The Miller family, descended from the original Methow tribe, is determined to keep the art of basket weaving alive
Editor’s note: For more than 13,000 years, Native Americans have lived along the waterways of the Pacific Northwest. Columbia River tribes share the names of waterways they call home: the Entiats, the Wenatchiis, the Chelans, the Lakes, the Okanagans and the Methows.
Members of the Miller family are the longest known continuous residents of the Methow Valley. Descended from indigenous Methows, their story is told through generations by the intricacies of their artwork, their native language, their connection to the land and their dedication to building strong communities.
They generously agreed to share their story with the Methow Valley News. In a five-part series, we will share the history of the Methows through the Millers. Following is the second installment.
By Joanna Bastian
Chuck Borg had a special photo in mind when designing the cover of his book First on the Land — an informative look at the history of the Moses-Columbia Indian Reservation in the Lower Methow Valley and the Middle Columbia region of the Columbia River.
At the Okanogan County Historical Society Wilson Research Center, Borg found a photo that perfectly captured his memories and knowledge of the Methow Valley. In the photograph, a Methow Indian woman stands next to her horse. Large woven baskets and a blanket straddle the horse’s back. Borg asked Colville tribal elder Elaine Timentwa Emerson if she could help identify the woman in the picture.
“That’s my Mom,” she said. “That picture represents how Mom’s generation lived and how they packed up to go back to the Methow to camp and gather materials and food at different times of the year.” The woman in the photograph was Julian Monse Timentwa.
Borg contacted his friend Mark Miller, a lifelong resident of the Methow Valley and descendant of the original Methow tribe. Borg was working closely with the Miller family to research the subject matter of his book, the history of the first people in the Methow Valley. Mark laughed out loud when he saw the cover. The picture brought back memories of a humorous story.
The roots return
Both members of the Methow tribe, the families of Elaine Timentwa Emerson and Mark Miller have been close friends for generations. Whenever Mark saw Elaine about town, she would tell him, “I have something for you, but I don’t know what it is.” This exchange went on for eight years, every time they saw each other.
One day, Elaine gave Mark a cedar root basket that she had woven for him. She explained that after her mother Julian had passed away, she found a burlap sack full of cedar roots and decided to weave a basket for Mark from the roots she had found. “For some reason, you are associated with these roots,” she told Mark.
At that moment, Mark revealed to Elaine that when he was 5 years old, his grandfather, Jerome Miller, took him up the Twisp River to collect cedar roots for Julian Monse Timentwa, a family friend and distant relative. They put the roots into a burlap sack and delivered them to Julian. The roots sat in their burlap sack for over 40 years until Elaine found them, and feeling a connection to Mark, wove the decades-old cedar roots into a basket for him — proving that what goes around, eventually comes back around.
Continuing the tradition
The weaving tradition is being carried on in the Miller family. Mark’s sister, Cyndy Miller, is currently learning how to weave from Elaine and Elaine’s sister, Tillie Timentwa. “I’m learning the differences in types of trees, and geographical preferences. Mazama is a preferred area for gathering because the trees are near to the water,” Cyndy said.
Cyndy first learned how to weave from her grandmother, Mattie Grunlose. As a young girl, Cyndy learned the art of weaving with yarn and string.
“The great, great, generation wove all the time, a utilitarian practice needed for storage and food gathering,” Cyndy said. “When I was a child, we did not do this.” She said that the practice of weaving was set aside for a generation as time was taken up with other pursuits: cooking for families, pursuing careers and education.
Soon, though, the grandmothers began teaching the younger generation to carry on the tradition of weaving.
Modern conditions have made that more difficult. The process of gathering traditional materials like cedar root and wild cherry bark is becoming more and more restricted by property owners. Farm and grazing activities damage the traditional areas where materials were once gathered. Between cultural changes that made weaving no longer a necessity, and landscape changes that limit weaving resources, the art and practice of Native American weaving is in danger of becoming a lost art.
Cyndy is active with the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association (NNABA) and the Okanogan Basketweavers Association (OBA), regional and local groups dedicated to educating the younger generation about the history and technique of the craft. Classes for tribal members cover the different materials, weaving techniques, natural dyes and regional patterns.
“Each region has a unique design recognizable by location,” Cyndy said. The goal of the weaving associations is to pass the traditional knowledge and skills from generation to generation.
With efforts of people like Elaine and Tillie Timentwa, Cyndy Miller, the NNABA, and the OBA, the art and tradition of weaving will be preserved for future generations.
To learn more about how the NNABA is working to, “preserve, promote, and perpetuate” the tradition of weaving, visit www.nnaba.net.