Susie Santiago Billy
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.
These two feathered baskets are from two generations of the same family: contemporary artist Susan Billy and her grandmother Susie Santiago Billy. For many Pomo women, baskets have often served as a kind of currency. They were marketable goods that helped sustain families and communities in the late 1800s and into the 1900s when Euro-Americans colonized present-day California. Susan Billy acknowledges that the mini baskets she makes are not utilitarian. She says, “As the baskets got smaller, people asked me what I put in them, and I realized what I put in them is intention.”