By: Victoria Marshall
It was a sunny Saturday morning in Philadelphia, MS and long plastic tables line the small plaza outside the Chahta Immi Cultural Center. This sunny Saturday was Taposhshik Nittak, which is Choctaw for Basket Day. Basket Day is a day dedicated to the art of basket making. On Basket Day, basket makers from the surrounding Mississippi Choctaw communities gather at the cultural center to sell their baskets.
I arrived at the cultural center around 10 o’clock to meet the woman who extended the Basket Day invitation to me. I walked around the plaza looking at the long tables covered in handcrafted beaded jewelry. The Choctaw Indians are known for their beautiful beaded medallions, jewelry, and collars. Table after table, beaded earrings, necklaces, and key chains with various college logos were set out in pairs. At the end of the plaza, there was barbecue set up for the event. Beside the barbecue, a pile of green swamp cane, 8 or 9 feet long, lay on the ground awaiting the local basket makers.
The woman who invited me to Basket Day met me inside the cultural center’s gift shop. Shelves are lined with various Choctaw baskets, all assorted sizes. Some have dyed pieces, purple and red, others no colors at all. Books on Choctaw culture and Southeast Archaeology sit on shelves and beaded earrings and bracelets hang on displays beside pieces of Choctaw history and culture.
My contact from the cultural center told me that the basket makers were running late, but there was one basket maker from the Conehatta community. She had a table at the end of the plaza where she would be demonstrating basket weaving a little later.
Next to the cultural center entrance was the table of the basket collectors. These basket collectors have baskets from Mississippi Choctaw, Louisiana Choctaw, and various Chickasaw. As I took pictures of the various baskets, one of the collectors told me that baskets made before the 1880s had natural dyes unlike baskets made today which have man-made dyes which are easier to use.
After snapping a couple pictures of the baskets, I made my way over to where the basket makers were set up. One weaver had a pile of cane strips and a large plastic Folger’s coffee container filled with water. With a small knife in hand, the basket maker cut the cane strip dunked the strip in the bucket of water, and began to weave it into the inside of the small double weave basket. The basket she was making was barely bigger than my fist but the intricacy of the weaving was fascinating. The basket maker was making a double weave basket. The basket is made by weaving the cane strips in a diagonal style to form an inside and outside, which makes the sides and bottom thicker than a single-weave basket. She told me that this style is more difficult and takes more time than a single-weave basket.
The other basket maker took her seat next to the bundle of cane the cultural center got specially for this demonstration. There was probably about 40-50 cane in the bundle, each cane about 8-9 feet in length and as big around as a quarter.
I sat next to the basket maker, mesmerized as she began to split cane. She was using a knife about 7 inches long to strip the cane in half. She expertly made quick work of the bundle. While we split, we talked about where she learned about the basket weaving, what she hoped the basket weaving would do for Choctaw culture, and what was it like to go hunting for cane.
“I could sit here watching you all day,” I said. “You’re really good at that! How did you learn to split cane like that?”
“I learned from my mother,” she said as she dragged the knife through the cane. “I cut myself a lot splitting cane.”
At that moment, she began splitting a cane piece. Her blade split the cane two feet when ants began to spill out of the cane. As she brushed the ants away from her hands and legs, she smiled at me.
“That happens a lot. I’ll just finish this one later.” She calmly set the cane aside and picked up another piece.
I asked her what were other dangers involved in collecting and splitting cane.
“If the canes get big enough, little bigger than these,” she held a new cane piece. “Sometimes there’s snakes inside.”
I couldn’t help the shudder. She smiled at me.
“Snakes?” I asked. “Inside the cane?”
“Yeah, they like to go in there for some reason.” She said. “I try to stay away from snakes.”
She got through splitting about half of the cane bundle then set down the long knife. She reached down into her bag and pulled out a smaller knife, about the size of your average kitchen paring knife. The handle was wooden and the blade had some wear and tear.
“You need to have a very sharp knife for cutting cane,” she told me. “This one isn’t very sharp.” She gestured to the knife in her hand. “You want to make long strips, as long as the cane.”
She pointed to the length of the cane bundle in front of her. I sat there watching as she held the cane against the heel of her palm and slowly pulled the knife towards her. The cane strip came away in a thin sliver.
“Who taught you how to strip the cane and make baskets?” I asked.
“My grandmother taught my mother and my uncles,” she said. “My mother taught me, and I try to teach my children and grandchildren.” The sun was high in the sky. We were both sweating by the time she took a break for lunch.
“Are you making baskets for the Choctaw Fair?” I asked.
“Would you be interested in talking with me about basket weaving after the Fair?” I asked nervously. “So I can interview you for my research?”
“Yes that should be fine,” she said and she gave me her contact information.
I wished her good luck with the Choctaw Fair. She nodded her thanks and then went off to find some lunch.
I walked around the plaza one more time, looking at all the Choctaw art laid out for people to admire. I stopped by the basket collectors’ table and thanked them for the history lesson of Choctaw baskets. I can’t wait to return to Choctaw land for the Fair to glimpse more into this beautiful historical art form that continues to carry a small image of Choctaw history for the future generations.