s Museum were inherited from Marion Steinbach’s collection; she began collecting baskets when she was 16 years old. Four years after her death, her husband donated them to the museum.
The museum has 656 of Marion Steinbach’s baskets, which makes up about two-thirds of the exhibit, that were donated in 1995.
“Like most collectors, Marion had a large number of baskets that she wanted to keep intact. This small community got its act together and built this wing of the museum to support the collection,” says museum curator Jerome Evans.
The museum has 656 of Steinbach’s baskets, which makes up about two-thirds of the exhibit, which were donated in 1995. To Evans’ knowledge, Steinbach became a serious collector of woven baskets in the 1960s and regularly bought, sold and traded the American Indian artifacts. In 1967, Steinbach acquired fine and utilitarian baskets from Dorothy Atkinson, whose mother Nellie, started her collection in Yosemite in the late 1800s. While the interest in Native American artwork subsided after World War I, an event called Indian Field Days at Yosemite in the late 1920s regenerated the art of basketry that took on a new trend that lasted through the 1930s.
Evans does appraisals and a little buying and selling, but mostly volunteers at the museum and answers questions about the baskets.
“It was like a bear to honey, me coming here,” he said.
Evans is drawn to the aspect of weaving, the individualism and Native American history embedded in basket weaving. He collects baskets from all over the world and especially likes Japanese and American Indian varieties. When admiring a basket, he pays attention to the shape, design, decoration and technique used in making it.
“Among collectors, the Washoe Degikup and Pomo gift baskets are the most popular,” he said.
What makes basket weaving a specialized art is that it takes as much time to collect the materials as it does to weave one. It can take four to five years to learn how to weave baskets; the time it takes to make one depends on the size, access to materials and how much time one can dedicate to weaving.
A museum visitor asks Evans what a devil’s claw was — something he saw in the making of a basket. Evans immediately flipped open a book and stopped at a picture. He explained that devil’s claw is a type of weed with a barbed pod used to make a basket — which was indeed creepy looking. The most popular materials used by Washoe basket weavers are willow and redbud, only harvestable in the spring and fall.
Most of the baskets in the museum were made in California, but the collection includes baskets from Alaska, Arizona, British Colombia, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and New Mexico.
Evans enjoys volunteering at the museum, to be among the baskets and chat with people who are interested in them. He once met a couple from Hungary who had read about the Gatekeeper’s Museum in a travel guide and visited Tahoe just to check out the collection.
Gatekeeper’s Museum happily accepts donations of fine baskets, especially when the name of the weaver is known, and the basket has an attractive and intricate design. Evans appraises baskets free of charge; he is primarily interested in Washoe baskets because Tahoe is in Washoe territory.
“I have so much respect for the people who make them,” he said.
Gatekeeper’s Museum offers basket-weaving kits for sale; visitors can try their hand at making a basket and bring in the finished product. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. | northtahoemuseums.org