The Pomo Woman Who Fought to Preserve Native American Heritage

When Annie Burke died in 1962, she left her daughter with an important but daunting request.

Annie and her daughter Elsie Allen were Pomo—a Native people whose traditions dictated that women's intricately hand-crafted baskets were always buried with them or other relatives. Burke asked her daughter to instead keep her baskets, pass them down, and use them to educate future generations of both Pomo people and the outsiders who looked down on them.

Not only did Elsie Allen fulfill her mother's dying wish, she also built a platform to fight for Native American civil rights, equal education opportunities, and greater visibility in the world.

Elsie Allen was born on Sept. 22, 1899 in Cloverdale, north of Santa Rosa, to farm laborers George and Annie Comanche. Though the first few years of her life were fairly idyllic, Allen encountered hardship early. Her father died when she was eight. By the time she turned 10, she was working in the fields alongside her mother. At the age of 11, she was forced by the government to attend an English-speaking boarding school 80 miles north of her Hopland home, despite having only ever spoken Pomo. She, like many Native children forced into the "Indian Boarding Schools" of the time, struggled there and later counted it as one of the worst times of her life.

Elsie Allen cutting willow at Warm Springs Dam site, Sonoma County, 1980.
Elsie Allen cutting willow at Warm Springs Dam site, Sonoma County, 1980. (Scott M. Patterson)

Once a new school opened in Hopland, Allen was able to return home, learn English and receive a formal education. But she never stopped working, throughout her teens as a farm laborer and, once she was 18, as a domestic servant in San Francisco. She enjoyed neither the tight household restrictions nor the discrimination to which she was subjected, and within a year, went to work as a custodian at St. Joseph's Hospital in San Francisco instead.

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In 1919, Allen met her husband Arthur, and eventually had four children—two girls (Genevieve and Dorothy) and two boys (Leonard and George). She busied herself with raising a family and returned to farm work while she did so. But Allen always found time for activism on behalf of her people.

She was a member of both the Pomo and Hintil Women's Clubs—organizations that fought segregation and performed charitable outreach. This included providing scholarships for deserving members of the community, for which Allen raised money through the making and selling of baskets.

By the time her mother asked her to begin saving the baskets of her family, it wasn't hard for Allen to get on board with the idea. Despite members of her community pleading with her to stick with tradition, she had long been frustrated by her labors of love ending up in the ground.

"In the first few years of my married life," Allen said later, "I made a basket that was buried with my grandmother. My next basket was buried with my great uncle. A third basket was passed all around to relatives… [and was finally] buried with my brother-in-law. I didn't have a good feeling about making baskets after that."

Pomo baskets, whether they be decorative or functional, are extraordinary feats of engineering. Some can take years to construct. First, the materials—willow, redbud bark, various roots, sedges, feathers—must be gathered. (No easy task when many of these plants were labeled as weeds and subsequently destroyed when white settlers arrived.) Then those materials must be cured and prepped. Finally there's the weaving—so intricate and precise, it can easily be mistaken for machine work.

Intricate items from the Elsie Allen Pomo Basket Collection. The collection "reflects a multigenerational family effort—mother to daughter to granddaughter" and contains work by 26 Pomo weavers, including 30 pieces by Elsie Allen and her immediate family.
Intricate items from the Elsie Allen Pomo Basket Collection. The collection "reflects a multigenerational family effort—mother to daughter to granddaughter" and contains work by 26 Pomo weavers, including 30 pieces by Elsie Allen and her immediate family. (Courtesy of the Jesse Peter Multicultural Museum, Santa Rosa Junior College.)

Seeking to educate outsiders about Pomo traditions, Allen's mother, Annie, had displayed baskets at fairs around Northern California. After Annie's death, Allen went further and began teaching the craft at the Mendocino Art Center, to whomever wanted to learn—whether they were Pomo or not. Simultaneously, at home, she passed her skills onto her daughters and grand-niece, Susan Billy, who has since curated collections all over the country. Then, in 1972, Allen immortalized all of her techniques into a book—Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art For The Weaverso that anyone in the world might learn these skills.

As Allen made a name for herself, she never wasted her platform. From 1979 to 1981, she worked on the Native American Advisory Council, which helped gather a recorded history of the Makahmo and Mahilakawna Pomo. In addition, the council organized the relocation and preservation of endangered plants before the Warm Springs Dam commenced construction and Lake Sonoma was created. By the end of her life, Allen had been recognized in her community as a female chief, a cultural scholar and a Pomo Sage.

Elsie Allen died on Dec. 31, 1990, at the age of 91. Up to the end, she worked tirelessly for both the betterment of her own community and for the standing of Native peoples across America. In the process, she successfully preserved traditions that were, before her, in great danger of being lost.

It doesn't feel like an accident, then, that her lessons about basket weaving sometimes feel more like lessons on living well. "Basket weaving needs dedication and interest and increasing skill and knowledge," she once said. "It needs feeling and love and honor for the great weavers of the past who showed us the way. If you can rouse in yourself this interest, feeling and dedication, you also can create matchless beauty."

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here

Special thanks to the Jesse Peter Multicultural Museum, Santa Rosa Junior College, for images of Elsie Allen, as well as pieces from the Elsie Allen Pomo Basket Collection.