Generational Basketmakers of the Cherokee

by Michael Davis, 2012

The family of Geraldine Walkingstick, Mary W. Thompson and Sarah Thompson.
The family of Geraldine Walkingstick, Mary W. Thompson and Sarah Thompson.

On a steamy summer day last summer, Jo Stealey and I drove to Cherokee, North Carolina to interview Geraldine Walkingstick, her daughter Mary Thompson and Mary’s daughter Sarah.  My first stop was the home place of Geraldine.  In driving we were struck by the awesome grandeur of cloud tipped mountains and a cacophony of water sounds; creeks, rivers, rapids and waterfalls.  The environment envelopes you and one understands the reverence placed on these lands by the Cherokee.   Geraldine lives in a lush canopy of trees in a vacation trailer park/camping cabins site located alongside a rushing river named Ravens Fork which is teeming with trout.  This gorgeous spot in the great Smokey Mountains was left to Geraldine by her husband, John Welch when he passed away in 1968.  Devastated by her husband’s unexpected death she knew that the responsibility for her eight children was now solely in her hands.  During this period in time there were no food stamps, food banks or financial assistance and her situation was becoming increasingly overwhelming with so many children to care for.  Her mother-in-law, Annie Powell Welch, realized the dilemma that Geraldine and the children were in and wanted to assist in putting food on their table.  Although Ms. Welch had no money to offer, she did have the skill of making baskets and was willing to teach Geraldine how to make baskets and once a basket sold, Geraldine would then share the money with Lottie.

It was common place to see Geraldine head for the woods with an axe in hand headed to a stand of white oak trees in which she would select a tree, cut it down and drag it home with the assistance of one of the children.  Once home she would bust it up and find that on many occasions the tree was unable to supply needed splints and had to be used for fire wood. Her search was not complete until she found that perfect white oak tree with no low lying limbs and a tall and straight trunk that would enable her to make good splints to create material for basketry.  Years passed and Geraldine honed her skills and sold thousands of white oak and honeysuckle baskets.  Although she needed the income from the baskets to raise her family it was just as important that she continued her tribe’s basketmaking traditions and her family’s trademark designs.  Every Cherokee basketmaking family has distinctive creative techniques and in studying different families work there are criteria of making which reveal each family’s unique style.

Nine years ago Geraldine and her daughter, Mary Thompson and Mary’s daughter Sarah decided to study double weave river cane basketry under the tutelage of Ramona and Lucille Lossiah.  Today the Cherokee high school students are blessed to have them both as instructors in their high school. They are teaching them how to make river cane baskets which includes the tedious and time consuming process of preparing the cane.  Although there are other generational families of basketmakers the Thompson and Walkingstick family’s learned how to make double weave basketry, which made the family unique as makers.  Just a few years ago the double weave was almost extinct in Cherokee and the Lossiah sisters have played a defining role in passing on this difficult technique.

The next stop in our day was at the home of Mary Thompson and it too is located in a vegetative labyrinth with water gurgling in a creek beside her house.  The home has an oversized deck where the family works and grandchildren play and are an integral part of a visit to the Thompson household.  These children are raised around baskets and basketry material so the familiarity of basketry is stamped into yet another generation of the family.  Mary was the second of eight children and her father died on her twelfth birthday.  Anxious to find work the family moved away from Cherokee to a mill town in 1971.  Mary returned home to Cherokee in 1974 and the family followed in 1976.  Mary joined the U.S. Air Force in 1977, a sister and a brother joined the Army, and another brother joined the Navy and worked on submarines.  Mary lived in California for several years and returned to Cherokee in 1984 and married Clarence David Thompson in 1989.  Dave was a backwoods ranger for the Cheoah Forest Service. Tragically history repeated itself when her husband was killed in a car crash while returning home from work in Robbinsville, North Carolina.  Crushed by this tragedy and with three small children to raise, Mary had her own angst and sorrow but realized that her mother had raised eight children on her own, and knew that she had to do the same.

Mary worked as a construction equipment operator for awhile and was mostly self-employed.  She was elected to four terms in the legislative branch of the Cherokee Tribal Government.  Today Ms. Thompson enjoys time with her grandchildren, gardening which includes wild traditional Cherokee foods, and making baskets.  Mary continues to serve on local and national boards and volunteers within the community.  Mostly, she enjoys her time making baskets with her family, even though they may have to drive six hours to harvest good river cane.  Finding weaving material is a serious concern for the Cherokee as the areas with the cane have diminished.  The white oak trees are dying off and unfortunately there is no diagnosis as to why this is occurring.  Ms. Thompson states, “We have driven to Kentucky, Georgia, and all over western North Carolina – it is always a good trip!”  Mary and her daughter Sarah, her basketmaking sister Betty Maney, and sometimes her brothers, go to get good cane.  They take a lunch and try to harvest enough cane to last a few months.  A truck bed with 200 – 300 stalks will take several weeks to work up, averaging 8 splints per stalk.  Mary states, “we split, quarter, eighth the stalk, strip the outer surface, trim and scrape the splints and then dye the splints, with bloodroot and butternut root.”

Mary notes that weaving the basket is the fun part.  Once the handles, rims and splints are prepared it is time to dye the prepared material.  “I try to get splints from the same dye batch so the colors are consistent.  We trim the splints to the same width.”  She says that when she starts weaving she gets lost in it and loses track of time and almost forgets to eat and unknowingly lets the home fire go out.  She becomes engrossed in watching her design and the shape of the basket, as the river cane slides around.  She constantly packs her splints, trying to keep them good and tight.  Obsessed with finishing a basket she will work late into the night.  When she finally finishes the basket, she is like her mom, admiring it from every angle.  Mary is glad she doesn’t have to sell her baskets immediately like her mother used to do and sometimes holds onto a finished basket for months.  She feels responsible for her baskets and tries to place them in good homes.

Mary is also known for her beautiful river cane mats.  Once used for room dividers and for sleeping on, today many are matted and framed and sold for home décor.  She also dabbles in customized frames which look better than store bought matts and frames.  For extra income Mary creates pottery and sells home canning products.  Mary and her sister Betty are two of the fifteen founding members of the Cherokee Potters Guild, Museum of the Cherokee Indians.  Her farm business, “Recovering Traditional Cherokee Delicacies,” is a family business.  They sell jams and jellies in gift sets (value added farm products), and wild greens which are pressure cooked or dehydrated.

Ms Thompson says, “It was different for mom as she made baskets for a living to feed her family even though they were sold as trinkets to tourist who came across the Blue Ridge Parkway to see Indians.  “You know about marketing – you sell what people want to buy.  Local shops even put up tee-pees, named their shops with titles such as Papoose, and Buck and Squaw.  Today it makes me happy to see our people receiving fair compensation and taking pride in their art, culture and heritage.”

As mentioned earlier, Mary’s daughter Sarah Thompson learned to make river cane baskets when her mom and grandmother learned the double weave with the Lossiah sisters.  She too has created award winning baskets and cherishes the family connection of making baskets together.  She is proud of her mother and particularly her grandmother who continues to create original, innovative designs in white oak and river cane.  As a young mother she has her hands full but still manages to attend college courses, work more than one job, and make stunning basketry.

It is clear that Geraldine and Mary are strong, resilient and creative women who serve as grand role models for Sarah who is following in their footsteps.  This family does not singularly promote themselves but promotes their entire basketmaking family.    NBO was honored to have them share their skill of double weave basketry at our recent conference at Stonehill College.  Also, they donated a double weave basket for the auction which brought in a large sum for the scholarship fund.  I thank them for sharing their skills and knowledge and hope that they will continue to be a part of NBO activities in the future.

In closing, I can hear Geraldine saying ,”When my shoulders hurt I just put a pain patch on ‘em and keep on a working……..I get up with baskets on my mind…..and I go to bed with baskets on my mind”.

Indeed, how fortunate that we have this exceptional basketry to look forward to in the years to come from this talented family ……..

 “ Ni-ga-da   di-gi-lv-wi-sdan-di   tsa-la-gi i-gi   i-gi-wo-ni-hi-sdi-yu “

                                          (“Everyone working together to create Cherokee speakers”)

*Mary – I  would like to say….”Everyone working together to promote Cherokee creativity“

NBO has created a documentary DVD produced by Michael Davis and Jo Stealey, directed by Colin Levaute, titled “ On the Boundary ”.  It is the story of two Generational Cherokee Basketmaking families, The Goings and the Walkingstick-Thompson families.  It is a historical account of their generational basketry.  This DVD will be available for purchase in the near future on the NBO website or by contacting our office.

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