Indigenous anthropologist and new Berkeley professor finds family, hope in basket weaving

November 14, 2023

Headshot of Carolyn Smith; Woman with long, brown straight hair and a purple shirt and long earring, looking and smiling into frame. Blurred background indoors.Carolyn Smith is a new assistant professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley and an enrolled descendant of the Karuk tribe. Her life’s work forever changed years ago after a trip to the Klamath River.

Carolyn Smith knew she had a lot to learn when she arrived on the banks of the Klamath River 15 years ago. That summer, tribal elders taught her the cultural significance of hand-woven baskets and how to gather materials that can be formed into containers and passed from one generation to the next.

She also learned firsthand that it’s OK if one’s first basket looks more like a bird’s nest.

The experience has had a lasting effect on Smith, an enrolled descendant of the Karuk tribe who is a new faculty member this semester in UC Berkeley’s anthropology department. Ever since, Smith has committed much of her life — including her doctoral work — to understanding and explaining the art and significance of Indigenous baskets.

"I never imagined how that trip would change my life," Smith said. "I didn't grow up on the river. I didn't grow up with my culture. I didn't really have a full understanding of the magnitude of how intertwined our basket weaving culture is with our language, with our life, with our histories, with our families, with our food, with our river."

While her job at Berkeley is new, she’s anything but new to the campus. Smith graduated from Berkeley in 2017 with a Ph.D. in anthropology. She’s also been part of the Native community at Berkeley that works on high-profile initiatives — including the campus’s effort to repatriate human remains to tribes. 

Berkeley News