Spotlight on the Collection: December 2017

/ Spotlight on the Collection

Storage Basket, about 1980, Eva Wolfe (1944 – 2004), Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, United States, North Carolina, river-cane and dyes, Museum purchase 2000.82

This storage basket made of split river-cane is compelling not just for its beautiful design and precise craftsmanship, but because of the artist herself and the context of her life and work.

The basket was made by Mrs. Eva Wolfe (1922 – 2004), an Eastern Band Cherokee who lived on tribal lands in North Carolina. She learned basketry from her mother and her aunt, and became a master at the craft, winning many awards in her lifetime. Her work is held in museum collections across the country.

Native American basketry in the Southeastern United States dates back thousands of years. When the English arrived to Cherokee territory in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, they marveled at the baskets, and naturalist Mark Catesby, writing in the 1700s, called them “masterpieces.”

Following their arrival, European settlers encroached on Cherokee lands, and a string of devastating treaties further eroded their territory. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced tens of thousands of Cherokee and other tribes of the Southeast to leave their homes and walk hundreds of miles to reservation lands in Oklahoma.

About a thousand Cherokee resisted and remained in North Carolina, and the descendants of these people formed the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Their children were sent to boarding schools and there was enormous pressure to assimilate and relinquish their culture; nonetheless, basket-making continued – both objects and skills passing from mother to daughter – and became not only an important source of income, but an unbroken link to pre-removal Cherokee culture.

Eva Wolfe’s career spanned the years of the Great Depression, the early development of a Cherokee tourist economy, and the inception of Native arts and crafts cooperatives. As she raised eleven children and made time to make baskets, she contributed to a powerful revitalization of Cherokee culture, and her artistry and craftsmanship continue to inspire younger generations of Cherokee artists today.