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JUSTIN FARMER  helped to revive the interest in California Indian basket-making

By Christopher Nyerges
[Nyerges is a teacher and the author of “Foraging California,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

Nearly 20 years ago, I saw a huge, larger-than-life photograph of Justin Farmer at the Southwest Museum, in which he was holding a traditional long bow. I continued to hear about this man, and see his picture in books on Native American survival skills and methods of sustainable living.

Finally, I had the opportunity to meet and interview this legend in Native American basketry circles. Farmer has written 4 full-color books on Southern California Indian basketry and cradles and is significantly responsible for the revival of Indian basketry in Southern California.

Farmer was born in 1926 in Julian, California. Farmer explained that he’s registered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a “mission Indian,” which is the legal term. He quickly adds that they do not like to be called “mission” because it implies that they are subject to the mission. “So most of my life I have been known as a Digueno from San Diego County, but we don’t much care for the term ‘Digueno’ either because it implies we’re children of San Diego. We call ourselves Ipai,” explains Farmer, a term in his traditional language that means “the people.”

Farmer continues, explaining that his grandmother was indentured as an infant. “The purpose of indenturing was to stamp out native culture, and it was very effective. So my grandmother hated Indians! That’s what she was taught. She couldn’t speak her native language, only Spanish. And so that’s what she taught her 11 children, and that’s what she taught my mother, and that’s the way I was raised – that it’s not acceptable to be an Indian.”

Justin Farmer seems remarkably chipper and alert for his 80-something years. He smiles and adds, “Of the five siblings in my family, I’m the only one who’s registered and I’m the only one who will admit to being an Indian.” He pauses and smiles. “So until my middle age, I pushed that aside but I always knew I would capitalize on that somehow.” Indeed!

In the 1970s, Farmer began to collect Native American baskets. “These baskets are an art form,” he emphasizes. “Yes, they are utilitarian, but they are really an art form.”

Farmer wanted to collect baskets from the makers, so in the 1970s, he began on a quest to find Southern California Indian weavers. “I started in Santa Barbara, and found that there were no Indian weavers left in Santa Barbara. He went south to Ventura County and found no Indian weavers in Ventura County. He found no native weavers in all of Los Angeles County.
He searched Orange County, San Bernardino County, Imperial County, and it was the same. No native weavers.
He found one elderly lady in Riverside County who still wove baskets, and he found three Indian ladies in San Diego County. “Ironically, all three of them were cousins of mine,” said Farmer with a laugh.

The oldest of these three women was about the age of Farmer’s mother, in her late 70s or early 80s, Christina Osuna Berseford.
Farmer wanted her to teach him how to make baskets but she didn’t want to, saying that it was women’s work. “I told her that a man-weaver is better than no weaver at all,” said Farmer with a laugh.

He then commissioned Berseford to make a traditional basket with a rattlesnake pattern, and she agreed to make it for $100. “So during this time, I was still badgering her about teaching me the art, and she told me that it would take her 300 hours to make the basket I wanted. That included the time to collect and process the raw materials. So she tells me, ‘I’m going to charge you $100 for 300 hours, so you tell me why I should teach my niece how to weave baskets? I’m getting 30 cents an hour!’”

Farmer paid her $150 when he finally picked up the basket, and she finally agreed to teach him the dying art of basketry. “I sat at her feet and she walked me through this whole process and I took it upon myself to promulgate this art,” said Farmer, who has conducted at least 40 basket-making classes over the years, and taught at 12 different colleges and universities.
He points out that there are maybe 100 styles of basketry, and that he learned and teaches what he calls the Southern California Mission-style of basketry.
“When I started with this whole learning process, there were only 3 Indian women left in all of Southern California who knew the traditional basketry technique,” said Farmer. “Three, out of maybe 20 million people! Now, there are perhaps a hundred traditional weavers in Southern California.” Farmer is now on the board of the directors of the California Indian Basketmakers Association, which has a bulletin and an annual gathering.

He’s also the author of four books.
His first book was “Southern California Luiseno Indian Baskets: A study of 76 Luiseno Baskets in the Riverside Municipal Museum Collection” (2004). This was written and produced as a result of the U.S. Postal Service issues a pane of 10 stamps to commemorate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. One of the stamps featured one of the baskets in the Riverside Municipal Museum collection, and this was the impetus for this full-color book describing the various Southern California baskets.

Farmer’s second book was “Basketry Plants Used by Western American Indians” (2010) which shows the 37 common plants used in Southern California Indian baskets. Farmer wrote this book for students and collectors to help identify the material used in old baskets. It took him about 5 years to complete this book.

His third book was “Creating an Indian Style Coiled Basket” (2012), which is a complete guide to making a coiled-style basket from the raw material to the finished basket. When asked about the use of pine needles in coiled baskets, Farmer replies, “There were only a pitifully few Indian people in California who ever used pine needles. In fact, if you see a basket with pine needles, there’s a 99.5% chance that it was made by a white guy.” He adds that there were only about three Indian families in all of California who made traditional baskets with pine needles. “Pine needles are brittle and not good basketry material.”

Farmer’s fourth book was “Indian Cradles of California and the Western Great Basin” (2013), a beautiful cataloguing of the styles of cradles and the people who made them. The techniques used to make a cradle are all basketry techniques, and, according to Farmer, the Indian cradles are very poorly represented in the literature. All the mothers carried their children on their backs in cradles in the old days, and when they were no longer needed, they were typically just hung up in a tree and left to go back to nature.

Additionally, Farmer authored a book about Chinigchinich, which the Indian religion from the Los Angeles basin. It was only recorded by a Catholic missionary, father Boscana. “Boscana was the only missionary who ever took the time to study and record the local religion,” explains Farmer, “though he wasn’t above bad-mouthing them either.” Farmer’s hard-to-get book on Chinigchinich is a digest of the three versions of Boscana’s 1820s book.

Over the years, Farmer has practiced bow-making, flint-knapping, arrow-making, and learning to make throwing sticks. He learned to make throwing sticks from Paul Campbell, author of “Survival Skills of Native California.” “I have the highest regard for Paul Campbell,” he says, “since Paul doesn’t accept that 2 + 2 = 4.”

“I’ve gotten involved a lot in the old skills. Not just so-called survival skills. People lived in the old days. Think of all the things we do today. Well, that’s what people did in the past, except they had no Walmart to go to. Everything came from scratch, from nature.”


Books by Justin Farmer are available from The Justin Farmer Foundation, 1954 Evergreen Ave., Fullerton, CA 92835, or by calling 714 256-1260.