Harry Mercado would be the first to admit that he has a doll collection. A Native American doll collection that is.
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But his real pride and joy is his collection of Native American baskets from tribes all over the country and, in particular, from California.
An avid collector, his ultimate goal is to own at least one basket from all the important weaving tribes. A basket that represents the tribe’s classic style of weaving or what is called a “fancy basket.”
Mercado has been a serious collector for 15 years. His interest was piqued after researching his family history. Both sides of his family are Gold Rush people who owned thousands of acres in the northern part of the state.
In the process of learning more about his family, he learned more about California’s history and about the different tribes that inhabited California.
He now owns a large collection of dolls and baskets, some of which are currently on display at the main branch of the El Dorado County Library in Placerville. The baskets come from different tribes, including the Algonquin/MicMac, Chumash, Eskimo, Havasupai, Hopi, Hupa, Klamath, Pima, Pomo, and Washo.
All the baskets are made of natural materials such as willow, sedge root, ferns, redbud, hazel, grasses, or devil’s claw. But he also has a few beaded baskets. His doll collection, which is not currently on display at the library, includes dolls made of corn cobs, grasses, roots, and other materials. While the designs are often colorful, the color usually is a product of the natural material rather than dyes.
Mercado, who buys his baskets and dolls at art shows, auctions and off the Internet, said his oldest basket dates from the 1900s. However, most date from the 1930s. He said that in the late 1890s Indian pottery and rugs became popular items for decorating American homes. The interest reawakened basket weaving by Indians because there was now a market for them. More valuable baskets, however, were done on a commission basis by women such as Dat So La Lee (aka Louisa Keyser), Lucy Telles, and Elizabeth Hickox.
Making a basket is a time intensive process because the materials have to be cultivated, harvested, stored and prepared before weaving can even begin. There is a lot of mouth work involved as well because strips of materials have to be moistened and softened first and then torn into strips of various widths so they can used for sewing or weaving. Generally it takes three to seven days to make a small to medium-sized basket. A museum quality basket can take two to three months. Mercado says that basket makers today have trouble duplicating the quality of previous baskets because it’s harder to get the same quality materials.
Of all the tribes making baskets, Mercado said the Pomo Indians are considered to be the finest basket weavers that ever lived. They habitated from the northern coast of California to Clear Lake. The tribe used seven different weaving techniques and constructed ultra fine baskets that were often decorated with shells, beads, and feathers.
After viewing his collection at the library, Mercado recommends seeing the collection owned by the El Dorado County Museum, which he says is the finest in the county. Other notable collections are at the Gatekeepers Museum in Tahoe City, at the Auburn Courthouse, in the California Indian Museum in Sacramento, and at the museum in Yosemite Valley.
The collection is on display through February.