Baskets

 

Before there was pottery among the Cherokee people there were baskets. The first baskets were crude, loose containers made from flat mat-like weavings that were turned up on the edges to create sides. Eventually however, basket making developed into an art all its own, with its own techniques and designs, some of which were borrowed from the mat weaving.

For over a thousand years Cherokee women have been making strong, amazingly complex structures from the natural materials they have been able to find growing in the forests of the

Southeastern US. There are four main natural materials that baskets are made from. These are river cane, oak, buck brush (Western Cherokees) and honeysuckle vine.

Jennie Sapp and Jennie Buckskin
making buck brush baskets
Bull Hollow, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, ca. 1970

River Cane

River cane, or ih-ya, was the most common material used for basket making by the Cherokees living in the Great Smokey Mountains before the Trail of Tears in 1838. Today among the Eastern Cherokees (descendents of those that escaped removal) it is getting more difficult to find river cane baskets or people who know how to make them. And, because of the lack of river cane in Oklahoma, the Cherokees removed to Oklahoma learned to use other materials, like split oak, which mimicked the patterns of river cane.

River cane is a hard material, like bamboo, that leaves your hands after weaving with it, cut and blistered. But, it makes the most durable and beautiful vessels that take the dye deeply and richly and have a glossy appearance.

River cane baskets were often times double woven. What this means is that the inside was woven independently of the outside yet woven at the same time. Because of this, often times double woven baskets will have a different design on the inside than on the outside. If you'll look closely at the basket to the right you'll see that the inside pattern of the basket is in a diamond shape, while the outside pattern is long rectangles. I can't even begin to imagine how hard this is or how long it takes to create.

Oak

Oak baskets were very common when I was growing up in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Although more rare today, they can still be found. The patterns and techniques used for creating split oak baskets mimic those of river cane.

Tiny ribbons of oak wood, one-fourth of an inch wide, are dyed with bloodroot, walnut, moss and onion among other things and woven into intricate patterns. By examining the oak basket to the right, you can see that the same herringbone pattern used in creating river cane designs was used to create the design of this basket. The result is not a round or oval basket, but one with a square base and gently sloping sides that open to round mouth. However, unlike river cane baskets, oak baskets (like this one) are usually single woven with one wall and not double woven with an inner wall separate from the outer wall.

The material used for making these baskets comes from the tall oak trees. Oak trees are plentiful in both the Eastern and Oklahoma Cherokee Nations. But, not just any oak tree will do for basket making. It must be straight with a straight grain and it must not have been struck by lightening. Trees struck by lightening are medicine trees and aren't suitable for making baskets.

When a small oak tree is felled, slowly and painstakingly pieces of the tree are split and split again until long, one-quarter inch strips lay curled on the ground. These are then boiled and dyed. After dying, they can be coiled up and hung up to dry until ready to use, or they can be used right away in baskets.

White oak basket dyed with yellow root and bloodroot. Made by Eunice O'field, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. ca. 1980

 

Honeysuckle

Honeysuckle is the newest material to be used by the Cherokees for basket making. The honeysuckle vines grow all over the Southeastern US. The techniques used to make baskets out of honeysuckle are the same ones used to make baskets out of buck brush. It's clear that the basket makers found the new material honeysuckle and adapted its use to older, familiar materials.

Honeysuckle vines are typically quite small in diameter. For this reason they are usually used to make smaller baskets. However, the baskets to the right are even small by honeysuckle standards.

The miniature baskets (left and right) in the picture were made by my grandmother and given to me as a Christmas gift in 1997. Each of the baskets is about the size of a dime in diameter. They are complete in every way to larger baskets from their double-walled construction to a carrying handle. It is a testament to the dexterity of her 86-year-old hands. I have a hard time threading a needle! I made the larger basket in the picture when I was only a small boy. It is about 2 inches in diameter, double-walled and of buck brush construction.

 

Honeysuckle baskets (left and right) with buck brush basket in the center. Not dyed. Honeysuckle baskets made by Effie Jones, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. 1997. Center basket made by Ken Masters, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. ca. 1974.

Buck Brush

Just as the Eastern Cherokee weavers excel at river cane basket making, the Western Cherokees excel at buck brush basket making. There are names associated with great buck brush baskets like Maxine Stick, Jennie Buckskin and Jennie Sapp. All of these women were good friends of my grandmother. I used to sit and be amazed at the baskets they could create, strong and tight. Ms. Stick was known for her uniform designs and tight construction that often included matching lids. Ms. Sapp was particularly talented. She would bend the buck brush tendrils back and forth, over and under, creating baskets in the shape of ducks, bears, birds and once I even saw an eagle she'd made. All of these women are gone now but we can still see the beauty of their art, thanks to their skill at creating baskets with strength built into their designs.

Buck brush baskets are made from runners sent out from the buck brush plant. This plant grows in open areas like small fields and at the edges of timberland. The runners are gathered in the late fall or early spring. They are boiled, peeled of their bark and dyed. These are then kept pliable in water while being woven into double-walled baskets. When the runners dry, they harden and remain locked together in the over and under pattern of their construction.

To me, a hallmark example of the strength, creativity and beauty of Cherokee buck brush baskets can be found in the example on the right. This basket was made almost 100 years ago by Molly Wili and given to my great-grandmother who gave it to my grandmother, who gave it to me. Though slightly faded, the colors of red, green and yellow, produced from bloodroot, dahlonige and moss, can clearly be seen after 100 years. Its structure is sturdy and tight, not brittle, frayed or loose. It is ingenious in its design. It is double-walled, like most buck brush baskets, but the small basket on the interior (3 inch diameter) and the large basket (15 inch diameter) are all one construction. Ms. Wili began by building the small basket's inner wall, curving the runners over and constructing the outer wall. Then, without interruption, built the bottom and inner wall of the large basket, folded over the runners and constructed the outer wall of the large basket. Then, she created a perfectly fitting lid! Amazing!

Buck brush basket with lid. Dyed with black walnut. Made by Maxine Stick, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, ca. 1985.

Buck brush basket with lid. Dyed with bloodroot, dahlonige, and moss. Made by Molly Wili, Cherokee Nation. ca. 1900