Kathlene Thomas

Kathlene Thomas

Clifton Choctaw Coiled Pinestraw Basketry
by Betty Vilar

Kathlene Thomas is a resident of Clifton, Louisiana, in western Rapides Parish. The Clifton Choctaws became interested in revitalizing their crafts in the late 1970's. A small grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts allowed the late Claude Medford who, during the 1970's and '80s, singlehandedly revitalized major portions of southeastern tribal craft tradition. At Clifton, Claude taught classes on traditional crafts, particularly basketry.

Kathlene Thomas learned how to make pinestraw baskets from Pearl Tyler about seventeen years ago. Of all the many other craftspeople discovered and encouraged to continue working with their traditional art forms, Kathlene has become the acknowledged "master" in her community of coiled pinestraw basketry.

Kathlene's baskets, which have been juried by the Louisiana Folklife Program, are made from longleaf pinestraw. This straw is gathered in the spring or early fall as this is when the straw is best suited for basketmaking. After gathering, the pinestraw must be cured for three to four weeks. Basketmakers like Kathlene are very particular about the curing process. According to her, the drying area must be relatively cool, as too much heat will dry out the straw, and it will have no flexibility. If the straw becomes too brittle, it must be discarded because it cannot be coiled without breaking.

Once the straw is cured, the "ends" of the straw, that is the parts which were attached to the limb, must be snipped off. At this point, Kathlene sews the dried pine needles into coils with either natural raffia, a commercial thread called "swiss straw," or manufactured nylon thread that comes in various colors. To these coiled baskets, Kathlene often adds designs of her own creation which she works in red, green, and black raffia.

Although Kathlene moved away for a time in 1994, she is now back in the Clifton community weaving her beautiful baskets, thus preserving the tradition of her ancestors. Kathlene is a "regular" at the Natchitoches/NSU Folk Festival and at Williamson Museum's Basket Day Activities. In 1995, Kathlene also participated in the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Monroe. Her work is on display at the Clifton Choctaw Crafts Center on Highway 28 and she always participates in Clifton Trade Days held every May.

Both photographs shown here were taken by Don Hatley at the annual Louisiana Basket Day always held on the first Saturday in December in conjunction with the nationally famous Natchitoches Christmas Festival. Louisiana Basket Day was founded by anthropologist H.F. Gregory, and he continues to coordinate the event. Basket Day is held in Williamson Museum, an agency of the Department of Social Sciences, Northwestern State University of Louisiana.

The first photo is of Kathlene, and the second is one of her coiled pine straw dolls. The Clifton Choctaws who live in southern Natchitoches and northern Rapides Parishes of Louisiana have received tribal recognition from the state of Louisiana and are currently compiling historical records to support their effort to receive federal recognition.