Written by Danielle Garduño, Class of 1999, Elsie Allen High School Alumni

The Pomo artform of basketmaking is an extraordinary process. Over the centuries, the Pomo people of Sonoma County have perfected their style of basketmaking by cultivating, harvesting, preparing, and weaving plant materials into decorative and functional baskets that have been passed on from generation to generation. To perfect this craft, one must have dedication, hard work, passion, and extensive knowledge. One must gather and curate the right, natural materials like feathers and leaves to ensure that each basket is made from scratch. Every stitch must be intricate and precise, as each basket transmits important artistic knowledge and cultural traditions. Elsie Allen’s story perfectly embodies this rich, complex discipline, as she was an inspirational leader that’s greatly impacted Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

Born Ellie Comanche, Elsie Allen was an esteemed Pomo basket weaver, educator, and activist who fought to preserve her Native American culture. She was born on September 22, 1899 in Cloverdale to farm laborers George and Annie Comanche. As a child, Elsie encountered hardship early. Her father died when she was eight, and by the time she turned ten, she already started working in the fields with her mother. At the age of 11, she was sent away from her home to an all-English boarding school that meant to forcibly “Americanize” her and strip her away of her Native American heritage. Like many Native American children, she recalled the experience as one of the worst times of her life. As soon as a school was created near her home in Hopland, she moved back with her family to continue her formal education and work in the field.

At a young age, Elsie learned the Pomo style of basketmaking. Although Pomo tradition was to bury the intricate, hand-made baskets with the women who made them or their relatives, Elsie’s mother asked her to keep the baskets, pass them down, and use them to educate people about Pomo culture. Elsie followed her mother’s wishes and used the baskets to advocate for Native American civil rights, equal education opportunities, and greater visibility of Native American culture around the world.

After leaving her home in Hopland, Elsie raised a family and continued her community work. She continued to create baskets and taught the artform to her daughters and the community at the Mendocino Art Center. She authored a book titled Pomo Basketmaking: A Supreme Art For The Weave, that allowed anyone in the world to learn and craft Pomo baskets. Elsie was also a part of the Pomo and Hintil Women’s Clubs that fought against segregation and engaged in community outreach. With these organizations, she helped raise money to provide scholarships for the community by selling her baskets. Elsie also served on the Native American Advisory Council, where she helped gather a recorded history of the Makahmo and Mahilakawna Pomo and conserve endangered plant species before the creation of Warm Springs Dam and Lake Sonoma. By the end of her life, Elsie was recognized in the community as a community leader, cultural scholar, and Pomo Sage. She passed away on December 31, 1990, at the age of 91.

Up until the end of her life, Elsie Allen worked tirelessly to advocate for her community and preserve Native American culture across the world. Her decision to not bury her mother’s baskets preserved her heritage and the link to past generations that were at a risk of being lost. Her enthusiasm, diligence, and willingness to share her culture with others epitomizes why she is a distinguished community leader. Because of her contributions, Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa was founded in 1995 where several of her baskets are on display. Elsie’s leadership has left an indelible mark in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, and will continue impacting the community in years to come.

References:

https://www.kqed.org/arts/13882943/the-pomo-woman-who-fought-to-preserve-native-american-heritage

https://library.sonoma.edu/research/guides/regional/notablepeople/allen

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