Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Original Weaver

Baskets carry many levels of meaning. They evoke the primeval era, mythological time, and the genesis of the world and the people themselves.They recall the original weaver, Kanane-ski Amai-yehi (Spider Dwelling in the Water), who was, by her very name as well as her habitation and manner of living, literally connected to water. Universally identified as female, the first weaver associated women with water, an association that was born out in the early Cherokee division of labor that gave women the responsibility for carrying water.

The brief narrative of the First Fire identifies certain characteristics of the weaver, "She can run on top of the water or dive down to the bottom,"Swimmer and John Ax explained to James Mooney. The legendary weaver crosses boundaries between world, moving from the surface to the depth, from land to water, from water to fire, and finally, for the sake of the people, from darkness to light and from cold to heat. Crossing and connecting worlds, she posits a relationship between two places, elements, and conditions. As a female, as a being connected to water, and as one who moves from one world to another, she evokes women's ability to be simultaneously one person and two, an individual and also a woman carrying an infant in a sac of water in her belly.

The myth of the First Fire celebrates the weaver, the act of weaving and finally the container itself. The container carries fire, the earthly representation of the sun, who was also female in the early Cherokee pantheon. Kanane-ski Amai-yehi's container of fire parallels early Cherokee households that had central hearths where women maintained fires.

In surviving myth fragments, baskets carry elements of sacred power even in their most common place usage. The first woman, Selu, takes a basket with her when she goes into the seclusion of the corn house. ... Moreover, the story of Selu represents change - from one kind of food production to another, from one way of life to another. By understanding the necessity of change, Selu guarantees the future of the Cherokee people.

The stories of the First Fire, Selu, and How the World was Made are like doublewoven baskets, multilayered and densely textured. They are expressions of the customs, behaviors, and beliefs of women and asset a culture and identity of women that is specifically Cherokee.

Weavers have not simply replicated the work of their predecessors. Basketry has been a living tradition that has changed over time. The most significant changes have occurred in the selection of material.

Weavers have had access to many possible materials. Even with such a variety of resources, they emphasized rivercane above all others for hundreds of years. The material was abundant and it was durable. Their preference for rivercane accompanied a spiritual association with flowing water. Cherokees lived by the water spiritually, psychologically and physically. The historical period when rivercane was their primary basketmaterial correlates with an elaborate ceremonial life that continuously connected them to water.

Although Cherokees adopted various customs of surrounding whites they continued some of their own conventions. These different strands are represented and evoked by the coexistence and intermixing of rivercane and white oak basketry.

Honeysuckle basketry developed in a period of extraordinary discrepancy between the rhetoric of American liberty and the reality of Indian policy.

In the 1940's weavers added a fourth material, the indigenous red maple that grows fast in forest clearings.

Contemporary baskets are decorative items rather than ceremonial or work objects. The ceremonial use of baskets disappeared in the nineteenth century, and domestic functions waned in the twentieth.

source: Weaving New Worlds by Sarah Hill