Studying the art of life
Submitted photo Noted California Indian basketry expert and author Ralph Shanks, and his wife and co-author/editor, Lisa Woo Shanks, in the storage area of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. Behind them are baskets of the kind made by the Pomo and Wappo. Shanks’ interest in Napa County Indians started during his childhood in St. Helena.

As a youngster Ralph Shanks roamed St. Helena orchards, vineyards, river banks and creeks on the lookout for evidence of the Valley’s earliest people, the Wappo.

He spent hours in the Carnegie building poring over the library’s doorstop-sized copy of Alfred L. Kroeber’s “Handbook of Indians of California,” published in 1925 and nearly 1,000 pages.

“In St. Helena there was such a sense of the past then, of the Wappo living in the Napa Valley,” Shanks said last week of his explorations a half century earlier. “There were Indian sites all over the place — you could tell from the color of the earth, from the shell fragments and the obsidian flakes scattered around.”

These discoveries are taken more seriously now, he said, and any newly found sites should be reported to the Northwest Information Center of the State of California Office of Historic Preservation at Sonoma State University.

In his youth, however, there was no such cultural oversight, although there was plenty of interest.

He laughed when he recalled the first talk he gave about the culture and people that captivated him. The audience was his history class in Vintage Hall and the talk, he said, was “very well received by eighth-grade standards.”

Tonight, decades of research and numerous presentations later, Shanks and his wife and co-author, Lisa Woo Shanks, will be discussing and signing their latest book, “Indian Baskets of Central California,” at the Napa Valley Museum from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

This, the first in a series of three books on early California Indian baskets, includes 200 rare, formerly unpublished photographs — as well as what Shanks considers the only full coverage of the artistry and skill of Napa County’s Wappo, Patwin and Lake Miwok basket weavers.

The importance of baskets

Both utilitarian and beautiful, baskets followed the early native people from birth to death and played an important role in everyday life.

“Basketry was central to the culture,” Shanks said, and noted that there were special baskets for newborns, cradle baskets for older babies, baskets for food and seed gathering, storing and processing, baskets for trapping fish and birds and for carrying heavy burdens.

“There were baskets made by mothers and grandmothers for their children to play with, baskets made as wedding presents and gifts for celebrations,” Shanks said, “Even divorce baskets. A woman getting a divorce would make a basket for her husband’s mother as a parting gift of friendship. I think that was actually a pretty neat idea.”

And when a life ended, baskets were burned in honor of the dead.

Shanks seems to have been born with a “research” gene. Even as a youngster when something captured his interest he delved deeply into it.

He learned Italian, he said, so he could understand what was being said at the local markets.

“In St. Helena, you used to be able to go to the grocery store and hear Italian spoken,” he said. “I really got interested in that. I wondered what people were saying and then, when I learned Italian, I found out they were talking about the price of lettuce.”

During a period when his family was living in Blue Lake, Humboldt County, he met lighthouse keepers and early coast guardsmen who told stories about the Lighthouse Service and the Life-Saving Service, precursors of today’s Coast Guard. The tales fired Shanks’ imagination.

He would go on to write three books on lighthouses and one on “The U.S. Life-Saving Service: Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard,” which earned him the first Foundation for Coast Guard History award for the best book on the subject — an award he calls “the greatest, most rewarding thing.”

“When I get interested in something, I get deeply interested,” Shanks admitted. “I participate in the subject, that’s critical. I worked extensively with the Coast Guard on the maritime books and I’ve worked extensively with Native American elders, tribal leaders and basket weavers for the basketry books.”

The UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University graduate also did research for 20 years with the late Larry Dawson, a renowned basketry scholar and museum anthropologist with the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

Shanks and his wife also spent seven years working with more than 100 tribal offices for their book, “The North American Indian Travel Guide,” of contemporary Native American cultural activities.

In addition, Shanks is president of the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin, and notes with pride a Western Abenaki ancestor, although he is the first to say that by now there are so many “great-great-great-greats” in between that the connection is almost too distant to claim.

The Napa Valley influence

The family moved to St. Helena from Humboldt County in 1952 when Shanks’ father, Ralph Sr., became pastor of St. Helena Presbyterian Church. Shanks’ mother, Viola, worked at the St. Helena Star as receptionist, secretary, copy reader and occasional writer.

The newspaper’s editor, Starr Baldwin, was the first to give Ralph Jr. a chance to see his words in print. Young Shanks was on the high school track team and wrote sports stories about the harriers for the paper.

Shanks’ consuming interest, however, continued to be California Indians, and he wasn’t shy about writing to local chambers of commerce and librarians in search of others also interested local Indian culture.

He sent a letter to the Pomo Women’s Club in Ukiah, mostly basket weavers, who wrote back how surprised and pleased they were to learn that someone so young was interested in Indian baskets.

He may have been young but he was determined. By the time he was 12, Shanks had already narrowed his general interest in all things Indian to basketry. This came about, he explained, because he realized he didn’t have the experience or expertise to tell which arrowheads or beadwork or pieces of pottery were real, and which were fakes.

“But basket weaving was so time-consuming I figured that it wouldn’t be of use to anyone to make a fake,” he said. “I knew that as long as I could tell it was an Indian basket, as opposed to something made in another country, that it would be authentic.”

He continues to be just as intrigued with the natural materials used for the baskets – the deep tones of red bud bark, the black of the bulrush root, and the white-to-golden shades of sedge root —  as he is with their design and craftsmanship.

“They are made of native plants so they reflect the land from which they came,” he said. “I love it that you have the colors and the tones of the land. There aren’t many things that are so totally, so completely regional. I think there is something really beautiful about that.”

But perhaps even more compelling, “Basketry was and still is, the greatest art of the California Indian people,” Shanks believes. “You can’t understand the culture without understanding the basketry.”

In this quest, Shanks and his wife, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service area resource conservationist, have traveled to more than 50 museums across the United States and in Europe to study California Indian basket collections, some dating to the late 1700s.

“We followed the baskets,” Shanks agreed, and laughed as he added, “but of course, in a lot of cases, they got there 200 years before we did.”

(To learn more about the Feb. 12 talk and book signing, or to reserve a space, call the Napa Valley Museum, 944-0500 ext. 106.)

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