A Voice in the NELA Wilderness: One Man’s Quest to Revive the Dying Art of Basketmaking

2018 A Voice in the NELA Wilderness Christopher Nyerges Columnists Editions November

Some 20 years ago, I saw a photograph of Justin Farmer in the Southwest Museum in Highland Park. In the photo, Farmer is holding a traditional long bow.

I have never forgotten it. Farmer is not primarily known for his bow-making, though that is one of his many skills.

Farmer is best known for his leading role in the revival of Indian basketry in Southern California. I have had the honor of interviewing him on his life and his passion for basketry. Here are some highlights:

Farmer, who was born in 1926 in the town of Julian in San Diego County, explained that he is registered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a “mission Indian,” the term that was applied to Indians who were forcibly relocated to the California missions in the late 1700s and early 1800s — and is still applied to their descendants. He quickly added: “We call ourselves Ipai,” a term in his traditional language that means “the people.”

In the 1970s, Farmer began to collect Native American baskets, recognizing, he said, that “they are really an art form.” His interest led him on a search for

still living Southern California Indian weavers. He found one elderly Indian woman in Riverside County who still wove baskets and three more in San Diego County.

As it turned out, the three from San Diego County were all Farmer’s cousins.

Farmer commissioned one of them, Christina Osuna Beresford, then in her late 70s, to make a traditional basket with a rattlesnake pattern. “When I picked up the basket, she agreed to teach me the dying art of basketry,” he said. “I sat at her feet over a period of months and she walked me through this whole process. Then I took it upon myself to promulgate this art.” 

He has held numerous basket-making classes over the years and taught basket weaving and other native skills at 12 colleges and universities. He has also served on the board of the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association and remains an active member. The association gathers annually to share ideas, techniques and marketing strategies.

Farmer has also written four books on basketry, including “Creating an Indian Style Coiled Basket” (2012), a complete guide to making a coiled-style basket from raw material.

To learn more, contact the Justin Farmer Foundation at 714-256-1260 and the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association at: ciba.org.

Christopher Nyerges is the manager of the Old L.A. Farmers Market in Highland Park..

1 thought on “A Voice in the NELA Wilderness: One Man’s Quest to Revive the Dying Art of Basketmaking

  1. Please tell Mr. Farmer that he is not alone in basket weaving, though it is rare to find another weaver. I learned to coil raffia from Ernestine Hanlon in Hoonah, Alaska…1980. Since then I-ve taught myself to coil split willow shoots, Sitka Spruce branches and to twine Sitka Spruce roots. Send me an email address and I would send some photos for you to show him. I have left no weavers in my wake. Many show interest, few make the effort, none have continued. I live in Switzerland now and the language leaves me isolated. I was born in Calif.

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