Cherokee Basket

Cherokee basketry began thousands of years ago as a means for storing goods and food stuffs and were also used as strainers, creels for fishing, or for storing small game.

It has evolved into a complex and highly stylized art form, requiring only a few days to learn but a lifetime to master. The Cherokee Heritage Center offers visitors the opportunity to observe and participate in traditional basket making.

Basket making was traditionally done by women. The baskets were made from all natural materials, readily available in the hardwood forests of the ancestral homeland. Cane, white oak, hickory bark, and honeysuckle were the main materials.

Originally the only two materials used for dye were black walnut and blood root. Later butternut was added for black, yellow root for yellow, and broom sedge for orange as basketry transitioned from an item necessary for daily living to a popular art form.

The Cherokee basket is represented by several types. The most popular style today is the “double-wall” basket, woven from buckbrush, honeysuckle, or commercially-manufactured reed. Natural plant dyes are used to color the baskets, including bloodroot, walnut, poke and many others. Basketmakers have experiemented with commercial dyes, but the natural dyes remain the most desirable. They provide the most natural and authentic look, and they involve knowledge of the original forest plants–elements that make the Cherokee basket much more than an art object, and tie it to the culture as well.

Natural dye substances are getting harder and harder to find in the wild. Loss of habitat, the specialized knowledge about where and when to gather the plants, and the lack of knowledge about how to properly use these natural materials has made them increasingly difficult for artists to use–particularly when the artist may live in a large urban area, or in an ecoregion that does not naturally grow the required plants.

Natural dyes come from roots, barks, leaves, nuts, flowers, fruits, stems, seeds, or sometimes a complete plant. As with all other things made by the Cherokees, the choice of material depended on the desired function and the available material at hand. Since the materials available to a Cherokee woman five hundred years ago were fewer in number than a person today, the Indian basktmaker needed detailed and highly specific knowledge about the plants and other living things around her.

Understanding the unique properties of each plant, how those properties interacted with other dyes, and how they interacted with the materials used to make the basket formed a body of knowledge passed down from mother to daughter, and created an incredible knowledge about local plants and of course the ecosystem that sustained those plants.

Some examples of dyes and colors: bloodroot is used for a yellowish color, black walnut is used for a brownish color, elderberries are used for a rose color, and butternut is a black color. Different parts of the same plant also yield different colors. The bark of the twigs of the bloodroot produces yellow, but the root itself produces reddish brown . The darkness depends upon the length of time the basket reed is submersed in the stained water.

The way a basket pattern is made is in some ways the most interesting facet of Cherokee basketry. The basketmaker uses no patterns, models, or drawings. She relies instead on a creative process that combine feelings in her soul, in her memory, and imagination. The pattern of the Cherokee basket comes from the mountains, streams, and forests, and the traditions of the tribe. All Cherokee baskets are of the woven type. Form, of course, follows function, and the initial function of the basket–as a storage vessel–was the first consideration for its shape.

Modern Cherokee women continue to craft baskets, although today they have to developed into very colorful and ornate pieces of art.

For more information about the Ancient Village and related programs, please contact:
Phone 918 456-6007 or 888-999-6007