HerStory October 2019: Elsie Allen

Born in 1899, Elsie Allen spoke only her native Pomo language until the age of 11, when she was ripped from her family and forced by white American authorities to attend a boarding school for Native American children in California. After a few miserable years, she was able to leave the school and rejoin her family. It was then that she reconnected with her mother and grandmother and with the Pomo tradition of basketweaving.

The Pomo are indigenous to what is now California. They are known for their artistry in basketweaving. Baskets were essential to daily life: the Pomo didn’t have access to the clay that would have given rise to a pottery culture like many Native American tribes. Elsie was born into this rich tradition, passed down matrilineally from her mother and grandmother. As 20th century white supremacist America relentlessly encroached upon the lands and lives of the Pomo tribes, there was a very real danger that this tradition, along with the tribe itself, would fade out; even the plants used to create the baskets, considered weeds by the colonizers, were being eradicated. Added to these factors was the fact that when a revered member of the Pomo tribe dies, baskets are buried with them. When a Pomo basketweaver dies, the entirety of her work is buried with her. Thus there were not many examples of the craft for a young Elsie to use as inspiration and instruction. When Elsie’s mother was on her deathbed, she implored Elsie not to bury her life’s work, but instead to use it to further her own art. Elsie respected her mother’s wishes, and the family’s basket collection has been used to showcase the talent and artistry of the Pomo basketweaving culture. 

Throughout her life, Elsie Allen promoted Pomo women’s rights, carrying on a long-standing tradition of her tribe. She fought against racism and prejudice against Native Americans, and used her basketweaving skills to fundraise for organizations providing aid and support to Native American women and to raise awareness about Native American life and culture. She wrote books and taught workshops and worked at ensuring that the art form didn’t fade into the past. She fought for the rights of the First Nations people and was an advocate for Native women. She lived in a time of deep racism against Native Americans, but she chose to lift up her people through celebrating their amazing functional art and advocating for the human rights of her tribespeople.

Our October HerStory colorway, Pomo Basket, is a way for us to honor Elsie Allen’s work. We painted the skeins as if they were Pomo baskets, paying homage to the functional art of the Pomo tribe and to Elsie’s furthering of that art and knowledge.

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