Legendary Pomo basket maker Elsie Allen defied tradition to preserve it
Before Elsie Allen’s mother died, she defied convention and asked that her handwoven baskets not be buried with her so others could learn from them.
“Mother died in 1962, and I have tried to keep my promise,” Allen wrote in her 1972 book “Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art for the Weaver.”
True to her word, Allen continued the ancient Pomo art of basket making and traveled around Northern California to demonstrate her techniques. She gathered willow, bulrush, woolly sedge and California redbud found in marshes, streams or at the foothills of the Sierra. She made coiled baskets from tightly wound knots and formed twine baskets and baby baskets.
“Since I felt that the Pomos were one of the greatest basket weavers in the world I resolved in my heart that this wonderful art should not be lost and I would learn it well and teach others,” Allen wrote in her book.
Allen, who was born Elsie Comanche near Santa Rosa in 1899, spent her early years in Cloverdale. Her mother, Annie Burke, used to make her hide in bushes when they saw white people for fear of being kidnapped as their family had witnessed happen to other Native American children, according to Allen’s book.
At age 11, a government agent convinced her mother to send Allen to the Covelo Indian School in Mendocino County, where she wasn’t allowed to speak her Pomo dialect and often cried at night due to homesickness.
At age 13, she went to a different school for Native Americans closer to home and learned English.
She married Arthur Allen, a Northern Pomo, in 1919 and had four children. She spent years working various jobs, including as a laundress, and dedicated her time fully to basket making when she was 62.
Some Pomos who preferred assimilation opposed her basket making and thought the tradition should die, but she felt it was important to honor their heritage.
“Basketweaving needs dedication and interest and increasing skill and knowledge; it needs feeling and love and honor for the great weavers of the past who showed us the way,” Allen wrote.
She spent years teaching classes on Pomo basket making at the Mendocino Art Center and her efforts helped sustain the tradition.
Elsie Allen died in 1990 at the age of 91. Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa is named after her.