Basketry crafted from splints of native cane (arundinaria gigantea) is one of the oldest signature artistic traditions among the American Indians of the Southeast. The natural range for this native grass (commonly called river cane, swamp cane, or switch cane) roughly conforms to the southeastern Indian culture area that includes the state of Mississippi. This plentiful and adaptable resource was utilized in a variety of ways, but its most enduring traditional use was for the production of split cane mats and baskets.
Ancient Mississippi artisans—typically women and young girls—cut and gathered cane along waterways and streambeds. Often traveling in groups, the artisans camped near the canebrakes for several days to harvest and process cane before returning to their villages. Cane stands were revisited from year to year, with preference given to those that produced strong, straight cane with long joints. The cane was gathered and scoured in fresh water to remove dirt and leaves. A splitter and a knife made from sharpened cane were used to split the stalks into quarters and to peel away the outer layer to form six to eight strips or splints. These cane splints were rolled into bundles and transported back to the villages, where they were stored until the cold winter months and then soaked in water and woven into baskets.
Some basketry was left unadorned, with the design formed by plaiting, most commonly the herringbone over-five-under-five weave; other basketry was decorated with interwoven splints dyed red or black. Geometric designs reflected the natural world, evoking birds’ eyes, deer toes, and other zoomorphic imagery, but no names for these designs have survived to the present day. Everyday baskets used for gathering and in food processing were rarely dyed, but mats and baskets created for personal or ritual use displayed intricate and beautiful designs. Red dye was produced using puccoon (bloodroot) or sumac berries, while black dye was derived from black walnut or blackjack oak.
Basketry forms and sizes were diverse. Utilitarian baskets included fanners and sifters used to process corn and other grains, heart-shaped baskets for processing salt from briny water, elbow baskets and hampers for storage, and burden baskets for carrying small children or firewood and other bulky resources. Woven mats were used for beds and room dividers as well as to demarcate sacred spaces within mounds and in burials. Double-walled or double-woven lidded baskets were used to inter the disarticulated skeletons of social elites.
Colonial Europeans who settled alongside the Mississippi Indians came to appreciate the beauty and the utility of cane basketry, which became a highly prized commodity in the regional market economy. English naturalist Mark Catesby observed around 1740 that “baskets made by the . . . Choctaughs and Chigasaws, are exceeding neat and strong. . . . These are made of cane in different forms and sizes and beautifully dyed black and red with various figures; many of them are so close wrought that they will hold water.”
Although cane baskets are still made in much the same fashion and form as was the case hundreds of years ago, this once-ubiquitous southeastern tradition is maintained in fewer than ten contemporary southeastern Indian communities. Among the most gifted practitioners, Mississippi Choctaw weavers maintain these ancient practices while accepting some innovation into the artistic complex. Fanners today may be decorated with splints colored with aniline dyes of fuchsia, magenta, turquoise, and teal, reflecting the aesthetics of individual weavers.
Canebrakes have been diminished by agricultural practices and by changes in the cultural landscape. Nevertheless, cane is making a comeback on tribal properties, the result of a cooperative program between the Mississippi Band of Choctaw and the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to transplant stands of cane on tribal properties. In twenty-first-century Mississippi, split-cane basketry remains a viable, living tradition and a symbol of the persistence of the Choctaw people.
- Marshall Gettys, Basketry of Southeastern Indians (1984)
- Tim Oakes, in The Work of Tribal Hands: Southeastern Indian Split Cane Basketry, ed. Dayna Bowker Lee and H. F. Gregory (2006)
- John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (1931)