Martha Lossiah Ross (b. 1931) was born and raised in Big Cove, a remote section of the Qualla Boundary near Cherokee, North Carolina. Her mother, Charlotte Lottie Welch Lossiah made and sold baskets. Ross specialized in white oak baskets and joined the Qualla Arts and Crafts cooperative in 1956. In 1975, she began working there and remained for 23 years.
Martha Lossiah was born and raised in Big Cove, a remote section of the Qualla Boundary near Cherokee, North Carolina. Her mother, Charlotte Lottie Welch Lossiah made and sold baskets; her father, John R. Lossiah, did fieldwork and logging. Together, her parents gathered basket-making materials, mostly white oak and honeysuckle. When she was just six years old, her family sent her to boarding school in town; she came home on weekends. In school, she learned to cook and sew. Ross recalled how the sale of baskets helped her family. When her sister Maggie wanted a pair of shoes, “She set up half the night making baskets.” Finishing a large basket, complete with handle, her sister had enough money to buy the shoes she wanted.
Martha Ross recalled how she learned to make baskets. When she was 11, her mother brought her home from boarding school. “We’re going to hunt oak tomorrow,” her mother told her. They climbed to the “very top” of the mountain where they searched for a white oak tree that was the right size for making a basket. Apparently, she was expected to pick up these new skills quickly. “You are going to cut this oak yourself,” her mother said. Young Martha was intimidated by the task, since she had little experience with an ax. Asking her mother how to do it, Charlotte Lossie simply said, “You’ve got the ax.” Young Martha succeeded in felling her first tree. Afterward, mother and daughter spent time together in the woods, quartering and splitting the oak. “Put the wedge right there,” her mother said, “and I’ll hit it for you.” And so her lessons went.
Eventually, Martha Ross mastered all aspects of basket making and joined Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in 1956 when she was just 25 years old. By then, she had mastered several types of basketry, but did not like using rivercane, because its razor sharp edges easily cut a basket weaver’s hands. She also made maple baskets. Their high sheen makes an attractive basket, but they break easily when they become too dry. So Martha Ross focused on making and selling white oak baskets. Becoming a member of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual helped Ross expand her skills. There, she learned about natural dyes and how to use them through co-op sponsored workshops. Hunting dyestuffs had not been a part of her traditional training, because her mother made plain forms and did not use dyes on her baskets. After a 20-year association with the cooperative as a member, in 1975 manager Betty DuPree offered Ross a job.
She worked at Qualla Arts and Crafts for 23 years. She was also featured in the 1994 video documentary, Cherokee Artists: The Basket Weavers.
Martha Ross, 2009
White oak basket in progress
Ross related her frustration in learning to make baskets. Standing with her mother in the woods, she said to herself, “I’m going to give up this hard work.” Her mother persisted. Handing over her knife, mother and daughter worked in tandem passing skills down in the traditional way. 1
Excerpted from Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of our Elders,
Published by The History Press, 2009