Tima Lotah Link is a Chumash cultural educator and basketweaver, and a consultant on KCET's Tending The Wild project. Her article "Weaving the World Together" can be read here. KCET spoke with Tima near the Santa Clara River, in the Chumash people's traditional territory.
How did you learn how to weave baskets?
We hear a lot about loss of culture and loss of language in native communities. And it's all true. A lot of our communities are working hard to bring back language, to bring back culture, to bring back knowledge of the land and the plants. We support each other.
In the old days, you would learn from a grandmother, or a grandfather. But that might not be possible today, so you learn from whomever is around. You go to the next tribe over the mountains and you say, “I don't know how to do this, does anybody know?” And they share, or you learn from a friend’s cousin, or you learn from a book, or you learn by just going out and doing it.
I've been at this for 25 years. I've been coming to Juncus patches, and willow patches and tule patches, and over the years you see patterns. You become your own teacher, in many ways. And the plants teach you. They don't say anything with their mouth, but you listen and they teach.
See how basketweaving becomes an essential part of Native American life and creativity on "Artbound" S9 E8: The Art of Basketweaving. Watch now.
What do you make baskets out of?
Some of the plants that I weave with are Juncus textilis, Juncus acutus, tule, and willow. They all have their own properties. Some of them are used for baskets, some of them are for weaving houses or boats. They all have different qualities.
What makes basket weaving different now than it was in the past?
We live in a world of fences today, and those fences divide us. They are boundaries between us and the landscape, and I respect boundaries, I think we all do in this world today, but fences, borders, dams, some things were never meant to be.
One of the first things you learn when you're a child as a native is how to go over a fence, under a fence, or through a fence. Native people are never afraid of what the fences say, and they'll say some pretty awful things. When you're five or six, you learn a skill. You learn how to brush your teeth; you learn how to get through a metal fence.
Today I scale fences, I scale six foot fences [to gather]. I go under fences, over fences, through fences. But I don’t always do that. Today we really try to talk to people about what a relationship could mean between us — Native people — and them, and how it could enrich both of our lives. I try, as much as I can, to make relationships between landowners, between the federal government, state parks... but every once in a while you'll get a situation [where] it would take twenty years to get the okay to go there.
What is gathering like today?
I think part of being a good gatherer in today's world with lots of barriers is knowing how to be creative in getting the things that you need. When you live in a contemporary world that’s paved over and divided by highways, how do you find the things you are looking for? You get in your truck and you just start looking. So you’ll find what you need in unexpected places, and you'll have to be willing to take a risk to get those things. Risk means jumping a fence, it means pulling over on a curve where there is no room, it means going over fences where there are dogs or poison oak. I have a million adventures trying to find the things that I need.
"When you're five or six, you learn a skill. You learn how to brush your teeth; you learn how to get through a metal fence."
Being a gatherer is not just a practice; it's a mindset. It means that no matter what I am doing, I am always ready. My mind is always ready, my eyes and my hands are ready to gather.
What’s the relationship between basket weavers and the landscape?
When we gather plants, it’s going to be used for materials and to grow. Every time we take something we have got to pay something for it. In society, we don't steal without paying for something, but in nature we seem to forget that it's giving up itself, its life, and its well-being for the beneficial use of us, and we have to repay that. We make sure that what we take is going to be well used, and it wasn't just truly sacrificed for nothing.
Can you talk a little about the Santa Clara River Valley?
The Santa Clara River is a really special place for us. We all come together to not only gather, but we also come to tend the land. That's a really important part of what we do. We're not just here to take, we're here to give back. Some trips we come together and we pick and we get excited. Other days we just come with our tools and we take care of the land.
This place is really special because the Santa Clara Valley is a place where the old basket weavers grew up. They were born here, they died here, and their baskets, the actual Juncus that they make their baskets out of, it's from here. We feel that when we come back here, that there's a continuation going on of not only a skill and an art, but also of tending. There's a balance to everything.
Is there a communal aspect to being a weaver?
Being a weaver nowadays and in the past was and is about weaving for your community. A lot of times, my community comes to me and asks, "Will you weave me a hat? Will you weave me a mat to sit on?" For instance, “Our community needs a house. Can we weave an ’ap?” — which is our traditional house. Weaving is very much a communal thing, though small baskets could be made [by] individuals.
Do you consider basket weaving a hobby?
There's not a day in my life that I don't think about weaving, or I don't touch weaving. It's not something I do on the weekends, I do it everyday. Whether I am dying or processing plants, tending these patches, or talking or thinking about it, it becomes who you are, and not what you do.
So a lot of people ask “is this a hobby?” Hobbies are things that you do when you have a little free time, when you are decompressing. I guess it is a little bit of that. But, it's not just a hobby. It's my culture. I'm deeply connected to this activity. Because, when you come out and you gather, you are not just gathering. You are tending the land. You are learning the words for the plants. You are bringing your friends and your family. So it becomes an activity that is more of a tradition than a hobby. I can't imagine myself as anything else. It's everything that I am.
How have you reclaimed your Native identity?
For five hundred years, native people have been hiding, they've been surviving. You couldn't say you were Indian, you could only whisper it. The world changed in the 50s, 60s, and 70's, and all of a sudden, there was this collective shout across Indian country. You could shout it: "I am an Indian," and we regained our identities, and that was really important.
We really stand on their backs, on their achievements because they fought for us to be heard, for us to be identified as native again, and when you have that, when you can be heard, then you can begin to revitalize culture, basketry or arts. We can stand on our parents' backs, their accomplishments, and breed and revitalize language and basketry and all of those wonderful things that aren't subsistence activities but are about your heart. In my generation, we're not just regaining our identities, we're regaining the landscape, and that's a step forward. What I hope is that the next generation after me won't just reclaim it, they'll heal it. That's something that isn't just us, it's everybody. Everybody can heal the landscape, we're in it together.
Today, Native people are finding our traditions again. The traditions are coming to life. They're not always lost. Sometimes, they're just asleep. Our languages are sometimes asleep, our ceremonies, our ways of making things. When you're looking to revitalize language or ceremony or culture, you have to be smart about it. You have to include your neighbors and your neighbors might not just be the tribes next to you. They might be your neighbors across the ocean and throughout the world. Sometimes, your answers come from across the world. You just have to reach out. I find the answers from tribes next to us that use the same plants. I find the answers from people around the world.
Why is Traditional Ecological Knowledge important to basketweavers?
If you look at my basket, it's spiraling. It's going from small and it's going outwards. I'm building something as I go. Every once in awhile, I mess up. [But] I don't stop, because you don't stop when you mess up. I think that applies to what we're doing to the environment. You don't stop when things go bad. You move forward. I know a lot of people debate whether we should leave nature alone or be out and be active in it trying to fix it. I think the latter. You absolutely want to be out fixing it.
[When I’m] weaving a basket… I have so many points of contact. My hands are always in it, my body's pushing, my knees are pushing. I'm forming this basket. It's very much like nature. You have to be out there with many points of contact. It's like a dance partner. Nature pushes you, you push back. If one pushes too hard, it unbalances. It is that balance back and forth.
I think often that native people are thought of as primitive. I hear that word a lot, "Oh I'm going to cook primitive food or I'm going to learn this primitive skill." Nothing we do is primitive. Everything comes from thousands of years of skill, knowledge, community and working together. The things that we do, these baskets, the canoes, the culture, it all comes from brilliant minds.
What do you want readers to know about Native People?
One of the things that I like people to know when they come to California and ask about native people is that we are still here. One of the things that the world hears about us is that we are not here, that it's all past tense. All of our books, all of our TV, it tells us past tense. “They lived,” “they worked,” “they ate,” “they were”… and it is important to know that we are, we're here. The native plants are here too. Neither one of us have gone away and we are flourishing. You just have to know where to look.