Native Village
Youth and Education news

April 1, 2012

Precious Cargo

In a wooded area off Novato Boulevard stands the Marin Museum of the American Indian, now displaying “Precious Cargo,” an exhibit of Native American childbirth and cradle baskets. The popular exhibit opened March 23 and will continue until August.

On opening night visitors walked through the museum sampling foods such as acorn soup, smoked salmon, berried tea and acorn brownies. Various handmade woven cradle baskets hung in display cases, some dating back more than 100 years. The baskets were made by California Native American women. Some incorporated colorful beads, others included umbrella-like tops to shade babies from the sun.

Visitors to “Precious Cargo” learn how the baskets were used, as well as the traditional roles of Native American women in various California tribes including the Coast Miwok, who are native to Novato. The museum sits on Coast Miwok territory and has a permanent display about its people.

The museum is also working with the city of Novato in hopes of building a gallery at the rear of the property. Due to the site’s small size, the “Precious Cargo” exhibit is being offered for sale.

“We’d love to keep it but we have such a small space here,” said Colleen Hicks, executive director for Marin Museum of the American Indian. Hicks’ grandfather was Native American and she has spent the last seven years preserving her ancestors’ culture. “I believe in what we do here. I find honor in it.” Students, residents and visitors have come from as far away as Japan to view ancient artifacts and learn about Native American culture.

The museum changes exhibits twice a year, though Hicks hopes to sell “Precious Cargo” to another museum by August.

Each cradle basket tells a different story and all are done in a variety of styles, depending on which California tribe constructed the basket.

“Different materials were used in different ways,” Hicks said. “If the woman was working she’d hang her basket on a tree or strap it on her back. The cradle was also believed to make the infant’s back stronger.”

A large photo covers the wall of the upstairs exhibit. A Mono Lake Paiute woman stands in a long dress with her infant snug in a cradle basket, strapped to her back in Yosemite Valley in 1901. Another photo shows four young Mono Indian girls in 1924 with tiny cradles strapped to their backs for their dolls.

“It’s just like today. Little girls carrying around their babies,” Hicks said. “And the culture is still going on. Many people don’t know that. They don’t even know that natives still live [in Novato].”

Novato’s Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tribes were federally recognized as The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in 2000.

The Coast Miwok existed for thousands of years throughout Marin County, Hicks said. “Many Coast Miwok still live within their ancestral territories.”

The Coast Miwoks are from the areas of Novato, Marshall, Tomales, San Rafael, Bodega and Petaluma. More than 600 Coast Miwok village sites have been identified in the area.

The Marin Museum of the American Indian opened in 1967 in response to the rapid development of Marin County.

Construction projects unearthed archeological objects related to the land’s original Coast Miwok inhabitants. Originally the museum focused on Coast Miwok history, but today it also displays artifacts like Navajo textiles, Eskimo carvings, Plains beadwork and more.

The museum serves as an education center to over 4,000 elementary school children every year and continues to showcase different displays and artifacts, including donated items.

“I totally welcome the opportunity to do this work,” Hicks said. “It’s so exciting and it’s really important. We’re keeping it alive.”


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