Basket weaving among the Cherokee is a tradition customarily passed from mother to daughter. Through years of shared traditions, certain family names have become associated with the craft. Like her mother before her, Lizzie Stamper Youngbird (1903-1967) was a basket weaver. Her son, Edmund Youngbird (1922-1995), learned to make baskets from his grandmother and became known for his work in rivercane baskets and mats. When he first entered his baskets into competition, he entered them under his mother’s name. As a male basket weaver, Edmund Youngbird had a unique place among the Eastern Band Cherokee.
Edmund Youngbird (1922-1995) was born in the Wolf Town community on the Qualla Boundary, lands owned by the Cherokee people. His grandmother, Sally Ann Stamper, and his mother, Lizzie “Nannie” Youngbird were both weavers of baskets. Edmund was one of four boys, sons of Lizzie and Saughee Youngbird. He recalled his childhood in a basket-making family, growing up in the 1930s.
“My parents just barely made a living by making crafts. I can remember vaguely, it was back in the Depression days, and I was ten or twelve years old. There were a lot of boys to feed, and we didn’t eat fancy. Back in those days there was no money." 1
Like many in America, Youngbird remembers the Great Depression as a time of hardship. Craft skills—whether basket weaving, carving, or pottery—carried some families through these hard times.
Lizzie “Nannie” Stamper Youngbird (1903-1967) was the daughter of Ned Stamper and Sally Ann Crowe Stamper. Her son recalled how the women of the family made, sold, and traded baskets.
"Mother and Grandmother used to go out walking toward Shoal Creek with a load of baskets tied in a sheet. Mama would trade with the non-Indians for chickens, beans, pumpkins and eggs. A neighbor would let Mama use his wagon to car her merchandise she had received in exchange for her baskets.” 2
While little is recorded of Lizzie Youngbird’s life, her name is recorded on the 1953 roster of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, an artisan cooperative with a membership of active craft makers. Formed in 1946, the cooperative provided a year-round outlet for craft sales. The formation of the co-op also changed the relationship of craft workers to the public with many more baskets being sold for cash rather than traded for food. While this change came late in the life of Lizzie Youngbird, subsequent generations of basket weavers were able to spend more time on making baskets and less time selling them. In 1969, Qualla Arts and Crafts began hosting exhibitions of their members’ work; unfortunately, Lizzie Youngbird had died two years before the organization of the first exhibition.
Basket weaving was not only a craft of the Youngbird immediate family, but was also a practice within their extended family. Sally Ann Stamper’s son, Bill Stamper—brother to Lizzie and uncle to Edmund—grew up to marry Lottie Queen. Known to all Eastern Band Cherokee as an influential basket weaver, Lottie Queen Stamper (1907-1987) taught the craft for 30 years at the high school in Cherokee. But it was Edmund Youngbird’s grandmother, Sally Ann Stamper, who first encouraged him to make baskets. She was an exacting teacher.
“I picked up one of my grandma’s baskets and wove it. I made many mistakes, and she made me correct them. She is the only one who took time with me.” 3
Edmund Youngbird specialized in working with rivercane, having mastered both the single weave and double weave techniques. Like many Cherokee craftsmen, he entered his work in the annual Cherokee Indian Fair, winning many prizes. For the first year or two that he entered into competitions at the fair, he entered baskets under his mother’s name. “My dad used to split the cane, but I never saw him or any man weave a basket,” he said. 4 Youngbird often wove mats, a traditional Cherokee form. Such mats were used in the home as insulation and decoration, covering walls, beds, and seats. During gatherings, mats were used in the Council House for the same practical purposes, but were also used as ceremonial rugs to indicate sacred ground. While Youngbird’s forms were traditional, many of his patterns were original.
Edmund Youngbird was quoted in Tommy Jo Bookout’s book, Traditional Basketmakers in the Southeastern and South Central United States. He commented on why there were not more basket weavers. “A lot of people can do wonderful work, but they quit because of factory jobs,” 5 he explained. The making of a basket is a time-consuming process, beginning with locating, gathering, and preparing materials. It may take days—or weeks—to weave a large basket,and then it must be sold. Rivercane weaving is also hard work. Usually gathered by the truckload, rivercane stems are cut in half lengthwise, quartered, and split further into ¼ inch strips. The edge of the strips are razor sharp.
“I invest about three weeks into cutting, stripping, dyeing, and weaving a cane basket. I like to dye about 100 pieces of cane at one time; quartered that’s 400 pieces….I usually prefer a young sprout six inches in diameter. I use blood root for yellow, and walnut root for brown. Cane is ready when it is green. I tie the cane in loose bundles before dyeing, so the color will be even and not spotted. Dyeing cane takes about 12 hours. Dyes vary according to soil formation. Dyes made from roots from different locations will never come out the same color. I try to stay on 12 splints when making a basket, and if it has a design, I try to use around 60 splints. I do quite a bit of experimenting with designs.” 6
Edmund Youngbird grew up and entered military service as a marine. Afterward, he worked as an environmentalist with the U.S. Department of Public Health for 32 years. 7 He and his wife, Myrtle Welch Youngbird, lived in Painttown. Edmund Youngbird was one of the artists included in “Documentary of Six Cherokee Artists,” an exhibit inaugurating a new membership gallery at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc. Youngbird won many first-place awards at the annual Cherokee Indian Fairs.
Excerpted from Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of our Elders,
Published by The History Press, 2009
1. Mollie Blankenship and Stephen Richmond, Contemporary Artists and Craftsmen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians: Promotional Exhibits, 1969-1985 (Cherokee, NC: Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc, 1987) 67.
2. Blankenship and Richmond, 67.
3. Blankenship and Richmond, 67.
4. Blankenship and Richmond, 67.
5. Tommy Jo Bookout, Traditional Basketmakers in the Southeastern and South Central United States (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1987).
6. Blankenship and Richmond, 67.
7. “Edmund Youngbird,” [obituary] unknown newspaper, circa March 3, 1995.