The History of Cherokee Baskets
Archeologists have found evidence of early basketmaking among the Cherokees and their ancestors. Although only basket materials found in dry caves survived, other evidence attests to the skills of early Cherokee basket makers. Impressions of baskets on clay surfaces indicate that the early Cherokees knew of a variety of materials and weaves. Accounts from historical journals noted the beauty of Cherokee baskets.
Baskets were made for many purposes, and therefore they came in all sizes and shapes. The Indians used baskets for gathering and storing grain, and historical accounts document them being used to served prepared food. Baskets also were used to catch fish and as part of traditional games.
In the beginning, the foundation color of all baskets was the yellow color of the natural cane. Two colors were used to provide decoration. A black or deep brown color came from boiled black walnut roots. A reddish color was produced from the puccon root. Twilling was the basic basket weaving technique historically, and designs were primarily geometric. The Cherokee baskets were rimmed with a thin oak hoop bound with hickory. The complex double weave basket was also a product of the Cherokees.
Traditionally the men helped gather and prepare the materials for basketmaking, but women were the primary basket makers. This makes sense since women were the principal users of baskets when they gathered, stored, prepared, and served food.
Traditionally the Cherokees use cane, white oak, honeysuckle, and hickory bark for basketmaking. It is speculated that the earliest material used was cane that grows along the banks of streams in the southern part of the United States. Some basket makers gather their materials at any time of the year, but others believe that only certain seasons produce materials good for basketmaking. The basket maker looks for cane that is at least two years old. By this time the cane is stronger and is not quite as green in color. It can be stored at this point, as long as it is not allowed to dry out, or it can immediately be cut into splints.
A knife is used to prepare the cane. The foliage end of the cane is removed and the large part of the stalk is split lengthwise into four pieces. The outer surface, which is shiny, is the part of the plant that is used in basketmaking. This part is removed and trimmed along the edge to provide uniform splints. The underside of the splint is scraped, but the shiny side is left natural.
The use of honeysuckle in Cherokee baskets is a more recent development. Honeysuckle was brought to this country from Japan a century ago. The stems are long and flexible. This plant is used most often in small baskets. The best honeysuckle for weaving grows where it has no chance to climb--plants that climb are very crooked. Vines that are one or two years old are appropriate for weaving. To gather honeysuckle the vines are simply broken off near the roots. The leaves and small branches are then removed and discarded. At this point the vines should be coiled and placed in a pan with water. The water is boiled until the bark begins to separate. The vine is then rubbed to remove the bark. Any knots in the vine can be trimmed off.
The Cherokee make very few plain baskets, therefore a good basket maker usually dyes a portion of her materials. Traditionally the basket maker uses natural or vegetable dyes such as black walnut (brown is made from the root or bark), butternut (black is made from the root or bark), bloodroot (a red brown color is made from the root), and yellowroot (yellow is made from the bark and twigs). Dyes are made by boiling the plants. Depending on the desired color and the materials used, the length of time needed to dye materials varies from a few minutes to an entire day. Cane is one of the harder materials to dye, and honeysuckle is one of the easiest.
Before beginning a basket, the maker must decide the form the basket will take. Traditionally Cherokee baskets are developed around a circle or a rectangle. The basket's use must be considered when deciding on its form. In general, baskets are symmetrical.
The Cherokee basket maker would traditionally begin her basket soon after the materials were prepared. The sap that was still present in the plant made for more flexible materials. In today's world it is not always possible to use the materials shortly after they have been prepared. If this is the case, the basket maker soaks her materials in water until they are flexible enough to use.
Cherokee baskets are woven rather than coiled. Twilling is the technique used most often in cane baskets. Twill work is created by passing each weft over two or more warps. The warp is the foundation of the weave, and the weft is the element that passes through it. Twilling usually produces a diagonal pattern. There are basically four variations on twilling. The bottom of the basket is made with an over-two-under-two weave. The walls of the basket are made with patterns that use over-three-under-three to over-five-under-five techniques. Twilling produces geometric patterns.
Oak baskets are often made using a technique called plaiting, checkerwork, or a mat weave. For this weave the warp and the weft have the same look and thickness. This type of basket is started by placing the splints side by side to make the warp. The wefts are woven one at a time in an under-and-over motion.
The Cherokee double weave basket, which was once almost extinct, uses the most complex technique. To make a double weave basket, the splints are laid diagonally on the bottom and are continued up the side forming a diagonal twill. When the basket maker reaches the top, the splints are bent over the rim and the weaving is continued at an incline. The weave is therefore continued down the outside of the basket and under the bottom.
Honeysuckle baskets often are made using a wickerwork weave. This type of basket uses a wide inflexible warp and a thinner flexible weft. The weaving technique is simple like plaiting, however, only one of the splints remains stationary. Wickerwork baskets result in a ribbed surface.
The weaving technique itself produces beautiful designs in baskets. However, the Cherokees, like many other peoples, use color and varying techniques to further decorate their art form. Most Cherokee baskets have a light background, which is the result of the natural color of the material used. Many basket makers use black, brown, red, and yellow to create geometric designs. Many of the patterns commonly found in Cherokee baskets have been given names such as chief's daughter, big diamond, or broken heart. If these names had symbolic meanings, this information has been lost to the current generation of basket makers.
Like all folk arts, Cherokee basketmaking has changed over time. Although a modern Cherokee basket can easily be linked to earlier ones, changes in environment, uses of baskets, and the individual creativity of basket makers have all produced subtle changes in the art form.
One of the most noticeable changes is the use of new materials to make baskets. Once the Cherokee lands were restricted in the southeast, the basket makers found themselves living at too high an elevation for river cane to flourish. However, the Cherokees have made agreements with their neighbors to use cane growing outside the Cherokee Nation. On the other hand, when the Cherokees were moved west, cane could not be found and new materials had to be adapted to traditional Cherokee basketmaking. Although many Cherokee basket makers continue to gather and prepare their own materials, materials also can be purchased on the retail market.
At one time the Cherokees and their ancestors made baskets for their own use and enjoyment. Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the tradition of Cherokee basketmaking is that the audience for this art form has broadened. Today collectors who are not Cherokees are primary purchasers of Cherokee baskets. This means that Cherokee basket makers no longer make baskets exclusively for their own communities.
As an art form, Cherokee baskets have a long and distinguished history. At one time baskets were made primarily for utilitarian purposes. Today fine Cherokee baskets are considered objects of art. Although they can be appreciated for their aesthetic beauty alone, they are far more meaningful when viewed within their cultural context. Like other folk arts, an understanding of Cherokee basketmaking continues to be passed on from generation to generation.
Traditions 1993 © KSHS
Entry: Cherokee Basketmaking
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: August 2012
Date Modified: March 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.