A Louisiana basket maker keeps her tribe’s traditional art alive
Melissa Darden was 14 when she quit school, 15 when she married, and 16 when she had her first child. Back then, her career aspirations were nonexistent and her Native heritage, as the daughter of a Chitimacha father and Caucasian mother, a mystery. But Darden, now 37, has evolved into one of her tribe’s leaders when it comes to preserving a traditional aspect of Chitimacha culture. She also has earned a bachelor’s degree in business while raising three sons, mostly on her own. Now, Darden contemplates returning to school to earn a master’s degree.
The Chitimachas have a long history of surviving despite the odds. Indigenous to the Mississippi delta and Atchafalaya Basin of south-central Louisiana, the tribe’s population was a flourishing 20,000 in 1492. After centuries of attacks and encroachment by the French, Spaniards, English,and American government, the culture was nearly decimated, reduced to 69 people in 1910. Today the Chitimachas number around 1,000, and their indigenous split-cane basket making, once essential for food storage and preparation, construction, sleeping, and burying the dead, has faded. Over a decade ago, when Darden was in her early 20s, only four or five Chitimacha basket makers remained, including her grandmother, Lydia. All were elderly.
For Darden, making baskets became a means to an end. Separated from her husband and taking care of a newborn, she was desperate for money. An antiques-dealer friend offered a way: He urged her to weave with the promise that he’d buy as many baskets as she could make. She went straight to her grandmother, who tendered less-than-illuminating advice—essentially, to find some cane and peel it. “She felt if you really wanted to make a basket, you’d figure out how,” the artist recalls. “You needed to really want to, or she didn’t want to waste her time.”
Darden knew where to find river cane—which grows close to the home she still lives in on the reservation in Charenton, LA. For hours she sat with a kitchen knife, peeling the bamboo-like stalks into long strips. With her grandmother’s blessing, she moved on to assembling the base. When she took her first basket to Lydia for help with the hemming of the rim, her grandmother was stunned. “You’ve got more Indian in you than I thought,” her grandmother remarked appreciatively.
Relying on instinct, trial and error, and what little she had observed of her grandmother’s work, Darden became a basket maker. For two or three years, she made pieces full time, copying designs from old black-and-white photographs. She knew that traditional double-weave baskets were made with red, black, and natural cane, and that single-weave baskets had yellow around the rim, but she guessed at the placement of the colors. Years later, in Washington, DC, to demonstrate basket making at the Festival of American Folklife, she discovered, in the Smithsonian’s archives, that her decisions were historically accurate.
Today, Darden makes her pieces in much the same way as her ancestors, collecting cane that is neither too soft nor too young, and laying it in the sun to dry. Using black walnut, dock plants (a wild weed that grows in Louisiana), and lime shells (actual shells that are crushed into a powder), she dyes the cane, dries it again, and splits and peels the material into splints. To make baskets without bumps, she must use the longest joints possible between nodes. The preparation, Darden notes, is more difficult than the weaving.
Chitimacha patterns have vividly descriptive, nature-inspired names like worm track, blackbird’s eye, and rabbit’s teeth. Turtle-with-a-necktie mimics the shell of a turtle with its head retracted, and the muscadine rind design consists of four parts, just as the fruit of the plant appears when squashed in the palm of the hand.
Fourteen years since her initial foray into basket making, Darden’s accomplishments include 11 ribbons from Santa Fe Indian Market, seven from Oklahoma’s Red Earth Festival, and a first-place prize received in 1996 from the Louisiana Indian Heritage Association. Collectors must now wait two years or more for one of her custom baskets. The artist who once detested school has become an avid student of Chitimacha history and is passing the craft along to her sons.
“I’m more into my heritage now than I’ve ever been,” Darden says from her Louisiana home (which luckily suffered no damage during the 2005 hurricanes). “The kids can tear up the house around me. When I make a basket, I’m in my own world.”
Darden’s baskets can be found at Santa Fe Indian Market, Santa Fe, NM; Red Earth Festival, Oklahoma City, OK; and www.chitimachabasket.com.