NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The cane baskets created by Louisiana’s Chitimacha tribe are considered some of the finest examples of Native American basket weaving, but they also played a surprising role in helping the tribe preserve some of its ancestral land in St. Mary Parish.
John Paul Darden is the former tribal chairman and still weaves traditional Chitimacha baskets. For a thousand years or more, river cane has been important to the tribe.
“And you can see, it’s thriving very well. Some of the stuff in here is 30 feet tall,” Darden said, referring to a crop of cane. “River cans is baskets, baskets are part of our heritage. They’ve been around as long as we’ve been around.”
Finding the right cane stalk is the beginning of a long process.
“I don’t make real large baskets, I make a lot of the smaller ones, and so I cut it down in double joints,” Darden said, showing of a stalk. “The first thing we do, is we split the cane, we half it.”
Darden will then spend the day peeling the cane.
“It still has to be drained and peeled again. And when I can feel the flexibility is right, then I’ve got it peeled enough,” Darden explained. “But you can see what I can do 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 give 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 the skill from his grandmother.
“Because that’s something that’s Chitimacha and that can only be passed to another Chitimacha. My grandmother was adamant about that,” Darden said.
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 Mcilhenny sisters, the family that makes Tobasco Sauce.
“So they had a relationship buying baskets from the tribe,” Darden said.
In a preserved letter written in 1902, basket maker pleads with the Mcilhennys to help them avoid losing their land at a tax sale. The author was the wife of the tribe’s chief.
“Because we are Indian, they do what they want with us. We are people, we are not dogs,” she wrote.
The Mcilhennys stepped in and bought the land for the tribe.
“If it wasn’t 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. Everybody would have had to go different directions,” Darden said.
The Chitimacha used their baskets to help repay the debt, and Darden said he is confident this 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, Darden said creating baskets from river cane gives his a direct connection to his ancestors, as well as something that has been apart of the Chitimacha culture for centuries.
Since there are so few weavers left, the tribe does not offer baskets for sale. In fact, the tribe is looking to obtain baskets from people who have purchased or otherwise acquired them. For more information, visit their website here: www.chitimacha.gov.
Some individual tribe members do sell their handmade baskets, most often at Louisiana Festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.