A young Bessie George (Hawks Pickernell) on the Washington Coast, born in 1900. Image courtesy of Margaret Lorton Payne

Native baskets increasingly came to be seen as works of fine art during the second half of the 20th century. The basketry craze of the 1920s subsided due to the Great Depression, and basketry production declined as fewer Native children  learned traditional skills. Yet, collectors continued to acquire Chinook baskets and a few artists, such as Bessie Pickernell,  grew in renown.

Bessie Pickernell with her popular poinsettia basket design, ca 1964. Photo courtesy of Margaret Lorton Payne

Bessie Pickernell was born March 27, 1900 in Bay Center, Washington. Pickernell was descended from chiefs and headmen who signed the 1851 treaties. Her father was Joseph George, nicknamed “Josie George,” who continued the family business of boat building from his father George Squamaup or Skamock. Pickernell’s mother, Belle Bobb, was the daughter of Bob Silackie. His father was Queanequash, a Clatsop Indian, and his mother was a sister of Tostow, a Clatsop chief who signed the 1851 treaty.

Pickernell learned basket-making from her mother at age five, just prior to attending the Cushman Boarding School in Tacoma, Washington. At sixteen, Pickernell returned to Bay Center, where she began to craft museum-quality baskets from traditional materials. She often gathered materials at Goose Point, a Chinook village site at the end of Bay Center. Her work is distinguished by its geometric designs and meticulous craftsmanship, visible in the  tiny, perfect rows and coils of her baskets. Pickernell’s baskets have become collector’s items, routinely appearing in galleries and auction houses.

A pattern Bessie Pickernell created as part of her basket making process. Image courtesy of Margaret Lorton Payne

Pickernell taught her younger relatives, such as her granddaughter, Margaret Lorton Rhoades Payne, how to gather and prepare materials. Payne remembers her grandmother’s perfectionism even in collecting basket materials. Pickernell chided, “Don’t pick it when it’s past the best time to use it.” Today Payne picks sweet grass with her own granddaughter. She notes that while cattail is pervasive, sweet grass has become increasingly rare and the ancestral right of gathering has been further restricted by modern property laws.

Pickernell’s niece, Millie Lagergren, recalled her aunt always had a basket on her lap and was inspired to take up basketry herself. Lagergren’s baskets are now in the collection of the Smithsonian. She taught basketry to her own granddaughters to continue the cultural tradition shared by Chinook women. Basketry traditions persist, passed from generation to generation, evidence of the continuity of Chinook culture and the significance of women as culture bearers along the Columbia River.

Baskets by Doc Lorton. Photo courtesy of Donna Sinclair

In the twenty-first century, even men participate in the revival of traditional basketry. Bessie Pickernell’s grandson, Doc Lorton has recently taken up the art of basket making, continuing the family legacy.


 

Sources:

  • Schlick, Mary Dodds. Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
  • Dixon, Ruth. “Echoes from the Past: Remembering Bessie Pickernell.” Chinook Tilixam, December 2002.
  • McChesney, Charles E. Rolls of Certain Indian Tribes in Oregon and Washington, Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1969.
  • Margaret Lorton Rhoades Payne, Interview by Donna Sinclair, November 5, 2011, Bay Center, Washington.
  • George and Millie Lagergren, “Wisdom Radio Series, Program 308- Elder Wisdom,” Interview by Brian Bull, Wisdom of the Elders, available online.