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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Maidu Elder Lilly Baker

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

Daisy and Lilly Baker weave baskets in the 1960’s – CSU Chico Special Collections

By Susan Couso

At the beginning of the 20th century, most Native American people lived in a rather transitional world. They were caught between their culture, which was rapidly disappearing, and the ‘modern’ world which had been imposed upon them.

This destruction of a culture can be illustrated simply by the tale of the creation of Lake Almanor.

The beautiful little valley that now holds the water deemed necessary to create hydroelectric power, was once the ancestral home of the Mountain Maidu. It had, since ‘creation’ been their home. But when the area was flooded in 1914, that was all gone.

But many Maidu still clung to the hope of saving their way of life. Lilly Baker, proud to be ‘full-blooded’ Maidu, who died in Greenville in 2006, was one of those.

Lilly Baker was born in Indian Valley at Kusim Hedem Tosikoyo, near Taylorsville, in 1911, but soon after her birth, the family moved to the Janesville area on the western side of the lake.

Her parents were Billy and Daisy Baker, and she had three brothers and a sister. Here the family settled down, and Lilly, who was the first of her family to learn to read, rode horseback to the Lake District School, two miles away.

The shy, quiet Lilly enjoyed life by the side of Honey Lake until, when she was 13 years old, her father was murdered in Susanville. The murder was never solved, and Billy was buried on their land overlooking the lake.

Daisy and Lilly then moved to the shore of Lake Almanor, where they took residence in an old cabin on the Salem property. Lilly started her high school education in Westwood. She worked as a housekeeper and nanny for many families in the Lake Almanor, Westwood and Susanville areas to earn money to pay for her room and board, and for the first time, she experienced ‘modern conveniences’. It was a new world.

She graduated from Westwood High School around 1929.

As a child, Lilly had not been very interested in basket-making. The tradition was, in the Maidu culture, taught by grandmother to mother to daughter, and Lilly’s mother and both of her grandmothers were expert basket-makers. But Lilly’s fledgling attempts did not please her, and without her father’s encouragement, she may not have become one of the best Maidu basket-makers around.

Lilly told of how her first try at basket-making ended in frustration and she threw the basket away. Her father found the discarded basket and returned it to her. He insisted that she finish it.

It was explained to Lilly that she had a responsibility to learn to make baskets. It would be up to her to teach others and carry on the traditions that she herself had been taught.

While Lilly and Daisy lived near the shore of the lake, they spent much of their time gathering, preparing and weaving. They harvested Bear Grass, Pine Root, Willow, Red Bud and Maple at just the correct time. Willow was a predominant fiber in most baskets.

As they worked, Daisy and Lilly patiently demonstrated and explained their methods to visitors. They both learned from each other, and when Daisy passed away in 1964, there was no one but Lilly to carry on. Neither Lilly nor her siblings had children. There were no daughters, granddaughters or nieces. There was no one to teach.

In 1973, Lilly began her mission to enlighten the world.

She had been encouraged by many of those who saw her work, and being proud of her Maidu heritage, she wanted to share its traditions and customs. She moved to preserve the Maidu language, culture, and legends, by visiting schools and organizations to highlight her basket-making.

As she demonstrated her work, she told the stories that had been handed down to her through her own family and she used her audience to teach traditional Maidu beadwork and language.

Her love of animals and nature influenced her designs, but Lilly said that when she started a basket, she had no design in mind. “It just happens,” she said. “It is the Maidu in me coming through my fingers.”

Lilly’s baskets became famous, and she, through them, became famous also. Her work was exquisite.

“Our baskets are usable baskets… not just fancy things that you show around at fancy places like museums.” she said.

The work spoke for itself. Her baskets have been included in museums and shows in California, Minnesota and New Mexico.

Plumas County Museum made a video, “Dancing with the Bears” about her work, and The National Endowment of the Arts presented a grant for Lilly’s basket-making.

Lilly also worked with the U.S. Forest Service on a project to enhance forest health by using traditional Maidu land management techniques, including pruning plants to enhance their growth to be used for basket-making.

“My family was the last to make the baskets – Jenny Meadows, my great-grandmother; Kate McKinney, my grandmother, and Daisy Baker, my mother. Now me,” Baker said in a 1985 interview in the Los Angeles Times. “The other Maidus quit a long time ago. I have been alone at this since my mother died in her 80th year in 1964.”

The NEA grant work included a detailed photographic record of the Maidu basket-making process.

When Lilly died in 2006, she had fulfilled her goal. The tradition had been carried on. And today, Maidu women still preserve their heritage by making baskets, just as Lilly did. In a way, they are all her daughters and granddaughters.

Lilly Baker teaching students about Maidu basket weaving tradition. -Lassen Historical Society

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