John Darden

John Darden

Chitimacha Split Cane Basketry

In South Louisiana, near Charenton, on a twenty-three acre reservation, live many members of the Chitimacha Indian tribe. Young John Darden is a member of this ancient culture, and John is practicing some of the "old" ways of his ancestors. Although John is a man of the '90s, he knows the importance of preserving and passing on his cultural traditions and art forms. John and his wife, Scarlett, are two of the few remaining Chitimacha who practice split-cane basketry.

Using only his teeth, a sharp knife, water and canes, John makes some of the best and most beautiful split cane baskets in the state. John learned this craft as a child by listening, watching and practicing as his grandparents created their traditional basket art.

Around the muddy bayous of Charenton, Louisiana, the piya, a bamboo-like cane, still grows thick and tall. Specimens of the best sort, those canes with widely spaced joints, are carefully sought. These are more desirable than others, for they have fewer knots and will produce smoother baskets. After gathering the cane, the long, tedious job of splitting and peeling the cane begins. The cane must be kept damp until splitting time.

For splitting, a round stalk is notched at one end with a sharp knife, then twisted in a wringing motion with both hands. Strips of cane are split and split again until each is about one-half inch wide. The next step is to peel off the smooth outside layer of the cane. Peeling is done with the teeth and a sharp knife, as this is the most practical way of removing the cover from the pithy inside layer. These peeled strips are placed outside in the dewy grass for about two weeks to bleach out the natural green color of the cane; after two weeks, the cane is ready for dyeing.

Traditionally the red, black, and yellow dyes were made from plants growing wild in the area, but because of a scarcity of natural dyes, commercial fabric dyes are now used. After the dyed cane strips have dried, another layer is peeled off to produce a flexible, weavable strip. Now the real work begins!

Chitimacha baskets are traditionally of a double weave, but a single weave is also done. A large double weave basket, which is woven from the bottom up, may take as much as a month to complete.

The designs--perhaps their most distinctive feature--of a Chitimacha basket are reminiscent of woven fabric figures. Usually, the design faithfully mimics the living creature it symbolizes, so black bird eyes, snakes, hearts, turtles, alligators and little fish abound. So symbolically important are these designs that the Chitimacha are the only people besides the North Carolina Cherokee to retain the symbols' names. The reasons for the exclusive use of red, yellow, and black are, unfortunately, lost in time.

John and Scarlett Darden are preserving the traditional craft of an ancient culture. They are doing this for themselves and for those who share their cultural heritage. Through their participation in and demonstrating at festivals like the Natchitoches/NSU Folk Festival and the 1995 Louisiana Folklife Festival in Monroe, they are sharing their art with the rest of the world.