Elsie Allen, Pomo
Listen to Susan Billy on her family and their works
In February of 1974, I knocked on Elsie’s door, on my aunt’s door, and I said, “You don’t know me, but you’re my great-aunt, and I’m Susan Billy, my father is Ignatius Billy.” And she was kind of shocked but she invited me in. So that began my career with Elise, and I ended up apprenticing to her for 16 years.
In February of 1974, I was 23 years old and she was 74 years old. She had started weaving as a young girl but she had stopped when she got married and had children and was raising her family. She only began to weave again when she turned 60. She kind of said she was in a hurry because she felt she had a lot of work to do now, she had to catch up. So when I showed up, she was so excited and she said, “I want you to learn all the different techniques that I can teach you.”
So she started with the simple single-rod coiling, then she taught me three-rod coiling, and we went through the different kinds of weaving that our tribe has. When we got through many of them, she said “I want you to try to make a feather basket now,” and I said “Did your mother make feather baskets?” And she said no, and I asked her how she learned to make feather baskets and she said, “Your grandmother, Susie Billy, she taught me how to make feather baskets. So really I have to pass that on to you, because that comes from your grandmother.” So I did make a feather basket, and that’s the one that’s in this show, that’s my first feather basket. And when I finished it – it took me three months – when I finished it, I had an auntie and uncle that lived next door, and I remember going over and going “look!” And my uncle looks at it and he goes, “How did you get your grandma’s basket?” I said, “It’s not my grandma’s basket, that’s my first feather basket.” He goes, “You know what, that’s in your blood. You keep it up.”
So as Elsie and I progressed through her teaching me the weaving, towards the end she said she wanted me to make a little beaded basket, but I felt that was more modern, and I told her that. I said, “But that’s kind of newer, and I’m more interested in keeping the older traditions alive.” And she kind of laughed at me and said “Susie, we’ve been making beaded baskets since the turn of the century, it’s not that new” (Susan laughs). And now it’s considered a traditional technique, but I just resisted, and not too long after that, she passed away. Years later, I had won the auction of Elsie’s little beaded basket, it’s navy blue and white beads. It’s about the size of a dime. I knew this was a message from the other side, and that it was time for me to make a beaded basket.
Mia does not yet have a Native-language translation of this text.
One of these miniature baskets was made by contemporary artist Susan Billy, and the other was made by her great-aunt Elsie Allen, who taught Billy to make baskets. Billy resisted learning the beaded-basket technique because she wanted to focus on more traditional forms. The beading technique has been used by Pomo basket makers since the early 1900s, but other methods have existed for hundreds to thousands of years. After Allen passed away, Billy was able to find and purchase this tiny beaded basket made by her great-aunt. Once it arrived home, Billy created the first beaded basket she ever made (the one here). Billy says, “These two baskets are our continued bond.”