Little Story of the Makah Papoose

Mary Cornelia Brown Murphy

Copyright 2020 by Mary Cornelia Brown Murphy

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Our first child was born in June,1967. July, 1968 saw us in Washington D.C at the annual Folklife Festival run by our friend, Ralph Rinzler. Ralph had invited us to the festival with the plan we would collect Willard and Ora Watson in North Carolina, as we drove up. Their wood working and quilt making skills were to be represented at the festival that year.

Not long before, Ralph had sent Michael this papoose - a birth present, woven by the First Nation, Makah tribe from north western Washington state. Their finely woven baskets were to be shown and sold at the festival.

Barry, Michael and I stayed at Ralph's over the 3 days. While there, Ralph told us this story: Accompanying the Makah to D.C. was their chief, a very old man. Ralph invited him into the basement of the Smithsonian Institution to have a look at a collection of finely woven baskets, depicting fishing scenes and whaling activities. These were yet to be properly identified or catalogued and Ralph hoped light could be shed on their origins, as the Makah were known to be a seafaring tribe and wove beautiful, similar looking baskets, as well as fashioning boats of cedar..

Without comment, the chief began moving the large collection around on the shelves, arranging them just so. When he stopped and stood back, he began to sob. Finally, he was able to explain that these baskets, lost from the tribe, had been woven many, many years ago and depicted, in chapters, a story passed down, orally, by his ancestors. A story of the tragic loss of several beloved members of Makah in their pursuit of a gigantic whale. The chief had first heard this story, now a legend, as a small child, sitting on his great grandfather's knee.

The baskets were duplicated and returned to the tribe.


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