EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Hometown Tourists visited the California State Indian Museum on their most recent excursion. The following blog includes two accounts by Janet Lewis and Carol Dabrowiak, and photos by Cynthia Gibbs, detailing their visit to this Sacramento attraction. When you stay at a participating Sacramento Gold Card hotel, remember to ask for your FREE Sacramento Gold Card. The California State Indian Museum offers one free adult or child admission with the purchase of a regular-priced adult or child admission with your Sacramento Gold Card.
Interior photography is prohibited in the museum out of respect to the Native Americans and their objects. Above interior photo courtesy California State Indian Museum.
For all the years I lived in Sacramento, I never knew there was an Indian Museum. I guess that's because it sits in the shadow of Sutter's Fort. Literally in the shadow behind the fort. It's a little-known Sacramento attraction filled with information about our history that honors the culture of the native people of California.
The first thing we saw when Janet, Cindy and I started our tour of the museum was an array of woven baskets from different tribes. When you see the baskets next to each other, you notice the differences in the weaves, fibers and colors used by each tribe. They are all unique. The function determines the shape - open and shallow for cooking or tall and urn-like for water.
You then notice the different implements that were used for hunting and farming. The museum uses a clever game to encourage visitors to learn the names and purposes of the implements. A paper with pictures of the tools asks you to name the tool by finding it in the museum exhibits and learning its use. Is it a fish trap or water vessel? A spear or clapper? Then you write the name next to the picture. You win a prize if you get them all correct!
There are pictures and exhibits depicting how Indians celebrate different events. They have special costumes with elaborate beading and feathers. They use animal hides. The headgear is ornamental and colorful. They have musical instruments to keep a rhythm and encourage dancing. They celebrate weddings, harvests and hunting. And of course they respect and revere their elders and celebrate them.
The food supply was dependent on hunting and fishing, but they also used acorns to supplement their diet. They ground the acorns with stones to make flour, which was then used in soup or bread or sometimes a simple mush. Berries, edible plants and roots were also used when they were in season. Almost nothing was wasted. Before they cooked rabbits, they removed and tanned the hides and used them as soft diapers for the infants.
I read that this Sacramento museum opened in 1940. It is located near several downtown Sacramento hotels and other tourist attractions. It does not look or feel dated. It honors a past generation with modern exhibits that appeal to the current generation. It is a Sacramento tourist attraction that is part of California's history, and I'm glad I finally found it and got to explore it.
Cindy, Carol and I visited the California State Indian Museum on a Thursday morning and had the place practically to ourselves, so we were able to take our time.
The core of the experience for me encompassed the language and trading maps and the basket displays by tribal groups. It was very interesting to note the similarities and differences in basketry form and design between regions. Baskets and other items were traded from hand to hand, ending up sometimes far away from where they were made. For example, shells from the ocean or lowland rivers moved from west to east; obsidian from the mountains might find its way to tribes in regions far from where it originated. This began long before paved highways or even horse-drawn wagons.
Baskets were (and for some still are) used by California’s native people in everyday life for ceremonies and celebrations, for gift giving, and for sale in the tourist trade. Woven basketry is to California’s native tribes what clay pots are to the New Mexico tribes. Baskets were traditionally traded or imported, depending on the tribe or region. Native women and men made plant fiber baskets in different styles, of different materials, for different purposes. According to the museum cards, the art and skill of basketmaking has not disappeared. You can even get a small basketmaking kit in the gift shop.
My very favorite is the No. 9 basket jug, Paiute, for holding liquid; a twined ovoid shape with a closed end and a handle. This basket was covered in pine pitch to keep it watertight. I’d heard of this type of basket but had never seen one in real life before. If there were one item from the museum that I could choose to hold in my hands, that would be the one!
Perhaps our collective favorite feature of the Museum was the “scavenger hunt” game, a bookmark-sized paper that illustrated 10 items to find and identify. The museum staff told us that kids get a prize for filling it out completely. Just like three big kids, Carol, Cindy and I had a lot of fun with this activity as we found out and discussed what the items were, how they were made, and how the native people used them. This added a very nice focus and depth to our museum visit.
Tools that the native people made and used were very intriguing to try and figure out. We saw a wooden drill for making holes in shell beads and a photo of how the beads are finished (once strung, they are rolled on stone to smooth the outsides). There is a different type of drill for making fire -- the “portable hearth” that features a softwood shaft spun on a hardwood base. We also saw a deerhide drum that looks like a suitcase and marveled at elk antler purses made to hold dentalium shell money.
Another intriguing item of particular note is the rabbit skin blanket in a case on the back wall. Strips of tanned rabbit skin with the fur still on were woven and twisted through a plant fiber net. The result was a big square blanket that is soft on both sides. Carol remarked, “It was your cloak during the day and your bed at night.”
The Museum isn’t just about artifacts, though. It’s about the native people who made and used these items. There is an exhibit about Ishi and honored elders. There are also photos of native people and native families through different eras.
The native people made great use of plants such as the amazing and indispensable soaproot, which provides, among varying uses, food, fiber, soap and fish poison. A soaproot brush is on display, with the handle made from the plant’s resin and the brush from its fibers.
Speaking of plants, the native people's food wasn’t just all acorn mush! Pounded deer meat broth, parched seedcakes, manzanita berry cider, steamed sweet clover, roasted quail ... I could tell it was getting close to lunchtime ... Good thing we were so close to some great downtown Sacramento dining.