Dayna Bowker Lee and Hiram F. Gregory, eds.: The Work of Tribal Hands: Southeastern Split Cane Basketry.
This volume is the result of the Southeastern Indian Basketry Gathering held at Northwestern State University in May 2002. While the basket makers present at the gathering worked with the range of materials used across the Southeast, it quickly became apparent that "what seemed most ancient, most Indigenous, to Southeastern Indian people was the use of river cane and the weaving of split cane basketry" (v). This fact, along with the general paucity of literature addressing cane basketry, motivated the creation of this collection.
Tim Oakes's contribution, "Native Cane Conservation Guide: Arundinaria gigantea ssp. tecta, Traditionally Known as Swamp Cane," seems somewhat misplaced as the fourteenth and final substantive chapter of the collection. This essay on the ecology of canebrakes and the collaborative efforts of the Mississippi Choctaw and various public agencies to ensure their survival is informative and well written but would have seemed a natural to lead off the collection rather than to close it. The essays commence with a version of "The Chitimacha Origin of Basket Weaving" as told by Chief Benjamin Paul (whether the tale has been translated or was originally recounted in Chitimacha is not indicated). An endnote thanks the Chitimacha Cultural Department for the use of the story; beyond a photo of Chief Paul and his sister dated ca. the 1930s, no further contextualizing information is provided. It is thus difficult to situate the chapter, a difficulty shared by all of the essays in this collection to a greater or lesser degree. Some thematic information is provided in a four-page introduction by Gary White Deer, but the book would be improved by clearer thematic structuring. In the same vein, the biographical information regarding the academics, weavers, culture resource professionals, and arts and crafts retailers contributing to the collection would have been much more helpful had it been presented in a blurb preceding each individual chapter rather than in the final chapter, entitled "Contributors." These formatting issues are the book's only real shortcomings, and they do not negate the valuable information it presents. But they do make that information more difficult to access, and increased accessibility could have been attained with relatively minor effort here.
All of the contributions engage the past to some degree. Marshall Getty's, Sarah Hill's, Dustin Fugue's, and one of Dayna Bowker Lee's chapters deal with an event or tradition that is "in the past." Getty's discusses the transfer of Choctaw basketry technology to Oklahoma and its eventual abandonment, which he attributes to the loss of the traditional foodways associated with the basketry concurrent with the lack of development of a local "art" market in basketry. Hill uses the life history of Cherokee Metis Rachel Davis as a backdrop to discuss Cherokee double-weave cane basketry. Fugua presents the case of seven cane baskets held in the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. He brings evidence to bear on the unknown tribal affiliations of the pieces while also making an implicit request for aid in conserving them. Lee's "Five Caddo Baskets from Indian Territory" uses the Caddo baskets collected by M. R. Harrington to illustrate a now-extinct tradition.
Robert Neumann's "Split Cane Items in Louisiana: A View from Archaeology and Ethnology" has the greatest time depth of any selection, presenting archaeologically recovered data from Mississippian sites. He compares such pieces with data collected by Gene Weltfish during her 1934 fieldwork with the Chitimacha. His essay publishes thirteen of her photos taken during the period.
Tom Poulsen's "Signatures: Rim Forms on Historic Southern Cane Baskets" is a valuable ethnological study and the only essay focusing principally upon form. It is a nice introduction for any researcher interested in the region's basketry. Poulsen briefly mentions cattail basketry among Georgia-based Cherokee (169), a genre that is, as far as I am aware, undocumented in previous literature. Unfortunately, he fails to elaborate on the comment.
Betty Dupree and Debra Thomas give firsthand accounts of their careers in basketry retailing. Dupree gives an outline of the history of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual co-op, which she managed for an extended period, and Thomas discusses her thirty years of experience working to help retail southeastern basketry at the Grand Village of Natchez Indians Historic Landmark in Mississippi. Another firsthand history is presented in transcribed selections from an interview with Chitimacha basket makers John Paul, Scarlett Darden, and Melissa Darden Brown. Scarlett Darden participated in the "Carriers of Culture" portion of last summer's Folk Life Festival, and I was amused to read her reply to a query about the use of natural dyes. It was similar to the answer she gave me when I asked her about the topic last summer in Washington DC; she obviously has fielded the question a number of times.
Three essays treat historical material and follow it through to the present day. Thomas A. Colvin's history of the members of the small Choctaw community of St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, and their basketry traditions is particularly interesting. He was one of only two apprentices to Mathilde Johnson and upon her death became the only weaver working in the St. Tammany Parish style. He currently teaches weaving to Choctaw students. All of this is made particularly intriguing by his Anglo-American ethnic background (information that has to be fished out of the front and back matter). Dayna Bowker Lee's "The Ties That Bind: Cane Basketry Traditions among the Chitimacha and Jena Band of Choctaw" is an impressive essay in which her command of archival materials translates into a detailed account of the engagement of the tribes' basketry traditions with collectors across time. The essay carries on to the present day to discuss the contemporary state of basket making in the two communities. H. F. Pete Gregory's "Asa:la Koasati Cane Basketry" gives a similarly detailed account of the state of basketry from the 1970s to today in the Koasati community residing near Elton, Louisiana.
Formatting issues aside, this is an excellent book. It includes an informative map showing tribal locations across time as well as over 150 photos, many of them in color. The essays are written at a level that appeals to academics and nonacademics alike. Basket makers and collectors are an obvious market, as are academics whose focuses are Native North America and/or material culture. Historians of the Old South will also benefit from the collection. The reading level is appropriate for all levels of college and graduate school. Select essays could be used as readings for courses in a number of disciplines, and the entire volume would be appropriate as part of a course in material culture, Native North America, or ethnohistory.
Matthew T. Bradley, Indiana University
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|Author:||Bradley, Matthew T.|
|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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