Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of our Elders
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People: Helen Smith

Growing up in Big Cove, Helen Bradley Smith (1922-2007) began making baskets when she was 15 or 16 years old. In an unbroken chain of tradition, Smith’s baskets are positioned between those of her mother, Eva Calhoun Bradley, and those made by her daughter, Carol Smith Welch. All three were basket weavers. Some Cherokee basket weavers specialized in one type of basket, but Smith was versatile. She was proficient in white oak, honeysuckle, and rivercane, including the double weave technique. She could also do pottery, beadwork, and finger weaving, but claimed, “Basket weaving is what I enjoy most.”

Smith told of learning her craft from her mother.

I learned from my mother, as so many of the young girls of the tribe did. Mother was making the rib baskets out of white oak at that time, and I learned to do this type of basket first. From there we changed to using the broad splints of white oak which were faster to weave, and we could make a greater number of different types of baskets than we could using the rib method.

She explained how important the craft was to her family’s livelihood. “We had to have baskets to sell for a living. There wasn’t much money then, and we traded these baskets to neighbors for corn, meat, and different things needed in the home.”

Unlike some artisans who can make only one type of basket, Smith’s work was versatile. Her own words substantiate her inventive approach.

I have learned to use honeysuckle vines and rivercane in weaving baskets. I love to use the rivercane most because of the designs that can be woven into this type of basket. As rivercane got harder to find, I decided to make the different rivercane basket designs on my white oak baskets. This was done by splitting the white oak up fine and using the rivercane weave, which made prettier baskets.

One of Helen Smith’s baskets in the permanent collection of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is a double weave made of maple, a rare combination of material and weave structure.

Like other Cherokee basket weavers, Helen Smith gathered materials to make her own dyes.

In all my baskets, I have used the native dyes because they don’t fade like the commercial dyes. I use butternut root for the black dye, black walnut root for the brown, bloodroot which makes orange, and the yellowroot, which grows along the river, for yellow. In using these dyes, if your basket gets dirty, you can wash it and the colors won’t run.

In 1973, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, in cooperation with Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, organized a one-person show of Helen Smith’s basketry. By the early 1970s, the exhibition organizers noted that natural resources used by basket weavers had declined. Big Cove, once known for its “abundance of raw materials,” was no longer so rich in these materials. Helen Smith had to “travel great distances to secure the scarce materials needed for her basket weaving art.” In spite of the continued threat to the availability of resources, Smith remained optimistic. “I feel that basket weaving will continue among my people for a long time as many of the young girls have learned from their mothers.”

Basketry by Helen Smith brochure cover Basketry by Helen Smith brochure page
The brochure "Basketry by Helen Smith" was produced to accompany a 1973 exhibition

And indeed, Helen Smith’s legacy was passed onto her daughter, Carol Smith Welch (b. 1940). Besides learning from her mother, Carol Welch studied with Lottie Stamper and served as her assistant when the two traveled to the Choctaw reservation to teach. In her own exhibition, Baskets of the Woods…A Collection by Carol S. Welch, the brochure read, “Only 37-years-old, she is dexterous in both white oak and the more difficult rivercane baskets.”

Carol Smith Welch with baskets
Helen Smith’s daughter, Carol Smith Welch
Basket made by Carol Smith Welch
Basket made by Carol Smith Welch

Anna Fariello
Excerpted from Cherokee Basketry: From the Hands of our Elders,
Published by The History Press, 2009

See More by Helen Smith

All quotations taken from Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Basketry by Helen Smith (Cherokee: Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, 1973).

Cherokee Traditions:
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