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Chitimacha Split Cane Basket maker
In South Louisiana, near Charenton, on a twenty-three acre reservation, live many members of the Chitimacha Indian tribe. John Darden is a member of this ancient culture, and he practices one of the surviving art forms of his ancestors. John knows the importance of preserving and passing on his cultural traditions and art forms. John and his wife, Scarlett, are two of the few remaining Chitimacha who practice split-cane basketry. John learned this craft as a child by listening, watching, and practicing as his grandparents created their traditional basket art.
Using only his teeth, a sharp knife, water, and canes, John makes some of the best and most beautiful split cane baskets in the state. Around the muddy bayous of Charenton, Louisiana, the piya, a bamboo-like cane, still grows thick and tall. Canes with widely spaced joints are more desirable than other types because they have fewer knots and will produce smoother baskets. After gathering the cane, the long, tedious job of splitting and peeling the cane begins. The cane must be kept damp until splitting time.
For splitting, a round stalk is notched at one end with a sharp knife, then twisted in a wringing motion with both hands. Strips of cane are split and split again until each is about one-half inch wide. The next step is to peel off the smooth outside layer of the cane. Peeling is done with the teeth and a sharp knife, as this is the most practical way of removing the cover from the pithy inside layer. These peeled strips are placed outside in the dewy grass for about two weeks to bleach out the natural green color of the cane. After two weeks, the cane is ready for dyeing.
Traditionally the red, black, and yellow dyes were made from plants growing wild in the area, but because of a scarcity of natural dyes, commercial fabric dyes are now used. After the dyed cane strips have dried, another layer is peeled off to produce a flexible, weavable strip. Now the real work begins! Chitimacha baskets are traditionally of a double weave, but a single weave is also done. A large, double, weave basket, which is woven from the bottom up, may take as much as a month to complete. The designs, perhaps their most distinctive feature of a Chitimacha basket, are reminiscent of woven fabric figures. Usually, the design faithfully mimics the living creature it symbolizes: black bird eyes, snakes, hearts, turtles, alligators, and little fish abound. So symbolically important are these designs that the Chitimacha are the only people besides the North Carolina Cherokee to retain the symbol names. The reasons for the exclusive use of red, yellow, and black are, unfortunately, lost in time.
John and Scarlett Darden, along with John's sister, Melissa, are preserving the traditional craft of an ancient culture. Through their participation in and demonstrating at festivals like the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival and the 1995 Louisiana Folklife Festival in Monroe, they are sharing their culture with the rest of the world.
Updated December 1, 2016 by Natchitoches-NSU Louisiana Folklife Center Staff