Love Letter to Mabel McKay

A round woven basket seen from below. The basket is covered with intricate black and white beads creating a swirl pattern emanating from the center, which is a small circle of white beads.

I had never heard of Mabel McKay before I happened upon a small exhibition of her intricate, holy baskets in, of all places, Los Angeles’s Disney-esque Gene Autry Museum of the American West.

Tucked away in a discrete corner off the whitewashed version of history in the Autry’s permanent collections, I entered a space with jarringly different concerns. Almost three years later, I remember the smell of the room first: the sharp and delicate odors of the dried grasses that served as the raw materials for traditional Pomo weaving.

The baskets on display were handmade marvels of engineering, design, and patience. A wall text told me that most are so tightly and expertly constructed that they can hold water. I thought of what I know of the summers in the region now called Northern California—where the Pomo lived for millennia before enduring mass genocide at the hands of pioneering gold-rushers—and understood that to artfully conserve water in such a place is to live in deep harmony with your ecosystem.

But the baskets I liked best have no obvious purpose. The smallest are the size of a toddler’s fingernail and some, miraculously, even have minuscule beads rippling along their surface. It’s in their tininess that I imagined their maker resisting functionality and experimenting with the limits of her craft.

McKay, born in 1907 and the last speaker of the Long Valley Cache Creek language, was a shaman as well as an artisan, just as concerned with energetic healing as with materiality. Perhaps it is this obscurity that made me feel so hypnotized in front of her creations, as if I could obtain some of her power by concentrating long enough on their perfect navels.