Watching a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians make a rivercane basket is an opportunity to step back in history. Owning a rivercane basket is to take home an authentic and unique sliver of that history. Cherokee rivercane basket-making techniques have been passed down for centuries, one generation of tribe members relaying their knowledge of basket making to the next generation. Once readily available for gathering and processing, rivercane was an obvious source of basket material for the Cherokee and other American Indian tribes, perhaps starting as early as 600 AD. Rivercane massed across the Southeast in large canebrakes alongside rivers, including on mountain lands that now make up the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, known as Qualla Boundary.
“If there is one craft object that is emblematic of Cherokee culture, it is the rivercane basket,” one historian remarked.
Today, due to encroaching development, rivercane can be difficult to obtain. This scarcity adds to the value and collectibility of this style of basketry, even as the tribe and preservation groups work to restore this native plant to its rightful home.
Rivercane basket making can be grouped into two categories: single weave and double weave. Using double weave, the artisan essentially builds two baskets in one, providing an extra layer of strength and durability.
Examples of both single-weave and double-weave rivercane baskets are available for viewing and purchase at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. The cooperative is located in the historic district of Cherokee, NC, a gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. Formed in 1946, Qualla Arts and Crafts is the nation’s oldest Native American cooperative.
Making the baskets
Our forbears relied on strong and durable baskets. Historically, they were used in the most practical ways, for gathering and storing harvests and for food preparation and transport. Of the types of material used for basketmaking, rivercane is the most difficult to use for crafters. Artisans must first find and gather the cane, then divide it into quarter-inch-wide, six-foot-long, very sharp strips. Some crafters rely on padded knife handles to protect their hands. Next, artisans peel away the strips’ inner layers, leaving only a strong outer portion of shiny silica. The artisans then dye the silica orange, brown, black or yellow, using bloodroot, walnuts, roots of butternut trees or yellowroot plant. Each of these steps must take place before a single basket is actually woven.
The double weave
Additionally, while crafting any handmade basket is a time-consuming effort, creating double weave (also called double-wall) is particularly labor intensive. In a double weave, an artisan begins at the base of the inside basket and works upward to the rim. At the rim, the cane is bent downward, and the outside is woven, rim to base. The patterns can differ for the inside and outside walls, adding to each basket’s complexity. Collectors covet rivercane baskets, thanks to their enduring association with the Cherokee tribe and, of course, for their great beauty. They are often found in public and private Native American art collections around the world, including Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. View our gallery for a few samples of what we have in stock. Contact Qualla Arts and Crafts if you are looking for a particular size or type of basket, or just have questions. We’re here to help you find your piece of Native American art.