WCU Craft Revival program helps preserve and document history of Cherokee basketry
By Michael Beadle
To behold a Cherokee river cane basket is to look upon centuries of hands. Hands that turned living plants into works of art. Hands that learned to double weave geometrical patterns so tightly these baskets could carry water. Hands that carried baskets from farms and hearths to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee basketry carries an ancient history that dates back some 10,000 years, but despite its enduring cultural prominence, there’s been relatively little academic documentation of this craft as it has been passed down through the ages by oral tradition. However, through a recent grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, researchers and librarians from Western Carolina University are teaming up with staff and directors from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual to preserve this history with a guidebook and a digital archive on a Web site.
The project — “From the Hands of Our Elders” — is a massive undertaking that will include gathering and taking thousands of photographs; collecting information about the basket makers, their patterns and materials; and setting up a Web-based archive. There’s also training in how to archive artifacts and how to document collections for a museum. Those involved with the project are already lauding it as a success as Western Carolina and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continue to strengthen their mutual agreement to promote and honor the region’s indigenous history.
“It’s really an educational process for us,” said Vicki Cruz, manager of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a crafts co-op where Cherokee and other Native American crafts are sold.
Cruz and her staff have been learning how to clean and care for their gallery’s permanent basket collection and to keep records of the baskets from the materials and dyes used to when they were made and who made them.
“People didn’t sign their baskets way back when,” Cruz said.
Now they do. While some of the basket makers’ names have been lost or forgotten, others — thanks to the documentation of this grant project — will be saved for posterity. Names like Rowena Bradley, Eva Wolfe, Lucy N. George, Lottie Stamper, Nancy Bradley, Sallie Wade, and Mary Jane Lossiah. The focus of the project will be on basket makers from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Over the past three years, Anna Fariello, a research associate professor and Craft Revival Project director at Western Carolina, has been working with regional craft schools, archivists and librarians at Hunter Library to launch an impressive digital archive that tells the story of the Craft Revival in Western North Carolina. The Web site — located at http://craftrevival.wcu.edu — offers photos, essays, lesson plans and other resources to help share the history and legacy of the Craft Revival from the 1890s to the 1940s, which helped Appalachia gain national acclaim for its homegrown arts.
Steeped in this research and archiving, which has been funded by $100,000-per-year grants from the North Carolina State Library, Fariello and her colleagues wanted to broaden their scope to include Cherokee crafts. Looking at the Cherokee basket as an emblematic example of Cherokee craft, Fariello sought to dovetail the “Hands of Our Elders” project into the Craft Revival Project. Thanks to a $47,000 grant this year from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Fariello and her Craft Revival team will be able to compile photos and history about Cherokee basketry and link research, photos and history to the Craft Revival Web site.
The grant will also pay for staff training in archiving methods and the publication of a 40- to 60-page in-depth booklet on Cherokee basketry. The guidebook will serve as a reference for tourists and local residents who want to learn more about authentic Cherokee crafts.
“The story [of the Craft Revival] cannot be told without the Cherokee,” Fariello said at a reception last week at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. “This is something the Cherokee community asked for. They wanted something tangible for the community to use.”
Amid last week’s fanfare with the Festival of Native Peoples and the ongoing summer outdoor drama production “Unto These Hills,” this archival and research project between Cherokee and WCU is generating a lot of interest throughout the region as a model for digitally documenting art history.
“I think it’s great that this original research is being done,” said Jenny Moore, associate director of Hand Made in America.
As people come to the region and learn more about the history behind the crafts they buy, a Web site or a guidebook can help enhance their experience.
“It’s great to send them to a resource like this where they can learn more,” said Moore.
Robert Conley, the new Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina, is also intrigued by this research project, particularly at a time when tribes across the country are working to establish their own authentic stories after so much of Native American history has been told through the lens of a Anglo-American slant. As the author of The Cherokee Nation: A History, Conley has done his share of research, but he knows history and cultural preservation also need funding. Many point to the millions of dollars amassed from Harrah’s Casino as a key to helping set up the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which in turn doles out grants to various Cherokee cultural preservation projects on the Qualla Boundary and throughout the region.
These so-called “casino tribes” wield more influence these days, Conley said, and as a result, programs like Cherokee language immersion for young children can have a chance to grow.
In addition to language preservation and translation projects, there’s a river cane initiative aimed at preserving the cultural landscape of Cherokee. The long-running “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama was recently rewritten and re-choreographed to include more Cherokee and Native American actors and dancers. What some are calling the “Cherokee Renaissance” has also been helped by a major, award-winning ad campaign from the Asheville-based Goss Agency. Attendance to Cherokee venues has increased in recent years with an impressive marketing plan of billboards, posters, brochures, commercials and print ads spotlighting the dancing Warriors of Ani Kituhwa.
“From the Hands of Our Elders” adds yet another facet to the rich story of the Cherokee.