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Learning tradition and patience through basket weaving

OCEANSIDE — Patience is a learned virtue for Diania Caudell. As she recovered from a back surgery in 2001, she learned patience by picking up basket weaving. Now, she practices patience both through her basket weaving and by teaching others, including children, the Native American tradition.

Born in Oceanside and currently living in Escondido, Caudell comes from a long line of basket weavers, including her mother. She credits her surgery in the early 2000s as what brought her back to basket weaving. Today, she is the treasurer on the board treasurer for the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association.

Caudell is one of 20,000 Native Americans who live in San Diego County. She is a member of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians, also known as the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Indians. The band is associated with six other Luiseño and Cupeño bands: La Jolla, Pechanga, Pauma, Pala, Rincon and Soboba.

Caudell specializes in promoting awareness about the San Luis Rey band and other Native American cultures through education. For years she has been visiting area colleges, universities and primary schools to teach Luiseño basket weaving traditions.

Most recently, Caudell visited Innovations Academy, a charter school in San Diego, to teach two third-grade classes.

Luiseño Indians make “open weave” baskets using deergrass, juncus and sumac, all native plants to Southern California. Rather than using those native plants, Caudell instead brought a cane fibre for the students to use. She also taught them the Cherokee style of basket weaving because it doesn’t require using any sharp tools throughout the process like Luiseño basket weaving often does. She even made sure to get permission to use the Cherokee style from the Cherokee Nation.

Roberta Estrada and Diania Caudell teach parent volunteers at Innovations Academy in San Diego a technique to weaving Cherokee-style baskets. The parents later used what they were taught to help their students weave their own baskets. Photo by Samantha Taylor

Caudell also got permission to teach the class in Kumeyaay territory, which is where the academy is located. The Kumeyaay, also spelled Kumiai, are another Native American people from Southern California and Baja California in Mexico.

Kumeyaay and Luiseño basket weaving techniques are exactly alike, Caudell said, explaining that they differentiate in design. The third-graders Caudell taught were wrapping up their session on learning about the Kumeyaay people.

Parent involvement is highly encouraged at Innovations Academy. It was Sally Lutz, mother of third-grader Bethel, who reached out to Caudell about visiting the school.

Lutz and several other parents volunteered to help Caudell with the basketweaving class. Caudell brought the basket bases and showed both the parents and students the proper over-and-under technique to weaving the cane material.

Each student received a base and cane thread soaked in water to make the material pliable enough for weaving.

Caudell instructed the students not to force their baskets to bend; instead, they should let the baskets take the shape they want. Some would naturally bend, while others would take a flatter shape.

“Your hands are going to shape this basket,” Caudell told the students. “Sometimes the basket is going to go up, and sometimes it stays flat.”

Caudell told students that basket weavers often use a “third hand,” which is their mouth.

Caudell also told the kids that their weaving patterns would vary, too. Some kids tightly wove the cane thread through their basket base, while others kept it loose, resembling a spider web.

“It’s all in the hands,” Caudell said.

One of these spider web weavers was young Caden Wood. He thought the basketweaving class was fun, but also hard. Bethel Lutz, Sally Lutz’s daughter who sat at the same table as Wood during the lesson, also enjoyed the class.

“You get to make your own basket,” she said, holding up her unfinished basket. 

Some of the students got the hang of basket weaving right away, while others struggled and a few grew frustrated. Teachers and parents were there to lend a helping hand and remind the young children that they have to be patient — just like Caudell when she first picked up the practice.

“I had to learn patience,” she told the group.

At the end of the lesson, dozens of little baskets were “born” by the hands of third-graders. The baskets’ material, style, where they were made and when they were made all tell their “stories,” Caudell explained.

“This basket was born today,” she said, holding her basket example. “It’s going to have a story.”

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