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A Brief History of Cherokee Baskets by Jenna Tran, New South Associates

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

History and Culture


Baskets are a ubiquitous and universal object common to cultures around the world. Basket technology arose prior to ceramic technology, however, archaeologically speaking, baskets are often neglected as a study because they do not survive in many depositional environments. This is especially true in the Southeast U.S. where the acidic soil rarely preserves intact pieces or remnants of baskets. At best, impressions of basket material may be found on pottery. The same taphonomic processes--what happens to artifacts during deposition--apply to textiles as well. The basket tradition of the Cherokee people, while only one of many, is unique and meaningful.


Basketry, to the Cherokee, is integral to their culture and history. Like other cultural materials, baskets are traditionally made for exchange with friends, neighbors, and strangers for practical reasons like food adhering, processing, serving, and storing, as well as ceremonial or ritual uses. Historically, woven products were everywhere in daily life, including mats for flooring, seating, and wall coverings--basketry and weaving literally surrounded the traditional Cherokee world. In fact, the basket is represented in other traditions and has other aspects of the culture represented in them. For example, in Cherokee lore, the story of the first fire ties the spider to weaving baskets. It’s easy to look at a basket and see the connection with a spider’s web. The start (bottom) of a Cherokee double-walled, round reed basket resembles a spider as well.


Spider Basket

“Water Spider and Spider Basket” by Kathy Van Buskirk

Reed and Dye, 2007

Displayed by Crystal Bridges Museum of american Art, on Loan from the Cherokee Heritage Center <https://crystalbridges.org/blog/a-change-out-of-baskets-in-people-and-places/>


Basket Bottom Showing Resemblance to Spider

The Bottom of a round reed basket that evokes the water spider

Artist and Photograph by Jenna Pirtle


Read the story of the First Fire here: http://www.northerncherokeenation.com/the-first-fire.html


The story of the first fire also symbolizes the social importance of women and reproduction. The female spider makes a basket from materials produced by her own body and uses the basket to carry the fire which gives life to the world. The allegory also served to bind women to the craft of weaving and basketmaking. Among the Cherokee, women are the primary weavers, though Cherokee men began practicing basketry in the late twentieth century as well.


The history of Cherokee basketry is greatly influenced by events that occurred after contact with Europeans through the traumatic removal of the Cherokee and several other tribes from their homeland in the Southeast. From Contact to Removal, Cherokee land dwindled and they were forced to change their traditional lifestyle.



Retrieved from: http://history-sites.com/cherokee/map1.html

Retrieved from: http://history-sites.com/cherokee/map2.html

Retrieved from: http://history-sites.com/cherokee/map3.html


For more on the Cherokee Removal: https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/cherokee-removal



Materials


Anthropologist Sarah H. Hill (1997) observed that baskets in the Cherokee Nation in Eastern North Carolina are “made from materials gathered from local landscapes, they evoke the world in which their makers live and move and work. Over a period of more than 250 years, Cherokee developed” several different “basketry traditions, each based on a different material… The incorporation of new materials has occurred in the context of lived experience, ecological processes, social conditions, economic circumstances, and historical eras. Each basket is both an individual and a collective expression of these complex processes.” In addition, the ecological and social conditions of the Cherokee have been directly impacted by contact with Europeans, which subsequently changed the land available to them. These changes are evident in the craft of basketry. As the boundaries of the Cherokee changed, so too did the materials available to them; as their social conditions changed, so too did the technique of basketry.

“Baskets provide a way to examine Cherokee history because of their antiquity, persistence, and importance among Cherokees. Baskets and changes in traditions of basketry serve as metaphors for historical transformations in subsistence practices, rituals and beliefs, exchange networks, social conditions, and ecological systems.”

When part of the Cherokee were forced on the Trail of Tears, they arrived in Oklahoma to find a very different environment than they were used to. Like other aspects of their traditional lifestyle, this introduced challenges and changes to basketry.


There are six types of materials and two techniques for making Cherokee double-walled baskets. Rivercane and red maple are used in the technique of twilling; honeysuckle, buckbrush, and round reed are made in a wicker fashion. The material of white oak can be incorporated into either. Various basket materials can be correlated with chronological periods as well.


Rivercane is the oldest known material in the Cherokee basetweaving tradition. In oral history, the Cherokee remember using the cane since time immemorial. Rivercane was documented as a basketry material at least from European contact until Removal. Upper regions that naturally contain rivercane correspond to the northern boundaries of the original Cherokee hunting grounds. Rivercane is related to bamboo and looks very similar. The fast-growing, sturdy material was utilized for everything from kindling to wall posts, to hair ornaments and musical instruments. Additionally, the plant could be ground into flour for meal. Historically, the evergreen plants grew astonishingly thick along waterways in the Southeast. Early explorers said:

“great (rivercane) stands lined rivers, banked streams and creeks, and radiated from swamps, bogs, and lakes. They sometimes grew so dense that neither ground nor the horizon beyond them could be seen.”

The stalks along the Mississippi were said to be over seven or eight feet high along the banks, but 20, 30, or 40 feet high in the woods. Although it can be very laborious and demanding, rivercane was never abandoned, but other materials were eventually added to the weaving tradition.


Rivercane Baskets

Removal Era Baskets, Rivercane, Artist/Maker Unknown, Owned by Garrick Bailey, On Display at the Gilcrease Museum, 2017, Photograph by Jenna Pirtle


White oak appeared during Removal when nineteenth-century Cherokees were dependent on what they could resource from the mountainous lands of the reservation in the Appalachia. The materials of their baskets changed with their settlement patterns, subsistence customs, and social systems. In fact, white oak was already used by European Americans in a tradition that included men. Hill says:

“Access to rivercane, and to all that it had meant, became increasingly limited. By the end of the nineteenth century, white oak baskets were as much an index of change as rivercane baskets had been signifiers of continuity.”

White Oak Basket

White Oak Basket, Creator Unknown, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institute


Honeysuckle was introduced with the formal education of the Indian Reform Schools.

“Influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement, craft revivalists intervened in indigenous cultures to redirect the production of handwork in economically depressed areas.”

Hill calls it a “strange combination of genocide and preservation,” when the Native children are taught to make baskets using the Japanese honeysuckle vine–combining a non-native plant and a new technique of weaving that signifier a great change and control over the native culture. Although, in reality, this signified an even bigger change. With the change in material and technique, the baskets went from being ones of utility to ones of decoration. Still, the Cherokee did not give up their rivercane or even the white oak.


Honeysuckle Basket

Honeysuckle and White Oak Basket, Creator Unknown, On Display at the Chief Vann House, 2017, Photograph by Jenna Pirtle


For more on Indian Reform Schools: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/03/traumatic-legacy-indian-boarding-schools/584293/

https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html


The red maple material was introduced during the New Deal Era, which ultimately encouraged American Indians to transform themselves into tourist attractions in order to produce an internal economy. Use of red maple was implemented when a Cherokee woman struggled to find white oak, as that tree was being cleared for the construction of homes and roads and all other manner of wood uses. On her mother-in-law’s land were many young red maple saplings. She admired the straight, clean wood and took some home to make a basket. She was successful and the idea of using this indigenous tree spread to other weavers. Overall,


“the inclusion of new materials from the removal to the present testifies to deep levels of social and ecological change. The retention of old materials suggests the persistence of certain values, customs, and concepts.”

But all of these materials were grown and used in the east! In Oklahoma, the Cherokee encountered a very different landscape from what they were used to in the east. They came to rely on a plant called buck brush, which is a weaving material unique to the Oklahoma Cherokee. Related to the honeysuckle, the long and pliable vines were suitable for the round weaving technique. It is something that grows in the east, but is everywhere in eastern Oklahoma and the Cherokee there took advantage of its prevalence. Thus, buck brush is a solely post-removal material.


Lastly, commercial reed is a category of natural materials processed by machines and sold commercially–nowadays, on the internet. Although white oak and red maple, along with willow, can be purchased commercially, the most common of all round reed is a kind harvested from a type of palm tree in Southeast Asia. This type of reed and its partner, commercially produced dyes, are a common choice for beginner weavers and many modern artists. The younger generation is particularly keen on the easiness of ordering materials online. However, there are still a few artists who go so far as to harvest their own materials and produce baskets that constitute high art. One such artist is Shan Goshorn, whose baskets are not only art, but activism for the awareness of American Indian history.


Contemporary Basket Made with A Copy of the Treat of New Echota Printed on Watercolor Paper, Archival Inks, and Acrylic Paint

Artist Shan Goshorn, 2016/2017

On display at the Gilcrease Museum, 2017


For basket weaving supplies: https://basketweaving.com/

Shan Goshorn’s Website: http://www.shangoshorn.net/


The other half of the basket materials are the dyes. Natural materials used to produce colors in Cherokee baskets include: pokeweed (pale red); oak galls (rich red); anjelica leaves (green); bark and roots of sumac (brown); and yellow root (yellow). Cherokee baskets are typically red, dark brown, and black. The black color comes from the hulls, roots, or bark of butternut or white walnuts; brown from hulls, roots, leaves, or bark of black walnut; and red from roots of the bloodroot plant. Dying with traditional materials is similar to using commercial dyes, except that to set the dye, weavers had to add a mordant. Mordants came from ashes, urine, or alum. Otherwise, it may take a day to set the dye. After dying, one removes the splints or “runners” from the water, rinses, and dries them. Once the materials were dyed and dried, they would last forever, which was fortunate as different materials were available at different times of the year. This allows the weaver to create baskets at their leisure (Heffington 2014).


Black Walnut Dye Processing

Bloodroot



For more information on materials and the modern craft of Cherokee basetweaving in Oklahoma, read Hannah Heffington Shen’s graduate thesis: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1fXuq2qQmTIQtLK01PtjVSZxo5FbXsAl0/view?usp=sharing




References


Heffington, Hannah D., The Recent Revitalization of Cultural Cherokee Art: Basketry. Master's Thesis, The University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2014.


Hill, Sarah H.. Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and Their Basketry. United States: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.



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