Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Special Edition by this year’s Craft Archive Fellowship cohort, organized in collaboration with the Center for Craft in support of new work by emerging and established researchers in the field, with a focus on underrepresented and non-dominant histories.
ᏕᏣᏓᏟᏴᏎᏍᏗ — struggle to hold onto or cling to one another — is a Cherokee value initially shared by Cherokee elder Benny Smith. As a framework for understanding Cherokee craft pedagogies, ᏕᏣᏓᏟᏴᏎᏍᏗ is part of a system of knowing that emphasizes care and kinship in everything we do. Weaving is a material articulation of this system — a basket bears heavier burdens when its individual fibers are intertwined tightly together. In the wake of the Indian Removal Act, three federally recognized Cherokee tribes formed into today’s Cherokee Nation (CN), Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB). Each tribe is linked. Stories, ancestors, craft traditions, and ways of being illustrate our shared willingness to learn, adapt, and encourage one another in the face of failed colonial efforts to undermine Cherokee self-determination; in other words, a shared willingness to struggle together.
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Cherokee craft pedagogical models, which help pass on our cultural heritage, should be understood historically as entangled with the battle for sovereignty. Teaching traditional craft has always been, and will always be, a political act, central to the work of holding onto one another. Cherokee artists never stopped practicing craft traditions, like basketry, twining, finger weaving, and loom weaving. But violent assimilationist policies postcolonial contact have harmed Cherokee people, at times limiting artists’ ability to learn traditional modes of making. ᏕᏣᏓᏟᏴᏎᏍᏗ recognizes that holding onto each other is sometimes a struggle; clinging can be both an embrace and a grasp on something slipping from reach.
Before colonization efforts, almost all Cherokee women would have learned to weave by observing older generations. For some artists, weaving continues to be enmeshed in social and domestic life, something that a prospective weaver might pick up from a relative or friend. Influential basket maker Emma Taylor (EBCI) described learning as a child by saying that “my mother, she didn’t really teach me how to make the basket; I learned how to make a basket just by seeing.” The artist Pat Welch (EBCI) told me that she grew up watching her own mother make baskets, but only became interested in learning after she married. Welch’s mother-in-law, Agnes Welch (EBCI), made materials available with which she could practice, encouraging Pat to learn through observation and experimentation. Agnes Welch learned from Lottie Queen Stamper (EBCI), a celebrated artist who taught basket-making in Cherokee boarding schools for decades. Stamper learned from her own mother, Mary Queen (EBCI), at the age of 15; in a 1976 interview, Stamper also credited her mother-in-law, Sally Anne Crowe Stamper (EBCI), as one of her teachers. This interwoven lineage of makers illustrates how observation and the act of gathering together uphold weaving traditions, as Taylor said, “just by seeing.”
In the absence of a teacher, weavers also teach themselves by seeing. Karen Berry (CN) learned an 18th-century Cherokee oblique finger-weaving style in part by studying historic weavings. She and other finger weavers have been credited with “reviving” this style in the Cherokee Nation over the past few decades. Of the process of researching items held in institutional archives, Berry, whose mother, beadworker Martha Berry (CN), learned her craft through a similar process, told me, “You hear this word ‘revival’ — my mother basically singlehandedly revived beadwork in the Cherokee Nation … at the time, people were saying Cherokees didn’t traditionally do beadwork. It took her doing a lot of research at the Smithsonian and other places to get people to understand that, yes, we did do beadwork and here’s what it looks like. … I had the same opportunity to see all of the finger weaving that the British Museum has in their archives. They do have a ton of our stuff … but it was really neat to look at because I got to see those old pieces up close, and I could see that they were oblique style, the same style I’m doing.” She added, “It was kind of overwhelming, but you can totally see the difference [that makes the weaving style distinctly Cherokee], and it does turn artists into researchers.”
Crafts like baskets and woven belts are teachers in their own right; they are inscribed with their maker’s knowledge, kin, care, and patience. When we see them, they reveal the continuity of our traditions through time and space. The artist Candessa Tehee (CN) framed these encounters as “a connection with generations past, with ancestors we never met.” Tehee, whose grandfather, Rogers McLemore, was a celebrated loom weaver, began teaching herself to finger weave so that she could pass on a woven belt to her daughters. Of an opportunity to view older weavings at the Chickasaw Cultural Center, she said: “I think art is a connection, a connection to and between people, between us here and now … and a connection to the past as well. [At the cultural center], they weren’t quite sure of the time frame [of the works on display], but they were really beautiful examples of finger weaving … [these artists] had beads in the finger weaving that made straight lines, like 90-degree angles. I had seen pictures of this piece, but seeing it in person was so much better. And I spent so long standing in that room and looking at the pieces … wishing I could touch them, look at them more closely, wishing I had more light and some stronger glasses … the technique I use is pretty much the same as what I was looking at. And the only thing that separates me from that finger weaver is time.”
Cherokee artists have also organized formally and informally throughout time to collaboratively produce and transmit their knowledge. Artist Lisa Rutherford (CN) outlined how important being in community with other artists has been for her, both at the Cherokee Arts Center and at the dinner table of one of her mentors, artist Bill Glass (CN): “I’m often at the arts center when classes are taught … Elder teachers almost always bring food, usually simple, and most students pitch in and bring something. … Some of my best experiences have been around that table with the Glass family and other artists …. There are plenty of art discussions, but it’s life lessons, actually living our culture, history, stories about the tribal government over the years from the time our government was rebuilding and regaining sovereignty.”
Elder artists and artists with more experience provide guidance to emerging craft practitioners that goes beyond teaching technique — they foster a supportive structure that reinforces the continuity of tribal identity and kinship. Skye Tafoya (EBCI/Laguna Pueblo) described a conversation she had with educator and basket maker Louise Goings (EBCI) about developing new patterns for her flat paper weavings, which draw heavily on basketry: “I hope that artists make up their own designs and create new family patterns that understand and show how we move through life right now in this contemporary stage. I was talking with Louise about this … kind of saying my whole spiel about developing new patterns [laughter], and she said, ‘you have to remember that these designs are for us. They’re tribal designs. Don’t ever be afraid to use them, they’re for you. They’re for all of us, that’s why we continue to use them, they’re for all of us.’”
In the 1940s, two artist-led organizations emerged, both recognizing a community’s need for centralized making, teaching, and sales. Composed of artists who had taken weaving courses at the Sequoyah Indian School, the Sequoyah Indian Weavers Association (SIWA) formed in 1940, creating infrastructure through weaving halls, in which prospective students learned weaving and spinning. They opened these communal centers in Briggs, Jay, Peavine, and Tahlequah, Oklahoma; artists also exhibited and sold their work nationally. For Dorothy Ice (UKB), who joined SIWA at 15, “weaving with the association is how we made money … we would weave all day.” Ice celebrated her 16th birthday at one of the weaving halls, a celebration that reflects the strong sense of kinship among SIWA members. The Cherokee Indian Craft Co-op, now known as Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. (QACM), was founded in 1946 by artists, tribal leaders, and educators, including Stamper. Like SIWA, QACM was founded to promote craft education and economic self-sufficiency. As a co-op, QACM artists profit share with each other and teach community classes, reciprocal strategies that bring to mind both holding and clinging: All artists offer aid, education, and counsel when they are able, and receive support when they need it. In each conversation I conducted during my research, I asked artists and educators why they think it is important to pass down traditional craft techniques. When I met with Pat Welch, we talked at a large table in the back of the co-op, where she sometimes teaches classes. She answered this question very simply: “Because it’s who we are.”