Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Basketry’ Category

Two Euchee (Yuchi) Baskets in the Collections of the Philbrook Museum of Art

The basketry traditions of the Native South have experienced divergent histories from a common regional tradition of work basketry. Among the North Carolina Cherokee, for instance, the indigenous river cane basketry tradition was augmented with the adoption of an old European white oak splint basketry practice and a more modern vine runner basketry practice using Japanese honeysuckle. The two older traditions are focused on workbasket forms, even as these have increasingly become works of art and heritage appreciated as aesthetically compelling collectables rather than tools of labor. The vine runner basketry made in honeysuckle added graceful forms intended by their makers to be visually appreciated more than used for rough labor. The richness of Cherokee basket making, up to the present, has been facilitated through an arts and crafts market fostered by the location of the Eastern Cherokee community in a key tourism destination at the eastern gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. While workbaskets were, for a time during the early 20th century, presented for sale to outsiders among the Florida Seminole, Florida Seminole basketry shifted in that century to decorative craft baskets made from coiled sweet grass. As in Cherokee, North Carolina, these baskets were crafted with non-Seminole tourist-collectors in mind.

Not all Southern Native communities reside in locales where tourism and tourist craft markets could foster (and reshape) local basketry practice. In many native communities, local baskets were used less and less for work—replaced by commercial containers—and thereby they became less and less common, as did knowledge of their construction and use. In some contemporary Native communities, a commitment to revitalize tribal cultures has more recently led to a renewal of basketry practices, not so much for external consumption but as heritage endeavors celebratory of local traditions. This dynamic is found among the Catawba (ex: “Catawba Indian basket maker revives almost-lost ancient tradition”) and among numerous groups—such as the Chickasaw—who have begun regularly organizing basketry classes (ex: “Chickasaw Nation to host basket weaving class”).

While revivals of the sort that numerous communities are pursuing can be initiated in the near or distant future, there are some communities in which basketry has quietly fallen into obsolescence. As with heritage languages, we might describe basketry in such communities as “sleeping”—especially when extant baskets are present in museums and some ethnographic documentation of basket making or use has been made. As with “sleeping languages,” sleeping basketry traditions are capable of being revitalized, especially when knowledge can be gained from basket makers among neighboring peoples sharing similar practices.

While they are an extraordinarily vital community in many other ways, sleeping describes the present state of basketry among the Euchee (Yuchi) people now residing in Tulsa, Creek, and Okmulgee Counties in (present-day) Oklahoma. (For the remainder of this note, I will just use the “Euchee” spelling.) To my knowledge, eight Euchee baskets are curated in museum collections. Then a Ph.D. student in anthropology, Frank G. Speck collected five Euchee baskets in the Sand Creek tribal town near Bristow, Indian Territory in 1904. These were purchased with funds from the American Museum of Natural History and are preserved in its collections. They can be studied in the AMNH’s online database and were discussed in Speck’s Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians, a book-length study that is now freely accessible via the HathiTrust Digital Library and the Internet Archive (see pages 31-34). [If consulting the AMNH database, see numbers 50 / 5368, 50 / 5369, 50 / 5370, 50 / 5371, and 50 / 5372]

One Euchee basket is cared for by the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. (I hope to report on it later.)

Of interest here are two baskets close to the present-day Euchee community, at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These two baskets (I believe, the only ones in Oklahoma museum collections) are significant in a number of ways that I will narrate here.

They are, to my knowledge, the most recently collected baskets from among the Euchee. Some Euchee families preserve heirloom objects from the past, but I have not been shown or told about old workbaskets in the possession of the Euchee families that I know. There is a chance that these two were among the last in Euchee hands.

They were collected by famed basketry collector Clark Field. One can learn more about Field and his collection in the volume Woven Worlds: Basketry from the Clark Field Collection edited by Lydia L. Wyckoff and published by the Philbrook Musuem of Art. Field collected these two baskets from Johnson Tiger, then living in Kellyville, Oklahoma. [Kellyville is a municipality in the territory of the Yuchi Tribal Town known as Polecat (after nearby Polecat Creek)].

Tiger indicated for Field that the first of the baskets (catalog number 1963.13.2) was made by his grandfather George Fulsom and dated to 1875. George Fulsom was age 57 at the time of the 1910 census and thus he was born around 1853. If the basket was actually crafted in 1875, this would have been when George Fulsom was about 22 years of age. Field paid Tiger $27.50 for the basket in 1962, which would be about $218 in 2016 dollars. (As noted below, it may be that this amount was the price paid for both baskets.)

IMG_5425

Euchee tray or fanner basket of river cane. Collected from Johnson Tiger in 1962 and attributed to his grandfather George Fulsom. Late 19th century. Polecat Tribal Town. Philbrook Musuem of Art #1963.13.2. Used with permission of the Philbrook Museum of Art.

This plaited basket is made of river cane, the primary material out of which baskets were historically made in the Native South, but a plant that was and is increasingly rare generally and that is particularly rare on the western edge of its range in Oklahoma. Like most of the known Euchee baskets, this example was one of two fundamental tools used in processing corn for food. (It could be used, of course, for other activities, including other food processing ones.) With a solid bottom, this kind of basket was used to both catch grain falling through a sifter (sieve) basket and for fanning grain that has been pounded (or ground) so as to separate the grain from the chaff.

As J. Marshall Gettys has noted, this basket is interesting because it is made of rivercane (the region’s old material) but it has a reinforced rim assembled in a style more common in European American basketry styles. In river cane trays or sifters in the South, a braided rim (as found in the second basket, below) would be more common (Gettys 2001:182).

The second basket was likely long used as a pair with the first one. It (catalog number 1963.13.3) is a sifter basket or sieve. Johnson Tiger told Field that Fannie Fulsom, his grandmother and the wife of George Fulsom, made this basket. As with the first basket, he dated it to 1875. According to the 1910 census, Fannie Fulsom was 45 in 1910, indicating that she was born around 1865. If this is correct and if the basket were made in 1875, then she would have been age ten at the time of its manufacture. While it is possible a ten-year-old made it, my intuition is that it was either made at a later (but still probably nineteenth century) date or by a different maker. Like all of the other Euchee baskets in museum collections, this (and the other Philbrook basket) shows extensive wear from practical use. Especially noteworthy is the way that the basket was patched with cloth strips. Because they are woven with evenly sized openings in their bases (bottoms), sifter baskets are more fragile than fully woven trays, such as the other Philbrook basket.

IMG_5454

Euchee sifter basket or sieve in river cane style but made with hardwood splints, probably hickory. Collected from Johnson Tiger in 1962 and attributed to his grandmother Fannie Fulsom. Late 19th century. Polecat Tribal Town. Philbrook Musuem of Art #1963.13.3. Used with permission of the Philbrook Museum of Art.

The Philbrook records do not preserve a purchase price for the second basket. It is possible, but unproven, that the price recorded for the first basket was a price for both baskets.

While this basket has a braided rim in the region’s aboriginal style, it is made not of river cane but of narrow splints of hardwood (probably hickory). My interpretation of this material is that it represents an Indian Territory (/Oklahoma) adaptation in a setting in which river cane was difficult to obtain. To my knowledge, it is only in Oklahoma that we find Southern river cane-based forms produced in materials other than river cane. Elsewhere in the South, newer materials were utilized in altered, adopted, or innovated forms.

Euchee basket making may continue to sleep. If it does, that should not be taken to mean that Euchee people lack appreciation for the baskets, basket making, and the basket-using of their ancestors. Elders I have known, from the 1990s to the present, have often recalled memories of how baskets such as these were used. These stories were never simply for my benefit. They are regularly shared with audiences of younger Euchee people. The tellers of such stories are eager to preserve a memory of past Euchee ways of life. The moral of such stories often center on how hard older Euchee people worked to care for their families and communities and how they possessed and use specialized cultural knowledge to sustain a rich and self-sufficient social life in the face of hardships and limited financial resources. In the late 1990s, I worked with cultural leaders from the Euchee community to organize an exhibition at Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum. For this exhibition, two of the AMNH baskets were lent and displayed. Euchee elders noted how well-worn these baskets were. This prompted not only an appreciation for their industry of their ancestors, but also laughter at the thought that the baskets unnamed Euchee owners turned a nice profit selling end-of-life, totally worn out, baskets to an earnest young scholar from the East. They also appreciated the fact that some Euchee work baskets still existed in the world and would thus be available for future generations to see and appreciate. These thoughts apply, I think, to the two baskets that Johnson Tiger sold to Clark Field in 1962.

Thank you to my friend Christina Burke, Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art for letting me spend time with these two baskets, not once but twice. Thanks also to the Euchee elders who have shared their people’s past and present with me.

Basketmaker Viki Graber on The Weekly Special

Last year, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures presented the exhibition Willow Work: Viki Graber, Basketmaker to great success. Happily we are staying connected with Viki in many ways, including her participation in the Indiana Folk Arts: 200 Years of Tradition and Innovation exhibition and associated Traditional Arts Indiana programs around the state. The public television station here at Indiana University, WTIU has just posted a beautiful video, from their show The Weekly Special, in which Viki Graber talks about and demonstrates her work. Check it out here.

Weekly Special

 

 

Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana [Exhibition, Presentation @ MMWC]

The final exhibition of the three basketry exhibitions that the Mathers Museum of World Cultures (MMWC) is presenting as part of Themester opened this week. Like the first of the three to open (Willow Work: Viki Graber, Basketmaker), this one was also curated by MMWC Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage Jon Kay as an outgrowth of his research on Indiana folklife pursued as the Director of Traditional Arts Indiana. Later in this post, I will share information on a great upcoming event connected with the exhibition, but first a description:

Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana presents the work of the Hovis and Bohall families of Brown County, Indiana, who made distinctive white-oak baskets for their neighbors to carry everyday items and to gather corn. However, by the 1930s, the interest of urban tourists transformed these sturdy workbaskets into desirable souvenirs and art objects. In recent years, these baskets have come to be called “Brown County” and “Bohall” baskets, perhaps because of the great number of baskets made by the Bohall family in Brown county during the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, the history of this craft is more complex these names reveal. Using artifacts and historic photographs, this exhibit explores the shifts in the uses and meanings of these baskets as they changed from obsolete, agricultural implements, into a tourist commodity. Using the lens of work, this exhibition tells the story of these oak-rod baskets and the people who made and used them, and how local makers strived to find a new audience for their old craft, and how ultimately the lure of steady work in the city contributed to the end of this tradition. Sponsored by Fall 2015 Themester @Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet, the exhibit will be on display at the museum through February 7, 2016.

It is great to now see all three basketry exhibitions open and staged in adjacent galleries. (Putting Baskets to Work in Southwestern China is the other one–I curated it with Lijun Zhang, Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities). Together they are one outgrowth of a broader focus at present on basketry research at MMWC. I’ll discuss some other aspects of this work in later posts. (Our Themester series echos the College’s theme. Our work is together grouped as @Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet).

A chance to learn more about the work of the basketmakers explored in Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana is upcoming this Friday at the MMWC. Jon will present a talk titled “The Last Basketmaker: Indiana’s Oak-Rod Baskets and Their Makers” (Friday, September 11; 4 to 5 p.m.). Here is our description of the event:

The Bohall and Hovis families of Brown County made oak-rod baskets for their neighbors to gather produce and carry everyday items. While these workbaskets were essential for subsistence farming, industrialization and changes in agricultural practices threatened the continuation of this craft. and by the 1980s, the weaving of oak-rod baskets had ended in Indiana. In a lecture filled with historic photographs, Jon Kay, Director of Traditional Arts Indiana and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the MMWC, unravels the story of these baskets and explores the global forces that brought this distinctive Indiana tradition to an end. The lecture, sponsored by Fall 2015 Themester @Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet, is free and open to the public.

Friday afternoon will be a great time to see the exhibitions and then hear and see Jon’s talk. I hope that you can make it.

The front of the At Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet postcard.

The front of the At Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet postcard.

Contemporary International Basketmaking by Mary Butcher

I mentioned in my previous post purchasing a number of basketry books in route to catching up on neglected topic of longstanding interest. Among those in my recent haul is Contemporary International Basketmaking by Mary Butcher, with contributions by Laurel Reuter and many artists contributing to the 1999-2000 UK exhibition for which this book was the catalog (London: Mary Holberton Publishers with the Crafts Council, 1999). I have not read it cover-to-cover yet, but I can note here that it is a fine publication–well produced and image/object rich. Along with a long essay on the past and present of international basketmaking and a collection of overviews of basketry techniques, the Artists’ Voices section is particularly compelling. It is useful as a research document because it presents individual artists’ answers to a range of fixed and compelling questions. While asked here of basketmakers active on the contemporary craft/studio craft/critical craft ends of the basketmaking spectrum, these questions (or a parallel set) could similarly be asked of basketmakers working less individualistically within particular vernacular/local/historical basketry “traditions.”

In the latest issue of Museum Anthropology Review, I published a review of Basketry: Making Human Nature. Readers of that review will notice that I gave special attention and praise to the long essay therein on East Anglia basketry written by Mary Butcher. It was wonderful and now I find that she is also the scholar-maker-curator behind the older catalogue being discussed here. It has been a pleasure to learn from, and engage her fine work as a basket scholar.

Mary Butcher’s website is here: http://www.marybutcher.net/
Her blog is here: http://marybutcher.wordpress.com/

Notes on an Eastern Cherokee Gathering Basket

For me, new light was just cast on a basket in the William C. Sturtevant Collection in the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In the mail, I just received a slew of basketry books. This is a topic on which I need to get caught up for a number of interconnected purposes, including for the analysis and publication of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures basketry collections (especially the Eastern Cherokee baskets, which will be the focus of an exhibition that I will co-curate).

Among the used books that I just received is Baskets and Basket Makers in Southern Appalachia by John Rice Irwin (Exton, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1982). In a chapter devoted to “The Indian Influence on Southern Appalachian Mountain Baskets” the author describes a relatively unfamiliar (to me, at this stage, at least) basket form on the basis of an example believed (to the author, at least) to be Cherokee and collected in Buncombe County, NC (p. 157). The basket discussed by Irwin is similarly shaped and similarly sized to a basket that I studied a few summers ago in the Sturtevant collection at NMNH. The splint basket that Sturtevant collected among the Eastern Cherokee is pictured here:

Eastern Cherokee Basket

Eastern Cherokee Basket, NMNH, Temporary Number WCS 322

Eastern Cherokee Gathering Basket

Eastern Cherokee Basket, NMNH, Temporary Number WCS 322

IMG_4760

Eastern Cherokee Basket, NMNH, Temporary Number WCS 322

It shares the same, flat on one side, curved on the other, shape as the basket pictured by Irwin. In a photo on p. 157, Irwin photographed a older boy holding the basket under his right arm, thereby illustrating how the shape of both baskets facilitates the collecting of berries, nuts, etc. with both hands. Prior to getting direct information from a Cherokee consultant who has made or used such a basket, this (that is, Irwin’s) is a much better account of this shape and its use that I had been speculating about.

 

%d bloggers like this: