Chitimacha Basketry

The most remarkable feature of Chitimacha basketry is the unique double-weaving process, which produces two baskets, woven one inside the other, sharing a single rim and showing no visible stopping or starting point of either basket. Like a single-weave, it is woven from bottom to top, but upon reaching the rim, the cane is bent over and woven again down the sides and across the bottom.  The inner basket is constructed of undyed strips, while the exterior basket displays the glorious colored designs. Double-weave baskets are heavy, strong, durable, and so tight they are rumored to hold water. The most common of the Chitimacha basket designs are: Bull’s Eye, Alligator Entrails, Bear’s Earring, Muscadine Peel, Snake Design and the Alligator’s Necktie.

The material employed was cane of a variety called pī’ya in Chitimacha, which was split with the teeth, and woven in two layers, so as to form what is really a double weave basket. The natural color of the cane is varied by the use of three dyes – black, yellow, and red. To produce a black color the canes are boiled in black walnut bark. For the yellow, the canes are exposed to the dew for six days and afterward boiled fifteen minutes with a root called powaā’c. The red was produced by exposing the canes eight days to the dew, soaking them eight more in lime, and then boiling fifteen minutes in powaā’c.

First, a weaver must find a bayou bank were the piya, a bamboo-like cane common around Charenton, grows straight and tall. Stalks with the longest joints are selected and taken home, where they are kept damp until splitting time.  For splitting, a round stalk is notched across one end with a sharp knife, then twisted with a wringing motion of both hands. The strips are split and split again until each one is about half an inch wide. The smooth outside layer is then peeled with the teeth from the pithy, white inner layer. These peeled splits are placed in the dew for two weeks to bleach out the natural green color of the cane.  The cane is now ready for dying. Until recently the traditional red, black and yellow dyes were made from plants growing wild around the reservation. The splits were boiled for nine days in a solution of black walnuts and walnut leaves for a rich brownish-black color. For red, the root of the dock plant, called la passiance, was mashed and boiled.  According to Ada,  lime could be used to produce a soft yellow, traditionally a popular color for the single-weave baskets.

After the colored strands have dried stiff and shiny, another layer is peeled off to produce a flexible, weavable strip. Each one can also be sized and split again, at this point, to achieve a suitable width for the basket in mind. [1]



Works Cited

[1] Interview with Ada V. Thomas. Carpenter, Gwen. “Two Hands Hold the Secret of Chitimacha Basketry.” Louisiana Life Nov./Dec. 1984. 92-93.