Pat Courtney Gold grew up on the Warm Springs Reservation in the mid-Columbia River area of Central Oregon. When visiting local museums, her mother, an accomplished beadworker would point to the displays and say with pride, "Those are our baskets; our ancestors made these." In her youth Pat was taken off to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school where her hair was cut and she was made to wear a standard issue oversized dress. She went on to earn a B.A. in mathematics and physics from Whitman College and she embarked on a career as a mathematician and computer specialist. In 1991, she studied and helped revive the making of Wasco sally bags, twined root-digging bags, through the Oregon Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. This launched her on a new career path dedicated to the preservation of her cultural heritage. She says, "As I began focusing more on my weaving, I also became aware that the technical technique was only a small facet of what I was doing. The other component was that I was dealing with a whole ancestral heritage. I felt as though the ancestors were waiting for somebody like me to come forward and that all this energy was being focused and funneled through me." Today Pat Courtney Gold is recognized internationally as an exquisite weaver who incorporates designs that express the cultural life of her people, not only traditional images but also figures that comment on contemporary life such as yuppie Indians and local environmental degradation.
NEA: First of all, I want to congratulate you on your award. Can you tell me how you felt when you heard the news?
MS. GOLD: I was just overwhelmed. I couldn't believe that I was a recipient. And when [NEA Folk & Traditional Arts Director] Barry Bergey called me on the phone, I had to stop and say, "Barry, you have to repeat this." It took a couple of days for it to really sink in. I'm still in a state of shock. My gosh, what an honor.
NEA: What attracted you to the weaving tradition?
MS. GOLD: My tribe, the Wasco tribe, used to live along the Columbia River. During the treaty days we were forcefully moved south to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, roughly a hundred miles south of the Columbia River where our traditional home was. During that period we lost a lot of our culture and traditions and for three generations hardly any Wasco wove baskets.
When I was a little girl, the only museum available to us was the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, which is right along the Columbia River. My folks would drive us up there to have picnics. The museum was free to Native Americans at that time, so my mom would take us in and go downstairs to the basket collection and point out the local baskets. She always made sure that we knew which ones were the Wasco baskets. "Our ancestors made these," she would say. They were the ones with those beautiful geometric designs. She was always so proud when she pointed these out. I remember how beautiful those baskets were because no one in our immediate family had those baskets. It was a very impressive memory.
My mother did have some knowledge of weaving. We would go down to the little rivers near where we lived when my dad would go fishing and she would pick certain grasses and willow twigs and show us how to weave and have us start some real small things. Not baskets, just using just little small twigs to show us the basic techniques of weaving. This was before I went to school. That was my first experience with baskets.
NEA: You use both traditional and contemporary themes in your designs. Talk a little bit about the themes in your work.
MS. GOLD: After I learned how to weave, I would go to museums and study the images. Wasco baskets are known for their geometric images. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the different designs. I realized that each weaver would weave a unique basket -- no design is ever repeated. Even if they did a common design like the human form there would be variations on how the arms were put together and how they wove the head and the body. I was really impressed with the creativity of the weavers.
There was also the theme of the change in the baskets. Historically, we used a lot of local fibers: dog bean, different kinds of sage grasses, and various roots. But when we were moved from our traditional land, we had to pretty much redefine what fibers we used. They were hard to find because by then there were a lot of housing developments and freeways and railroad tracks, so a lot of the natural habitat was gone. A number of us weavers started using whatever fibers we could find. That didn't bother me at all because when I was studying I had learned that the basket weavers in the early 1800s would trade for Hudson Bay blankets, which were primarily blue and red, and unravel them and use the wool to emphasize some of their designs. I was impressed that they were willing to experiment with other fibers. And in the early 1900s, a lot of the Native people in this area grew hops and beans. After harvesting the hops, they would take the twine down and suddenly there were a lot of baskets woven with hop twine. I realized that as time passed and our environment changed, the weavers were changing with the environment. I decided I could keep up that tradition. Even though I was learning the old traditions, I could also make something reflecting my own period of existence. So I started using really colorful fibers to bring out the designs.
I also noticed the changes in the images over time. At a certain point, horse figures started showing up, and then a horse and wagon design. And then canoes. So I did some of my own designs. I created what I call a yuppie Indian couple. The figures maintained the same geometric form of the traditional images, but I put the male figure in a blue suit and tie and a fedora hat. The woman was a professional woman wearing a tight dress, heels, lipstick, and jewelry. And I used colorful chenille fiber for the texture. I enjoyed creating my own designs.
I also make statements about what's going on now. Since we're tied to the Columbia River, I've always been concerned about the pollution in the river. The Hanford nuclear plant, where the Army created atomic bombs, is upriver. And now they're working to try to bring back atomic nuclear reactors for generating electricity. Unfortunately, in that same area there's a lot of chemical waste buried in 55 gallon barrels which are starting to leak into the groundwater that seeps into the Columbia River. I do sturgeon images -- sturgeon are not a fish, they're a very old being, millions of years old and absolutely fascinating creatures. They're bottom feeders and can get up to a thousand pounds and live close to a hundred years. I'm worried about them now because of the chemicals, so I do variations of the sturgeon on my baskets. When I put the sturgeon on a basket, I always put in what I call a Hanford sturgeon, which usually has a deformity somewhere in it. I have these on exhibit, and I always tell people, "Look for the Hanford sturgeon."
NEA: Do you feel that the tradition is flourishing or do you think that there's a danger of too few people carrying on the tradition?
MS. GOLD: One of the reasons I really started devoting myself to basket weaving in the early 1990s is that I felt that we were on the verge of losing the Wasco technique. It's a unique technique called full-turn twine: we use two different colored weaving fibers to create the designs. Some elders got together and put on a class through the Traditional Arts Program and three of us learned the technique. The instructor was non-Native, but her husband worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and she had traveled to all the reservations in the Northwest. She grasped some of the weaving techniques. We learned the basic technique, but there are a lot of different ways of starting and ending a basket, and we didn't really know the full range of natural plant fibers that were used. We did our research at museums and private collections to try to find out about the materials. I also traveled around to meet other weavers, including the elder weavers, and I realized it would be really nice if we had an organization where all the weavers could get together. A number of us got together through the Washington State Traditional Arts Program and founded the Northwest Native American Basket Weavers Association. We're in our 13th year now. We started out with maybe 100 weavers in the Northwest -- we have over 300 weavers now.
The purpose of the organization is to keep the knowledge going to the next generation and to encourage weavers. We have an annual gathering. We exchange ideas. We teach the younger people. And we exchange weaving fibers. It's really an exciting time.
NEA: Tell me a little bit more about the materials and the natural fibers that you use. How do you go about getting those?
MS. GOLD: It's difficult. I have to travel long distances. There used to be some fibers that grew along the Columbia River, but there are a couple of towns that totally built over and destroyed the habitat. So my sister and I travel. We go over 350 miles to get good clean fiber. Complicating this is the fact that the State of Oregon and Washington have a lot of federal lands and on these lands they identify a lot of plant materials as invasive plants and spray them. But many of those plants are our medicinal plants and our weaving fibers. So we are working with these federal agencies to help identify the plants we need and prevent them from spraying them.
Through the basket organization, we've found other sites that have really nice dog bain in central Washington. People there harvest it and then we trade fibers. We also use bulrush and cattail. I use a lot of cattail. And there are various sedge grasses. There's a tall sedge that grows near the coast in estuaries and along rivers and there's sedge on the reservation where I was born and raised.
NEA: I know that the weaving is a strong part of the ancestry and cultural heritage of your community. Can you talk a little bit about how it makes you feel to be connected to a tradition from your ancestry?
MS. GOLD: As I mentioned earlier, I had never seen anyone my parents' age or my grandmother's age make these baskets. When my sister and I started making them, the elders were so pleased. They'd say, "We're so glad that you two girls are bringing the weaving back." We could just see the smiles on their faces and we knew we had to continue doing it.
I feel it is really important for me to be out in public to let people know about my tribe because it's very small. The other tribes in the Northwest are also very small. It's important for me to be out giving talks about my baskets and about my culture and traditions to both Native and non-Native young people. I also go out to museums and work with curators, do basket-making demonstrations and talk about how important these baskets are in reflecting our culture. When we formed the basket organization we really made a commitment to pass the tradition on down to the young people. We really make an effort to bring young people in. I mean very young people, little children, two and three years old. Even though they can't weave, they're surrounded by weavers and they can see and they can watch. It's surprising how much they can pick up. And we really make a point to have classes for the older kids who are interested. Then I make a point to spend more time working with one or two weavers.
NEA: What has been your greatest source of pride or happiness as a weaver?
MS. GOLD: As I just mentioned, seeing how happy the elders were when they saw our baskets.
There's a second, equally important, experience. When I was learning how to weave, I saw a picture of a Wasco basket collected by Lewis and Clark in 1805. That basket has a very intricate design on it. When I looked at the picture I thought, "When I get to be a real good weaver, I'm going to go and study that basket." The basket is now in a museum at Harvard and it took me about five years to get my confidence up to contact them. I went there and when they brought the basket out for me to look at, I could not put it down. I held it for six hours. It was such an emotional experience. And they kept saying, "We want you to tell us everything about this basket. We what you to tell us what you're feeling and what you're learning from it." It was such an emotional and spiritual experience, I couldn't even talk. I just kept answering, "You have to wait. You have to wait." It was one of the highlights of my weaving career.
NEA: What is the key to appreciating really excellent basket weaving?
MS. GOLD: In order for people to really understand and appreciate baskets, they have to know about the culture of the weaver. That's really important, I think, in other aspects of art. But with the basketry, people don't know how to look at baskets. They don't know the various techniques of basket weaving, and they don't understand and appreciate how difficult it is to do the geometric images on a basket. So I think it's very important that they understand the culture and have the opportunity to watch weavers and understand the difficulty it is for a weaver to create the baskets they're creating. But the culture's very important. The baskets reflect the culture.