Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of our Elders
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People: Lucy George

Unlike most basket weavers of her generation, Lucy Nola George (1897-1978) did not learn the skills of her craft from her mother.  As an adult and mother of six children, she turned to making baskets out of necessity.  Self taught, she was one of the first Cherokee basket weavers to make baskets from honeysuckle.  A signature element on many of her baskets was a decorative “button,” repeated around the basket’s circumference.  In the 1960s, George taught basketry classes.  She was a member of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, an artisan cooperative of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  In 1970, Qualla Arts and Crafts honored her with a solo exhibition and brochure titled, Basketry by Lucy George.

Lucy Nola was born in the Birdtown community of the Qualla Boundary.  Her parents were Rebecca Taylor and George Squirrel.  She and her husband, Jake George raised their family of six children in Birdtown, her childhood community.

During the depression years of the 1930s, it was necessary that I find a way to supplement my family’s income.  Other Cherokee women were doing this by weaving baskets to sell or trade at the general store for household goods needed to feed and clothe their families.  Unlike these basket weavers, I had not been taught basket making by my mother and now found a need to learn in the early years of my marriage. 1

Although motivated by the circumstances of the times, she continued to make baskets for the rest of her life.

Lucy George began to make honeysuckle baskets when the use of honeysuckle was rare among the Cherokee.  She was aware of her departure from tradition.

Most Cherokee used rivercane or white oak in the construction of their baskets.  I knew of only one woman who used the honeysuckle vines as a basket weaving material.  For this reason, I felt that my chances of helping provide for my family’s needs would be better if I worked with this material. 2

But the fact that honeysuckle weaving was not that common was a challenge to her ambition.  “There were no teachers available,” she said. 3 Perhaps, this is why, later in life, George not only produced honeysuckle baskets, but taught others to make them.

The introduction of honeysuckle to the repertoire of Cherokee basketry indicated a change in tradition.  Writer Sarah Hill noted that, “The absence of basketry instruction in Lucy Nola’s household documents a decline in traditional systems of learning.” 4 Still, George persisted and found a way and to learn on her own, by visiting the homes of friends who wove baskets.  In an interview, 5 she said that one of the friends who helped teach her was basket weaver, Julia Taylor.  During the Craft Revival period—the decades in which these elders lived and worked—craft workers organized into informal networks, developing new systems of learning and sharing.  As the century progressed—during the late 1930s and into the 1940s—the region’s craft artists participated in more formal exchanges of knowledge.  These included opportunities provided by new craft guilds and cooperatives, as well as the many exhibitions and fairs that were organized at this time. Lucy George recognized opportunity.

Honeysuckle is fast growing species; some call it invasive.  Its use among the Cherokee does not have as a long history as rivercane, and many think that the plant has little value.  Still, it grows prolifically and became a staple for inventive artisans, like Lucy George and Nancy Conseen.  Honeysuckle vines are flexible.  To make a sturdy basket, the vines are woven over a more rigid framework of white oak.  Basket weavers who use honeysuckle must be proficient in gathering both the vines and white oak trees.  Lucy George preferred hickory for handles and gathered traditional woods plants as well.  She used bloodroot, yellow root, and walnut bark to dye her weaving materials.

Lucy George’s name appears with 100 other craftsmen on a roster of those interested in establishing Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a Cherokee artisan cooperative in 1946.  By 1965, George reported that all of her baskets were sold through the co-op.  “And you can’t keep up with the orders?” noted interviewer Edward DuPuy. 6  In 1967 George taught a basketry class, jointly sponsored by the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, Qualla Arts and Crafts, the Indian Arts and Craft Board, and the Southwestern Technical Institute (today’s Southwestern Community College).  Class instruction sheets included directions for making a small round basket and a sewing basket.  She shared information about how to make the rounded “button” motif, a decorative element that is seen on so many of her baskets.  Lucy George learned her craft from other basket weavers and, in turn, passed on these skills through non-traditional means.

Lucy George at the 1970 exhibition
Lucy George at the 1970 exhibition
See the entire exhibition brochure
See the entire exhibition brochure

In 1970, Qualla Arts and Crafts honored George with a solo exhibition and brochure titled, Basketry by Lucy George.  The brochure described her work.

Active as a basketweaver for some 40 years, today Mrs. George is widely renowned for the perfection of honeysuckle basket weaving and the richly patterened designs of all her baskets, which are both decortive and utilitarian. 7

Eighteen of her baskets were on view, including sewing baskets, flower baskets, and fruit baskets.  Four of them were a part of the permanent collection of the US Department of Interior.  She also sold baskets through embassies in Washington DC to be given as gifts.  Like other Cherokee basket weavers, Lucy George made and sold baskets that wound up in places she would never see. In an interview, she was asked, “How far away do your baskets go?”  She replied, “Some of them have gone over across,” meaning they wound up on distant continents. 8

Lucy George begins to weave a basket tray
Lucy George begins to weave a basket tray
The finished basket woven from honeysuckle vine
The finished basket woven from honeysuckle vine

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

See More by Lucy George

1. Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Basketry by Lucy George (Cherokee, North Carolina, 1970).
2. Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
3. Sarah H. Hill, Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and their Basketry (Chapel Hill: University of NC Press, 1997) 191.
4. Hill, 191.
5. Lucy George interview by Edward DuPuy, Jan. 14, 1965 [transcription] in the collection of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
6. DuPuy.
7. Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
8. DuPuy.

Cherokee Traditions:
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