ST. MARY PARISH, LA (WVUE) - The cane baskets that are created by Louisiana's Chitimacha tribe are considered some of the finest examples of Native American basket weaving. But the baskets also played a surprising role in helping the tribe preserve some of its ancestral land in St. Mary Parish.
"And you can see it's thriving very well," said basket maker John Paul Darden. "Some of the stuff in here is 30 feet tall."
For 1,000 years or more, river cane has been important to Louisiana's Chitimacha tribe.
"River cane is baskets, baskets as part of our heritage" Darden said. "They've been around as long as we been around."
Darden, the former tribal chairman, weaves traditional Chitimacha baskets.
"Actually, I don't make real large baskets, I make a lot of the smaller ones, and so I cut it down in double joints like that," Darden said.
Finding the right cane stalk is only the beginning of a long process.
"The first thing we do is we split the cane, we halve it," Darden said.
He will spend a day peeling the cane.
"It still has to be dried and then peeled again," Darden said. "And when I can feel the flexibility is right, then I've got it peeled enough. But you can see what I can do this now? A 4-inch basket generally takes 40 by 40 of these. So I actually would need 80 strips of this to start with to make a small basket. So 80 of them gives me the bottom, and it gives me the make-up for the sides."
The art of making the Chitimacha baskets is a skill that goes back centuries - perhaps thousands of years. And it's only known to a few select members of the tribe. Today, Darden is one of only four basket makers. He learned from his grandmother.
"Because that's something that's Chitimacha and that can only be passed to another Chitimacha," Darden said. "My grandmother was adamant about that."
The traditional patterns reflect the tribe's natural surroundings. The blackbird's eye, a bull's eye, worm tracks, a perch basket and an ox heart. A century ago, these finely-woven baskets also helped save the tribal land. The baskets were a favorite of the Mchilhenny sisters, the family that makes Tabasco sauce.
"So they had a relationship buying baskets from the tribe," Darden said.
In a 1902 letter, a basket maker pleads with the Mcilhenny's to help them avoid losing their land at a tax sale. The chief's wife writes, "Because we are Indian, they do what they want with us … We are people, we are not dogs." The Mcilhenny's stepped in and bought the land for the tribe.
"If it wouldn't be for the baskets, we wouldn't have the reservation here today, and it's hard to say what would've happened if we didn't have our land base anymore," Darden said. "Everybody would've had to go different directions."
The Chitimacha used their baskets to help repay the debt. And Darden is confident the tradition will continue with future generations.
"It's something that comes from within, and I don't think it will ever go away," he said.
And creating baskets from river cane gives Darden a direct connection to his ancestors, and something that has been part of Chitimacha culture for centuries.
Since there are so few Chitimacha basket weavers, you won't find many of the hand-crafted baskets for sale. Your best bet is to look for the tribe's display at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.