Cherokee Basketry has endured from prehistoric times to the present day. The women do the basket making. The principal materials used by the Cherokee are cane, white oak, hickory bark and honeysuckle. Originally the only two materials used for dyes were black walnut and blood root. Butternut has been added for black, yellow root for yellow and broom sedge for orange.
Before the invention of plastics, and affordable glass and ceramic storage containers, baskets were the main source of storage for Cherokee households. They were also used for strainers, and men carried their hunting and fishing needs in baskets. Almost everywhere you look in historic photographs, baskets were a necessity in Cherokee homes.
There are several varieties of Cherokee baskets. The most popular style seen today is the ‘double-wall’ variety, which is woven from buckbrush, honeysuckle or commercially-manufactured reed. Natural plant dyes are used to color the baskets, including bloodroot, walnut, poke and many others. Some crafters have experiemented with commercial dyes, but the natural dyes remain the most desirable. However, because of construction, lack of knowledge in gathering, and various other reasons, these natural dye substances are becoming harder and harder to find in the wild. Efforts are being put forth to begin cultivating some of these plants.
A basket maker uses no patterns, models, or drawings. Her patterns are in her soul, in her memory and imagination. They come from the mountains, streams and forests, and the traditions of her tribe. All Cherokee baskets are of woven type. The function of the basket was the first consideration for its shape. The baskets are used as sifters, packs, to carry fish and for storage.
The dyes used were from roots, barks, leaves, nuts, flowers, fruits, stems, seeds or sometimes a complete plant. The dye used depended on what was available. For example: bloodroot is used for a yellowish color; black walnut is used for a brownish color; elderberries are used for a rose color; butternut is a black color. It depends upon the parts of the material used. For example: If you use the bark of the twigs of the bloodroot, it will give you a yellow color, but if you use the root of the bloodroot, it will give you a redbrown color. The darkness of color you get depends upon the length of time you keep the basket reed in the stained water.
Other style of baskets include flat-weave storage containers, and the popular ‘Cherokee Purse,’ carried by Miss Cherokee. Substances used for flat reed include split oak as well as river cane.
Modern Cherokee women continue to craft baskets, although today they have to developed into very colorful and ornate pieces of art.