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Date posted:  March 18, 2016

A quick survey of the spaces that surround our daily lives reveals the plain fact that we live in a synthetic age. The littered desk at which I write is covered by containers made from materials – Styrofoam, aluminum, plastic, processed paper, and pressboard, whose origins in the natural world are, at best, obscured from view.

Beyond this artificiality that we have come to live with – to ignore without much reflection – is the disposability of the things we make and use. Think of the time and resources that are invested in the creation of the containers used to hold a serving of French fries purchased at the drive-up window of an American restaurant. Years of growth by a tree and countless processing steps – logging, hauling, pulping, pressing, printing, folding, boxing, shipping – all lead up to a few ephemeral moments of use followed quickly by trash can and landfill.

Such a world and its lifestyles would have surprised our own ancestors living as few as four generations ago, and it certainly would have been unthinkable for the majority or the human beings who have ever lived on our planet. Bags and boxes, bowls and baskets made carefully by hand from natural materials collected by the maker have been the normal stuff of human life throughout our species’ history. Made with great effort, such containers have always been cared for and preserved for long lifetimes of use.

Because they are built to last and because so much human energy is poured into them and into the objects they are created to hold, such containers typically possess deep meaning to those who make or use them. Can we say the same for today’s French fry packet?

In our own time, when change, convenience, and speed are our watchwords, things made slowly and with skill, things built to last and linked to the past, evoke feelings of nostalgia and tradition. Look at the old odds and ends that are used by American restaurateurs to give ambiance to their establishments – a  mule-drawn plow, a rusted horseshoe, a curiously painted mailbox, a strap-on roller skating with metal wheels. These things from our own pasts put us at ease and evoke in us a longing for earlier times. They are things that are gone from our everyday lives. If simple roller skates have given way to high tech roller blades, then we should be amazed that things like hand-woven baskets are still made in our own time. While I can survive a world without roller skating, I am reassured that we still live among people who can create and among other things of usefulness and beauty.

The Southeastern Indian basketry collections found at Gilcrease Museum and at other museums provide all of us with an important reminder of the genius of a pre-Tupperware world.  For practicing artists, such collections also provide resources for study – strengthening connections between present and past. For people of Native American heritage, the baskets found in such collections are a source of pride and an expression of identity and cultural tradition. Once common parts of our human existence, such baskets are today vessels containing an array of rich meanings and significances.

Thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, the Native peoples of the Americas had developed a range of technologies that helped them adapt to the staggeringly diverse number of environments and ecosystems in which they lived. Basketry recovered from dry desert caves and preserved copper at sites like that at Spiro, Oklahoma illustrates the fact that baskets very much like those made over the last 500 years have a much older history in this land. Every basketry technique known worldwide is represented in some part of North America. From the enormous diversity of American Indian peoples, speaking thousands of different languages and possessing distinct cultural traditions, inhabiting a great variety of natural settings, flowed a remarkable number of different basketry forms and techniques.

The people who live today, or who lived in the past, in those parts of the Americas that are now the Southern United States possess a rich basketry tradition. Southeastern Indian baskets are remarkable both in technique and in range of function. While such baskets are associated today with tourists and art collectors, they have long served practical purposes not only among Native American societies, but also among Europeans and European Americans who have purchased them not only because of their beauty, but also because of their fundamental usefulness. To take one example, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, were were purchasing baskets from the Cherokee in vast quantities as early as 1715. Such baskets were valuable because Colonial buyers needed them for their everyday work.

The names of some Southeastern Indian Nations, such as Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole, are familiar to non-Native Americans, while others – Alabama, Catawba, Chitimacha, Ofo, Houma – are not widely known. The homelands or present-day locations of some of the Southeastern groups discussed here are shown on the map in this essay. Whether acknowledged by other Americans or not, each of the Southeastern Indian peoples possesses a rich language, history and culture. What they held in common was a way of life suited to the rich forests, mountains, rivers and coastlines of the Southeast.

Before the encroachment of European peoples and the environmental degradation of the modern era, this Southern environment provided abundant materials out of which a complex assortment of objects was made. For at least 2,500 years, the peoples of the Southeast have been farmers whose lives and livelihood derived from the cultivation of corn, beans, squash, melons, and other crops native to the New World. During early contact with Europeans, new crops, such as peaches and apples, which derived from the Old World, were added to this list.  Before and after the arrival of European and African peoples in the Southeast, baskets were an essential tool for the harvesting, storing, and processing of these foods. Baskets served important functions within households, too. Domestic goods were kept in baskets, as were sacred and ritual objects. Baskets continue to be used by traditional Southeastern Indian people for storing plants used in medicine and ceremony.

In the warm and wet climate of the Southeast, the ideal material for basketry was rivercane, which grew aboriginally in all sub-regions of the Southeast, except central and southern Florida.  Rivercane is tough. Like its foreign cousin bamboo, cane is almost indestructible. The stalk’s outer surface is smooth and glossy, virtually waterproof. These characteristics mean that a rivercane basket is strong, long lasting, and resistant to decay, virtues that explain the wide use of cane for basketry not only in the Southeast, but also in the Amazon where Native peoples use the same natural material and weaving techniques (Goggin 1949).

Cane grows naturally in thick stands near undisturbed riverbanks and swampy lowlands. In appearance it is similar to foreign varieties of bamboo that have become naturalized in various regions of the U.S. After harvesting wild rivercane stalks, the basket maker splits the stalks into a number of pliable strips.  These are thinned down to a small splint and sometimes dyed various colors. The weaving technique used in rivercane basketry is a complex variety of plaiting, in which similar elements pass over and under one another, usually at right angles but sometimes, as in intricate double baskets, at more acute angles.

While a great many weaving patterns are found throughout the Southeastern region, two basic variations of the plaiting technique are found in rivercane baskets. The simpler of the two is known in English as single weaving. The more complex is referred to as double weaving.  In single weaving, the basket is given one thickness or layer of woven surface. The shiny surface of the cane typically faces out. The inside of the basket shows the dull, woody surface of the cane plant’s subsurface. In double woven baskets, the basket form is created as in single weaving, but extra long pieces of cane are used. The vessel’s shape is formed, from bottom up, by weaving the cane splints facing inward. After this step is completed, the long splints are folded back down at the rim and another layer of weaving is completed on the outside of the basket. The weaving of this outer layer is completed once the craftsperson reaches the outside bottom of the basket, where the cane is trimmed and tucked into the basket’s body. The resulting double woven baskets have two thicknesses of weaving and most importantly, the shiny, water resistant outer surface of the cane protects and beautifies the basket both inside and out. Discussing the double weave technique with me, Sarah Hill, one of the leading students of Southeastern basketry, commented, “The fact that it is so difficult to describe should tell us something about how difficult it is to do, and how extraordinary its moment of creation must have been” (personal communication, 1999).

Baskets created in the past for purely utilitarian purposes, such as winnowing corn, were typically left undecorated. This is the case with a majority of unknown Creek and Yuchi baskets, including the two Creek examples in the Gilcrease collections and the Yuchi sifter recently loaned to Gilcrease for the Children of the Sun exhibition. Unlike other groups, among whom an arts and crafts market encouraged both the ongoing production of baskets and the use of elaborate decoration, the Creek and Yuchi have always used their baskets primarily as tools for food storage and processing. Corn sifters are the most common Creek basket type in museums,  presumably  because they remained important tools after other containers, for storage and transport, became available to Creek people (Barnes 1984; Douglas 1941). Only a handful of Yuchi baskets are found in museums and little is known about what made the Yuchi tradition distinctive. Among the Choctaw, Cherokee, Coushatta, and Chitimacha, woven baskets, whether crafted in the double weave or the single weave technique, are typically decorated with dyed splints, usually red or black in color  (Gettys 1984; Hill 1997; Hunter 1975; Medford 1989).  In addition to the Creek examples, baskets for corn preparation from the Cherokee and Choctaw are well represented in the Gilcrease collection.

For the utilitarian basket forms that have been made and used by Southeastern Indian peoples from time immemorial, rivercane was the most widely used and valued material, but it was not the only weaving element used. During the 18th century, various Creek communities began relocating into Florida, seeking to escape the conflicts brought on by Anglo-American expansion into their homelands. These Creek became the Seminole. Entering Florida, they moved beyond the southern range of cane and began using the palmetto that grows in their new homeland (Deagan 1981). Other groups, including the Creek in Oklahoma, utilized both hickory and dogwood splints when cane became difficult to obtain in the new lands to which they were forced west (Douglas 1941; Barnes 1984).

While plaited baskets of rivercane represent the oldest living basketry tradition in the Southeast, several additional types of baskets are also made today by Southeastern Indian craftspeople. These newer types represent developments that have taken place over the last 400 years.  Among the oldest of these innovations is the making of baskets from white oak and other woods. Concurrent with the adoption of white oak splints as a basketry material by the Cherokee, Shawnee, and others was the borrowing from European basketry traditions of carved wooden basket handles. The oldest Southeastern basketry forms—trays, sifters, pack baskets, and lidded storage containers—all shared basic qualities tied to the techniques of cane basketry. They had square bottoms and round openings and most significantly they had no handles. They were carried on the back or in the arms. Oak splint baskets are made and used very differently. If the tray is the basic cane basket form, then what we, in our own time, might call an “Easter basket” is the quintessential oak basket form. This type came to Eastern North America with the settlement of Europeans, particularly Scots-Irish and German peoples, and it fit within a different way of life---one in which baskets served different functions (Law and Taylor 1991).

A related change is the addition of “ribbed” basketry to the repertoires of Southeastern Indian Weavers. Whether plaited in white oak or rivercane, the basic technique of one set of splints passing over and under one or more sets of similar splints produces flat surfaces. In ribbed baskets, a set of splints instead passes over and under a set of round rods---creating a corrugated texture (Hill 1997; 129). Although woven of hickory rather than white oak (which is relatively scarce in Oklahoma), a western Cherokee basket collected near Kenwood, Oklahoma, illustrates both the ribbed technique and the adoption of carved wood handles. The community where this basket originates, near Lake Eucha, has long been recognized for its basketry (Foreman 1948:31). While the documentation associated with it is of uncertain quality, perhaps the most valuable basket in the Gilcrease Collection is a miniature ribbed basket identified as Rappahannock. The Rappahannock are one of the small tribes of Virginia who belonged to the Powhatan Confederacy. Few items of Rappahannock craftwork exist in museum collections, making this tiny basket an important token of Virginian Indian basketry. Lacking good collection records, one is left wondering how it even came to the Gilcrease collection.

Created and used differently, baskets made from rivercane or from splints of split hickory, dogwood, or oak wood are, nonetheless, all intended for work. Such baskets are thus in contrast with a third basic type of Southeastern Indian basketry—the coiled basket of honeysuckle, buckbrush, and grass. Other cultural traditions utilize coiled baskets for work. A Southern example is the coiled sea grass basket of the African American communities found on South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Sea Island baskets are connected, as are these people, to the rice farming societies of Sierra Leone in Africa (Rosengarten 1993). Their sturdy coiled baskets filled all of the functions served by Native American baskets of rivercane, including sifting and winnowing corn and rice. In contrast, among Native American basket makers, the same coiled techniques are used to create marketable art baskets for sale to outsiders. In such baskets, the emphasis swings away from durability and functionality. Decoration and delicacy become the weaver’s focus. Plaited baskets did their work in the outdoors, coiled basket serve people who spend time inside. Such baskets are for decorating mantles and holding paper clips.   

Just as Native coiled baskets are the functional opposite of plaited work baskets, honeysuckle is the opposite of rivercane. Rivercane is rare today because of the effects of massive habitat destruction. Whereas rivercane is indigenous to Southern landscapes unaffected by the radical ecological changes of the past 400 years, honeysuckle is an exotic species that has taken root in the depleted and damaged soil of the modern South. It thrives where man has disrupted and degraded the landscape (Hill 1997). In coiled basketry, long vine runners are wound in a spiral upward from the base to the opening. When made of vines such as honeysuckle, the winding element passes over and under a vertical framework, often made of wood splints.

Honeysuckle symbolizes a paradigm shift for Southeastern baskets, but other materials have also come to be used by Southeastern Indians for coiled art baskets. The Florida Seminole, whose economy has been oriented toward tourism for most of the 20th century, make elaborate baskets of coiled sweet grass. Unlike those made of vines, grass baskets begin with the bunching of grass to form long rods. Thread or fibers are used to hold these bunches together and to attach them to one another as they are coiled and stacked one atop another from base to rim. In Florida Seminole coiled baskets, the key decorative element comes from the complex ways that colored thread is used to stitch layers of grass together. Florida Seminole baskets often have lids, sometimes decorated with small dolls that serve as handles (Blackard 1990).  The Coushatta (Koasati) of Louisiana, whose home was once further east in what is today Georgia and Alabama, have also made coiled baskets for generations, but as the appropriate grasses have become scarce, they have adapted the needles of the longleaf pine. Instead of thread, Coushatta basket makers today use commercial raffia to link the wound coils together.  While classic basket shapes and trays are made in this style, the particular innovation of the Coushatta is the creation of basketry animals---alligators, ducks, turkeys and others---that have a particular appeal to buyers (Medford 1989).

While coiled basketry has become the primary method used among the Florida Seminole and the Coushatta, among others, the technique in many places exists side by side with plaiting techniques, as among the Cherokee both in North Carolina and in Oklahoma (Leftwich 1956).  Several examples of Cherokee coiled basketry are found in the Gilcrease collections. A distinctive development among the Oklahoma Cherokee is the use of buckbrush, which is found widely in Eastern Oklahoma. Its vines are prepared and used in much the same manner as honeysuckle, but the much larger diameter of the buckbrush vine is suitable for larger, sturdier baskets. An interesting method used in some Oklahoma Cherokee buckbrush baskets is to coil two layers one inside the other. This method evokes double woven rivercane basketry, although the technique of coiling is very different from the plaiting found in cane weaving.

For the most part, Southeastern Indian peoples today make basketry to sell to non-Native buyers. If taken alone, this fact obscures the cultural reality of basketry production and significance. There were many decades during the 20th century when Native peoples in the Southeast were dependent on the production and sale of crafts such as basketry in order to support themselves and their families as they were excluded from full participation in the national economy and had been stripped of their productive farmlands. This should not surprise anyone sensitive to the fate of Native peoples in the flow of American history. While the creation of such basketry has been an economic undertaking, it is also an important expression of tribal culture. Buyers can admire well-formed baskets, but basket makers and their families can look upon the baskets of their community and see unbroken links in a chain of tradition that stretches back in time. Innovations have emerged in Southeastern Indian basketry, but each tribal basketry tradition is unique, possessing its own characteristics. Most baskets in museum collections are anonymous; that is they lack records identifying their makers. Yet in the circle of weavers found in various communities, basket makers easily recognize individual artistic and technical styles. In the current era, when tribal economic development projects across the South are beginning to generate good jobs for Native and non-Native peoples alike, basket making is less economically lucrative. That basketry is continuing to be studied and practiced by younger people suggests the cultural importance that attaches to its practice.

In contrast to those of other museums located in the region, the Southeastern basket collection of the Gilcrease Museum is remarkably small. Given Thomas Gilcrease’s own Creek Indian heritage, this fact comes as something of a surprise. Several basketry traditions that have been widely collected by other museums, including the elegant cane baskets of the Chitimacha and the whimsical basketry animals of the Coushatta (Koasati), are not represented at all at Gilcrease, which possesses only a pair of Creek baskets. Located in eastern Oklahoma, home now to hundreds of thousands of people of Southeastern Indian heritage, Gilcrease would be a natural place for a more extensive collection of Southeastern basketry, an area that I am eager for the museum to collect in actively.

The good news is that basketry remains an active undertaking among many Southeastern Indian groups. In recent years several outstanding baskets have been added to the Gilcrease collections through purchase and gift. My hope is that the attention given to such baskets here will awaken new interest among the museum’s diverse friends and supporters. With the survival of Southeastern Indian basketry tied directly to the interest of non-Native buyers and collectors, such an increase in attention will have a positive impact on the work of those artists who are committed to preserving their tribal basketry traditions. For new collectors, baskets are a reward unto themselves, but they also provide an exciting introduction to the rich cultures from which they come. If new baskets can continue to be added to the museum’s own collections, the experiences of our visitors will be enriched and the resources we can share with artists, students, and researchers of all backgrounds will be strengthened.

Just as the Gilcrease collections are only a sampling of the diversity and beauty of Southeastern Indian basketry, this survey has also neglected worthwhile topics and traditions. Both the cane basketry of the Chitimacha and the stories of its history are captivating and worthy of discussion and illustration. The same can be said for Houma weaving in palmetto and Spanish moss. Also deserving attention are connections linking the basketry of the Southeastern region with traditions rooted further north. The Gilcrease Museum’s Delaware basket was made and used by Delawares who were citizens of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Such an example should demonstrate that tribal and regional traditions are not isolated one from another. History like a basket weave, is not explained simply.

Study of basketry evokes in me a respect for the weaver’s art. I am envious of those who can look with pride at finished works such as these and recognize the competency of their own hands, eyes, and artistic vision. Beyond artistic appreciation, there is a recognition that baskets contain larger stories—about work and family, about community and culture, about tradition and change, rich narratives linked to the transformation of grass and wood. Even if the specific stories attaching to particular baskets have disappeared, the world that they symbolize can be appreciated in the imagination.

Once baskets, not paper sacks, carried picnics and lunches. A laundry basket really was once a basket—made by its owner or a neighbor. Such baskets were once familiar. Unfamiliar today, they can cause us to pause and reflect on the things—soda cans and shopping carts—that we have become accustomed to. Will such things be appreciated in the future when viewed in the light of the past?



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