Chickaway and Thompson: Choctaw Basketry

Eleanor Chickaway, of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, has been weaving baskets for 35 years. As a child, she watched her grandmothers make baskets, and later in life, her mother taught her to weave. Eleanor explained that her mother encouraged her to start weaving when she was in her mid-twenties: 

“My mom talked us into it, you know,” Eleanor said as she surveyed Dorian’s weaving progress. Eleanor continued, “‘Nobody’s making it.’ She said, ‘Y’all need to learn how to do this. How to weave baskets.’ Because my cousin could do baskets, and she said, ‘She learned how to do it, are y’all not interested?’ So I said, ‘I don’t know. We can try.’ So me and my sister tried. I couldn’t do it just telling me what I’m doing. I got a little bit upset. I threw my basket to the corner of the house. A couple days later, I went back and picked it up. I had to look under the one that was already made. I was just looking under the bottom part and see how many it goes, and I did it on my own. The corners, my mom told me how to do it, and I tried. I was looking at it to see where it goes. I had to count how many goes over and under, and she tightened it up for me. And then I kept trying and did it on my own.” 

Several decades after overcoming the initial frustration of figuring out the complicated weave and construction, Eleanor has gone on to make baskets of renowned craftsmanship. Today she is considered one of the true living masters of the Choctaw basket making tradition, and she regularly demonstrates her craft at Choctaw festivals, fairs, and powwows. Willie Morris writes in My Mississippi that Eleanor is the, “foremost representative of the tribe’s long and illustrious history of producing swamp cane baskets” (2000, 89). Eleanor makes traditional forms such as the egg basket and the traditional diamond design patterns, but she also experiments with color and shape. Eleanor’s baskets are in especially high demand during pageant season, as every contestant in the Choctaw Indian Princess Pageant wants to carry one of her purse baskets. As a distinguished artist, Eleanor has received many awards throughout her long career of basket making. She was one of three artists to receive the 1993 Mississippi Governor’s Arts Awards. In 2006, she was selected to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, “Carriers of Culture: Living Native Basket Traditions.” 

As part of the 2020 Tennessee Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Eleanor taught apprentice Dorian Thompson, a member of the Choctaw community in Lauderdale County, Tennessee. In the Tennessee Choctaw community, there are no known living basket makers left, as several older tradition bearers have died in recent years. Dorian explained, “The Choctaw baskets have been a part of our culture and history for centuries. It is definitely something to preserve, especially if not many are practicing this art. There are a few in Mississippi, but no basket makers in Tennessee. The baskets are still very much needed in our pageants and festivals.” 

Dorian is a cultural leader in the Tennessee Choctaw community and is a descendant of Minnie Bell, a revered Choctaw basket maker. Dorian is already skilled in many traditional Choctaw arts. She is a dressmaker and bead worker, and during dance performances at Choctaw festivals, Dorian serves as a presenter and interpreter of Choctaw culture. With Eleanor, she learned the full double weave style of Choctaw Basketry, including the harvesting of the river cane and the dying process. 

Field Notes, February 2020– 

On a sunny day in February, Dorian made the trek from Henning, Tennessee, down to Conehatta, Mississippi, to learn how to make a Choctaw basket from Eleanor. Choctaw basket making begins with collecting the river cane. Due to changes in public land and real estate development, finding river cane is harder than it used to be. Dorian explained that, “in Tennessee, it’s always on somebody’s property, so you have to get permission.” The yard in front of Eleanor’s house was filled with the bounty of their river cane haul. Splitting the cane into workable strips for weaving takes incredible precision, and after several hours of this tedious work, they were ready to dye the cane. Like many Choctaw artists, Eleanor experiments with different colors of dye. The cane was dyed every color of the rainbow and was wound and stored for future use. Once these initial steps were completed, Dorian was ready to take on the complex weaving patterns. Dorian sat at a picnic table with the cane laid out in front of her. Eleanor stood behind her, looking over her shoulder and instructing her on the next steps. Dorian found a weaving rhythm and the space was filled with the dulcet sounds of Eleanor’s “two up, three down” and “tighten it up.”

The minutes quickly turned into an hour, and Dorian wove the cane into a square mat, which would be the bottom of the basket. At this point, corners were added, the four walls of the basket were raised, and the little house took shape. Eleanor instructed Dorian to pull the cane weaver to the right a bit; if a joint of the cane was on the corner, it would break. Eleanor sprayed strips of cane with a spray bottle to make them more flexible. “It kind of holds together when you get it wet,” she explained. Basket making is not for the faint of heart. It takes patience, precision, skill, and a lot of time. Eleanor told stories of fairweather basket makers–those who quit when the going got tough. For those who persist, like Eleanor and now Dorian, there is enormous reward. What started as practical farm tools have evolved into works of art that bring pride to the maker and those fortunate enough to carry them. These baskets also reveal an important connection with the natural environment of Tennessee and Mississippi. Hundreds of years of tradition and culture are woven in with every “two up, three down.” Eleanor has shown Dorian an example of the type of innovation and tradition that the Mississippi Bands of Choctaw Indians website speaks of: “There are certain rules to follow when creating a work of art, such as the technique, but ultimately, the final product reflects the imagination and aesthetics of its creator.”

Folklife staff visited Eleanor and Dorian in February 2020. View a virtual gallery of more photographs from that day.

Further Reading on Eleanor Chickaway: 

Further Reading on Choctaw Basketry: 

  • Choctaw Baskets.” On MBCI website. 
  • Galloway, Patricia and Clara Sue Kidwell. “Choctaw in the East.” In Handbook of North American Indians: Southeast, edited by R.D. Fogelson, 499-519. Vol. 14. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2004.
  • Isaac, Cira. “Choctaw Ceremonies.” Anderson, Jane, Ed.; And Others A Choctaw Anthology Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Philadelphia Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (ED), Washington, DC. Indian Education Programs. 1984, p. 17.
  • Jefferson, Sylvia. “Choctaw Arts and Crafts”. Anderson, Jane, Ed.; And Others. A Choctaw Anthology Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Philadelphia Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (ED), Washington, DC. Indian Education Programs. 1984, p. 59. 
  • Lee, Dayna Bowker. “Jena Band Choctaws.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity, edited by Ray Celeste, by Wilson Charles Reagon, 173-75. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 
  • Mould, Tom. “Choctaws.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity, edited by Ray Celeste, by Wilson Charles Reagon, 126-28. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 
  • Pepper, Elisabeth Hart. “Mississippi Choctaw Women: Preservation and Adaptation from post-Removal to the 1970s” Thesis at University of Mississippi. 2017.
  • Peterson, John. H., Jr., The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians: Their Recent History and Current Social Relations. 1971. 
  • Reeves, Carolyn, and Bill Brescia. “By the Work of Our Hands: Choctaw Material Culture. Teacher’s Guide.” Philadelphia, Mississippi: ChoctawHeritage Press (1982).
  • Swanton, John Reed. Source material for the social and ceremonial life of the Choctaw Indians. Vol. 103. US Government Printing Office, 1931.