When Kenneth Kerry, his father Thad, and his son, Ken Jr., demonstrated their white oak basketry and displayed their turkey calls (second photo) and knives at the Natchitoches/NSU Folk Festival in 1993, visiting their craft area was like reading a textbook "recipe" for what makes up a craft tradition. Kenneth's father, Mr. Thad Kerry of Derry, Louisiana learned how to weave split-oak baskets by watching his father-in-law and brother-in-law. Kenneth learned basketry techniques (third photo) by watching and imitating his father; young Ken Jr. is doing the same.
When asked about the process of split-oak basketry, Ken says that the most important thing is to pick the right tree, a tree without knots, because the tree will not split straight if it has knots, since these go all the way to the heart of the tree. The tree, he says, must be straight and about ten to fifteen years old. The trees should be cut in the fall because they split better then when they are holding less water and when the sap is "on its way down."
An oak cannot be cut more than a week before basket construction is to begin because the wood will dry out and it won't split properly.
After bringing a freshly cut sapling home, Kerry uses a knife and his bare hands to split off wood strips from the tree. The wooden strips are cut into different sizes according to their "place" in the basket. Rib strips, those strips which form the "skeleton" of the basket, must be wider than the strips that are used for weaving. Every piece of oak used in the basket must be dressed and kept wet and pliable for easier weaving. This constant need for pliability often causes delays in the weaving process since Kerry, after weaving each damp strip and packing it down, must wait for it to dry before he can apply the next strip. This delay is necessary if the sides of the basket are to be "tight" and free from gaps. A medium sized basket takes at least twelve hours to make.
Due to clear-cutting of the forests by timber companies, Thad Kerry and his son Kenneth now have a problem finding suitable oak trees. Kerry holds that logging tractors bruise the grain of the white oak saplings and then they won't split straight. Splitting straight is a prerequisite for a beautiful basket.
Although Mr. Kerry still makes some baskets, his son, Kenneth Kerry, and his grandson, Ken Jr. now do most of the basket making in the family. Kenneth Kerry has been working in the tradition for about twelve years now and Ken Jr. has been at it for about five years. Three generations of this remarkable family have participated in the Natchitoches/NSU Folk Festival and the Cloutierville Heritage Festival. Like father, like son, like grandson--the basket-making tradition goes from generation to generation.
During 1996, the Kerry Family, along with Wilmer Bennett, and several other people have become deeply interested in their Apalachee Indian Heritage and, in fact, demonstrated their crafts at the 1996 Basket Day as Apalachee Indians. They are beginning to put together the historical record which will allow them to apply for both state and federal recognition.