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, 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 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 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
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.
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
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!
basket with lid. Dyed with black walnut. Made by Maxine Stick,
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, ca. 1985.
basket with lid. Dyed with bloodroot, dahlonige, and moss. Made
by Molly Wili, Cherokee Nation. ca. 1900