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Wednesday, 30 January 2008 00:00

Preserving tradition Non-profit grows plants for Cherokee artisans

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Not too long ago, the number of people who carried on the ancient Cherokee basket-weaving tradition had dwindled to just a handful. Today, the craft is experiencing a resurgence — thanks in part to local organizations helping to restore native plants vital to making the baskets.

 

The resurgence in the craft started several years ago when members of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual began offering basket-weaving workshops to tribal members. As a result, the number of basket-weavers utilizing traditional methods grew to more than three dozen, according to Ethan Clapsaddle, senior program associate with the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“Before a few years ago when we started having classes, there were only a few active basket weavers. We’re kind of helping to bring the craft back,” explained Qualla Arts and Crafts General Manager Vicki Ledford.

The increase in the number of people practicing the craft led to a shortage of the materials used in the process — namely rivercane, one of only three bamboo species native to North America.

Once abundant, the rivercane population had dwindled due to a number of factors, one of those being development. Though the plant itself is not endangered, the large stands or groves the plant grows in, called canebrakes, were almost nonexistent — making the large quantities needed in the basket-making process hard to come by, said Dennis Desmond, land stewardship coordinator with Franklin-based Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

The LTLT offered up their properties south of Franklin along the Little Tennessee River to try and grow canebrakes. With the help of a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the project was a success.

Today, the LTLT has added two more native materials to the project — the white oak and butternut.

 

White oak

White oak was traditionally used as frequently as rivercane in the basket-weaving process, Clapsaddle said. Thin strips of bark are scraped off from the tree and smoothed down with a sharp knife to get the consistency of sandpaper.

“It’s just a real sturdy wood — fairly easy to work with, but still sturdy enough to be able to carry loads in,” Clapsaddle said.

But with the decline of the white oak population after the 1940s due to logging, the tree was difficult to find.

“At one time, people could go out on their property and get the white oak or go to a gathering place. They used to grow everywhere,” Ledford said.

That’s not the case anymore. Cherokee were being forced to search for the tree off the reservation and pay for the use of its bark.

So two years ago, the LTLT began planting white oak for the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual to harvest. The organization is up to 500 trees, with almost 200 more planted on Jan. 21 of this year.

Knowing how selective the tribe’s artists are with their materials, the LTLT is making sure the white oaks they plant are accommodating the needs of the basket-weavers.

“You could have a whole forest of white oak trees, but they wouldn’t necessarily be quality basket-making white oak,” said Clapsaddle.

White oaks traditionally grew in thickets, and would naturally grow tall and straight in order to reach the sunlight at the top of the canopy.

“White oak is interesting. The Cherokee really don’t want a large tree — only one about 4 to 8 inches in diameter. That’s the best size for harvesting splits for the white oak basket. We’re planting these trees very close so they’ll grow nice and straight and tall,” Desmond said.

 

Butternut

A second plant the LTLT is working to bring back is the butternut. The tree, in the same family as the black walnut, is sometimes called the white walnut, Desmond said. Its roots and berries are used as a dye in the basket-making process, the color of which ranges from bright yellow to black.

“(The basket-weavers) love the butternut, but it’s hard to find because there aren’t any butternut trees around anymore,” Ledford said. “There was a blight.”

Indeed, the butternut population has been in decline since a fungus began attacking it nearly 50 years ago, Desmond said. The fungus, called a canker disease, gets into the bark along the stem of seedlings. Groups are currently conducting research to identify trees most resistant to the fungus. In the meantime, the LTLT collects seeds from the few trees in the area that seem to have withstood the blight.

So far, the success of the seedlings has been average. Five-hundred seeds were planted, but only 280 survived. Half have been given directly to the tribe, so last year, 140 went into the ground that the LTLT manages.

Survival of seedlings that were planted has been good.

“With the butternut, we’ve had very good success with seedling survival and growth once we planted them in the ground,” Desmond said.

 

An economic benefit

Besides carrying on an ancient tradition, the resurgence of basket-weaving is playing an important part in helping the economy of the Cherokee tribe.

At one time, rivercane and white oak baskets were used for functional purposes in day-to-day life.

“Traditionally, baskets weren’t for economic purposes. They were for everyday living — to carry your fish and flour, to store beans and corn. They’ve been making rivercane baskets for thousands of years,” explains Clapsaddle.

Basket-weaving really became an art form when it experienced a bit of a resurgence during the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said Clapsaddle. At that time, Maggie Valley started booming and since Cherokee was in the middle of the two locations, it seized on the opportunity to become more of a draw for tourists. They wanted to take back traditional souvenirs, and Cherokee baskets became a popular item.

Since then, baskets “have been a staple of the Cherokee economy,” Clapsaddle said.

Today, Cherokee baskets are coveted and fetch large sums of money.

“Average rivercane double-weaves, according to size and maker, right now they’re about $3,000,” said Ledford. “People are seeing how important the Cherokee baskets are, so the top collectors are on e-Bay looking for these baskets.”

Part of the reason the baskets are so costly is the considerable amount of time it takes to make them. As Ledford explains, the process would start by a person going out in search of the perfect rivercane and white oak — the most mature and straightest ones of a certain size.

“You’re covering the whole patch to get a bundle of 100 sticks,” of rivercane, says Ledford.

After materials are selected, the basket-maker goes to work cutting and splitting the bark or rivercane. This can take hours. So long, Ledford says, that “when you’re working with white oak, your fingers go numb because of the constant pressure.”

Then, the crafter must go out and get dyes from butternut or other plants. Preparing the dye is another lengthy process.

It would take two weeks of nonstop work to make one basket, said Ledford. Often, it’s a much longer process than that if the person has other activities to concentrate on.

“It’s like one of your children,” by the end of the process, Ledford says.

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