Types of Basketry.
Perhaps no branch of the Cherokee textile art was of greater importance to the aborigines than basketry. This term may be made to cover all woven articles of a portable kind which have sufficient rigidity to retain definite or stable form without distention by contents or by other extraneous form of support. It will readily be seen that in shape, texture, use, size, etc., a very wide range of products is here to be considered. Basketry includes a number of groups of utensils distinguished from one another by the use to which they are devoted. There are baskets proper, hampers, cradles, shields, quivers, sieves, etc. There is frequent historical mention of the use of basketry, but the descriptions of form and construction are meager. An excellent idea of the ancient art can be gained from the art of the present time, and there is every reason to believe that close correspondence exists throughout.
Lawson refers to basket-making and other textile arts of the Carolina, Cherokee Indians in the following language:
The cherokee Indian women's work is to cook the victuals for the whole family, and to make mats, baskets, girdles, of possum hair, and such like. * * * The mats the Indian women make are of rushes, and about five feet high, and two fathom long, and sewed double, that is, two together; whereby they become very commodious to lay under our beds, or to sleep on in the summer season in the day time, and for our slaves in the night.
There are other mats made of flags, which the Tuskeruro Indians make, and sell to the inhabitants.
The baskets our neighboring Indians make are all made of a very fine sort of bullrushes, and sometimes of silk grass, which they work with figures of beasts, birds, fishes, &c.
A great way up in the country, both baskets and mats are made of the split reeds, which are only the outward shining part of the cane. Of these I have seen mats, baskets, and dressing boxes, very artificially done.
James Adair, although, a comparatively recent writer, gives such definite and valuable information regarding the handiwork of the Southern Indians that the following extracts may well be made. Speaking of the Cherokees, he remarks:
They make the handsomest clothes baskets, I ever saw, considering their materials. They divide large swamp canes, into long, thin, narrow splinters, which they dye of several colours, and manage the workmanship so well, that both the inside and outside are covered with a beautiful variety of pleasing figures; and, though for the space of two inches below the upper edge of each basket, it is worked into one, through the other parts they are worked asunder, as if they were two joined a-top by some strong cement. A large nest consists of eight or ten baskets, contained within each other. Their dimensions are different, but they usually make the outside basket about a foot deep, a foot and an half broad, and almost a yard long.
This statement could in most respects be made with equal truth and propriety of the Cherokee work of the present time; and their pre-Columbian art must have been even more pleasing, as the following paragraph suggests:
The Indians, by reason of our supplying them so cheap with every sort of goods, have forgotten the chief part of their ancient mechanical skill, so as not to be well able now, at least for some years, to live independent of us. Formerly, those baskets which the Cherokee made, were so highly esteemed even in South Carolina, the politest of our colonies, for domestic usefulness, beauty, and skilful variety, that a large nest of them cost upwards of a moidore.
That there was much uniformity in the processes and range of products and uses throughout the country is apparent from statements made by numerous writers. Speaking of the Louisiana Indians, Du Pratz says:
The women likewise make a kind of hampers to carry corn, flesh, fish, or any other thing which they want to transport from one place to another; they are round, deeper than broad, and of all sizes. * * * They make baskets with long lids that roll doubly over them, and in these they place their earrings and pendants, their bracelets, garters, their ribbands for their hair, and their vermillion for painting themselves, if they have any, but when they have no vermillion they boil ochre, and paint themselves with that.