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Climate and Environment

How The Climate Crisis Is Threatening An Indigenous Basketry Tradition In SoCal

An older woman with dark hair stands with her young grandchildren outside under a shade structure.
RoseAnn Hamilton, Cahuilla basket weaver, and her grandsons 11-year-old Hunwitt and 6-year-old, Aswit. They hold traditional arrow quivers made out of whipplei yucca.
(Erin Stone
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Monday is Indigenous People’s Day, a day to honor the past, present and future of Native American communities. Among them is the Qawishpa Cahuillangnah, or Cahuilla (pronounced cah-WEE-ah), whose territory spans from the Coachella Valley to the San Jacinto Mountains

RoseAnn Hamilton is a Cahuilla basket weaver who grew up on the tribe’s reservation, near Anza in Riverside County. Since time immemorial, her ancestors gathered plants such as deer grass and sumac to weave baskets, and yucca to make arrow quivers.

A History Of Threats

Colonization by the Spanish, then Mexican, then United States governments nearly wiped out the Cahuilla’s traditional way of life. Now, the climate crisis is yet another threat.

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“You can see a lot of the changes because of the climate change,” Hamilton said. “The plants, they're very sensitive. It fools them.”

Hamilton said the increasingly rapid shifts in weather fueled by the climate crisis–often called “climate whiplash” by scientists–are affecting plant life cycles. Last year, her elderberry trees didn’t bear fruit after a warm front was followed by a sudden frost. And weaving grasses and yucca don’t grow where they used to because of severe drought.

“It's sad to see, you know,” Hamilton said. “You can tell it in the plants, they've been going through a lot to try to keep up with what's happening.”

The Significance Of Basketry

For now, Hamilton continues to pass on the knowledge of her ancestors, teaching Cahuilla basketry to new generations. But the changes she’s seeing in these culturally significant plants weigh on her.

“You see the different changes taking place and how much longer are we going to be able to do this and how are they going to survive? We've been doing this for thousands of years. This is what our Creators taught us. They showed us these plants to take care of and gather…But the more we build, the more we use, the more we do, these places are shrinking and it's hard for us to maintain what we were taught and how to live if we keep doing that.”

She said Native plant gardens are a small remedy, but it’s getting “more and more difficult” to gather in the wild.

For now, she said, she’ll continue despite the obstacles, as her people have always done.

Climate Emergency Questions
Fires. Mudslides. Heat waves. What questions do you need answered as you prepare for the effects of the climate emergency?