Finger-weaving renewal

Strands of Tradition
Adapted from an article written by Kent Priestley
Photography by Patrick Cavan Brown
In the company of artisans
The Cherokee have long been known for their river cane and white oak basketry; their masks
made by their traditional woodcarvers; their finely etched ceramics. Lesser known is the tribe’s
tradition of finger-weaving, a craft more closely related to braiding than to weaving.
Only a handful of Cherokee still practice finger-weaving, and none perhaps is more gifted than
Karen George. A quiet woman with a shy smile, George weaves belts and garters, sashes and
bookmarks, some as thin as a ribbon and others as wide as a plank. The work is painstaking and
absorbing. “You can’t do this and expect to watch TV at the same time,” says George. Pieces
woven from coarser yarn can be completed in less than a week; finer-textured pieces generally
require two weeks of steady attention to finish. “I’ve got to be in the mood for it,” she says. “But
when I am, I can do it for hours.”
Craft, it turns out, had been hiding in George’s DNA all along. Her grandmother, Lucy George,
was renowned for her basket-weaving, especially her ability to turn strands of wild honeysuckle
into intricate, functional pieces. Karen, too, is a skilled basket-weaver in the Cherokee tradition.
She is also a sometimes-potter and not half bad with beadwork, either. “If I want something, I
figure I might as well make it myself,” she says.
Ancient craft
Early examples of native finger-weaving date from 800 years ago, discovered at Spiro Mound in
Oklahoma, where the brittle fibers were preserved by lying in contact with copper. Among the
Cherokee, finger-weaving was first accomplished using spun buffalo hair and perhaps rabbit
hair, as well as mulberry bark and fibers from the beaten stems of a plant known as dogbane.
Natural dyes derived from bloodroot, yellow-root, walnut, and butternut added subtle coloration.
Beginning in the 1600s, as European traders encroached on Cherokee territory, native materials
were gradually overtaken by imports. Glass beads from Spain crept in, replacing the shell beads
that had previously been used. Wild-crafted fibers were supplanted by wool yarn spun in the faroff British Isles. The process accelerated, says George with an arched brow, “when the
missionaries came in and started trying to ‘civilize’ us.”
Historical evidence suggests that it was the Cherokee men who wore the woven pieces. They tied
the decorative garters just below their knees, which held their protective leggings up. The strings
would be tied either behind the knee or just off to one side. During the French and Indian War,
many of the warriors’ garters were carried off to Europe as war prizes by Scots and English
Passing it on
By the middle of the 20th century, however, the craft of finger-weaving was practically extinct
on the Qualla Boundary. By the time George was in grade school, the tradition rested with just
one person, Mary Shell. She was a fixture at the Oconaluftee Indian Village as far back as 1956.
With Shell’s passing, says George, “no one was hardly doing stuff like this anymore.”
Like most of her peers, George was first introduced to the art of finger-weaving as a student at
Cherokee High School in the 1980s, where teacher Alyne Stamper taught the double weave, or
chevron, method to students. She’d hardly given it another thought until six years ago, when a
woman named Deborah Harding appeared on the reservation. Harding, manager of the
anthropology collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
is an experienced finger-weaver and a researcher into the historical patterns of the craft. “I spent
maybe six hours with her that first visit,” recalls George. “And I just kept up with it. The next
year, I learned some more, and the next year a little more.”
The two struck up a long-distance friendship. “Deborah likes to give me what I call ‘challenges,’
” says George. A few months ago, Harding brought her a “new” pattern based on a historical
Cherokee design from the 18th century, sketched out on graph paper with little dots marking
where the piece’s scores of tiny beads should go. “Here,” Harding told George, “do this.”
George’s face breaks into a smile when she remembers the conversation. “I said, ‘Alright.’ And I
Today, George’s eldest daughter, Jordan, is 22. Her youngest, Reilly, turns 12 this month. Her
son, Levon, 17, is the lone finger-weaver of the bunch. “He’s the creative one,” George says.
“He writes songs. He likes to play the guitar. He really picked up the finger-weaving fast.
Sometimes when I teach classes in it, he helps, going around to each student and making sure
they are figuring it out.”
Finger-weaving renewal
Now, Harding believes all signs point to a resurgence of finger-weaving, a welcome turn for a
craft that was in danger of disappearing just a few years ago. “I think it’s going to be around for
a long, long time for a very simple reason — it’s just beautiful stuff,” she says. “As more people
become interested in wearing ancestral dress for celebrations and festivals, the value of fingerweaving will only grow. It’s something that their ancestors wore, and it’s something they can
reproduce themselves.”
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