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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 3, 2003 - Issue 86


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Leave it to the Weavers

by Judy Walker Times Picayune
credits: Scarlett Darden weaving river-cane

Scarlett Darden weaving river-canePine needles, cypress and palmetto -- all can be woven into baskets. And all will be woven into baskets at this year's Jazzfest.

The grand dame of Jazzfest basket makers, Savannah Lewis of New Orleans, will be back again with her pine-needle baskets, for the 26th time. Another returning regular is Bob Reasoner of Patterson, who started making cypress baskets after he was laid off from the oil fields.

But there's also a "first" on the schedule: A third generation of craftsmen in one United Houma family to appear at Jazzfest will make its debut. Ann, Angela and Adilia Luster, daughters of basket maker Janie Verrett Luster and granddaughters of moss-doll maker Mary Verret and palmetto-hut builder John Verret, will make palmetto baskets in the Houma Half-Hitch Coil style.

Basket making, one of the world's oldest crafts, is alive and well at the 2003 festival. Both weekends, basket weavers of all types, from several cultures, will demonstrate, sell and discuss their work, weaving common strands of craft.

"We've really had representations from basket makers since the very early days of the festival," said Nancy Ochsenschlager, Heritage Fair associate producer. "It's always been an important part of the festival, an important part of the culture and heritage of Louisiana."

Lewis was one of the earliest participants in this part of the fest. Now 87, she said she was fascinated at age 4 by the sun shining on pine needles. All she wanted to do was "play under a tree and mess with those pine needles." When she was 6, she said, a teacher gave her a needle and some raffia and let her watch the making of baskets. Later, Lewis "would fool with it with some thread my mother would ravel out of flour sacks." But it was as an adult that she was able to devote herself to the craft.

"After my son went to grammar school was when I first got started," Lewis said. "I was doing day work. I went out on Fillmore (Avenue) to do a day's work, and had to pass a pine tree. I grabbed some of those pine needles and carried them home and started messing with them. . . . It wasn't real good, but I got it together."

Perched on the pavement, she sold her first baskets for $2 or $3 each at the flea market in the French Quarter, then was asked to participate in Jazzfest. When working both became too much, she gave up the flea market, she said, "because at one time out there at Jazzfest I would make more than I was making at the flea market the whole year, because so many people come out there. And so many people were excited to see baskets made out of pine needles."

Lewis will demonstrate her craft May 1-4 at the Folk Life Village at the Fair Grounds. On the schedule for this weekend is Missy Burton of Zachary, whose juried booth in the Louisiana Marketplace was named best of show in 2001. She will be back at the Marketplace with her embellished baskets of longleaf pine needles and raffia.

She says her work is similar to Lewis', "only I dye my raffia and I don't just do the utilitarian things." Burton's baskets are art objects, many covered in freshwater pearls, crystals or semiprecious stones such as malachite or turquoise. This will be her eighth fest appearance.

Demonstrating his work in the same booth May 1-4 will be cypress basket maker Reasoner, who has been plying his craft for 14 years. Because he had a bad heart, he said, he couldn't find work after leaving the oil fields. So his wife, Lottie, suggested he make baskets out of cypress.

"It's our wood. We're both born and raised in southeast Louisiana," Lottie said. "I'm Cajun and he's a lot Indian."

"Indians used to make fish baskets out of cypress" to cage fish in the water, Reasoner said. His utilitarian baskets start as lumber, which he saws into thin strips and soaks in bleach and water for a week, until they are limber enough to weave around risers tacked onto the wooden bottom of the basket.

Also on the second weekend, the interweavings of tradition will be examined during a panel discussion featuring basket makers from the Houma, Louisiana Creole and Martinique traditions. Martinique is the country being featured at this year's Jazzfest.

Coming from Martinique for the fest are 72-year-old L'Homme Coxson and his wife, Christina, who make baskets in her Caribe Indian tradition. Coxson's hobby, he said, is teaching the craft.

"We're coming to New Orleans and you will be able to see us make the baskets. We've got about 18 models," said Coxson by phone from his home last week.

"I'm 72 years old, so I've got a long time doing this. I love to make baskets because I love to make the design that is in my mind. It's a trade I love."

Coxson will participate in the May 1 panel discussion at 1 p.m. at the Grandstand, Folk Heritage Stage. Also on the panel will be Janie Luster, who has made baskets since 1992 and who returned the unique -- no other tribe in North America is known to make it -- Houmas Half-Hitch Coil basket to her people. Knowledge of this palmetto basket's construction had died out in the 1940s.

"Oradel Morris wrote 'I Hear the Song of the Houmas' and in the research for the book found the baskets," Luster explained. "She was able to bring the late Mr. Richard Conn, curator of the native arts and chief curator of the Denver Art Museum, here to teach a class. He had a couple of Houma baskets in his collection, and one was coming undone. He was able to study it and teach it to us."

Her first baskets didn't look like baskets and would sometimes fly across the room when they slipped from her grasp as she worked on them, Luster said. But in 1998, when Conn came back to New Orleans for an art museum event, she presented one of her baskets to him.

"He said, 'Granddaughter, you have done me well,' " Luster said. Conn died days later.

Luster has since taught basket weaving to other Houma women, including her three daughters, Ann, Angela and Adilia; all four will demonstrate their craft May 1-2 at the Fair Grounds. Other weavers she taught who are appearing at this year's Jazzfest include her sister-in-law Zoeanna Verret and Lora Ann Chaisson (May 3-4).

To form the coil baskets, bundles of split palmetto are gathered and wrapped. Recently, Luster began dying palmetto.

"I still like the natural, traditional color. I only do color once in a while," she said. "I like the cane basket weavers, talking to them, and sharing ideas (at Jazzfest). The Choctaw ladies from Jena shared this with me."

This year's Native American craft demonstrations will be held in a bigger, enhanced space called the Elders Tent, and the focus will be on Louisiana tribal elders, said Annette GrayHawk, the Native American cultural coordinator for Jazzfest.

"You'll find sisters working together, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives who are going to be talking about and showing the work they do," GrayHawk said. "The elders are a real focused part of Native American culture. There's a real reverence around them and their age, so we really are going to be showcasing that."

At past festivals, there was room for only four demonstrators per weekend. But there are 11 Louisiana tribes, GrayHawk said. Now, with so much more room, she said, "We'll have a total of 24 tribal artisans from the state coming through the village this year."

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