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
“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
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
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
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