14 December 2011

Honoring Clara Darden, fiber artist

Last summer Harvard Magazine featured a brief biography of a remarkable artist.
In American history, no class of person remains more obscure than indigenous women. Darden was most likely born in 1829 or 1830, and seems to have spent her entire life on the Chitimacha reservation at Charenton, in the isolated bayous west of New Orleans. She saw considerable change during her lifetime. Her people had adapted to the way of life of their neighbors, French-speaking Acadians (Cajuns), who had encroached on Indian land since their expulsion from Canada in the 1750s and ’60s. The Chitimacha labored in sugar plantations in the summer, kept market gardens, harvested swamp cypress timber, and wove baskets...

Darden was the sole surviving Chitimacha practitioner of the intricate double-weave technique producing a basket in two continuous layers of river cane, one inside the other... Darden and her students had woven no fewer than 72 baskets, which were shown to acclaim at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904...

The design of Darden’s baskets—red, black, and plain splints, plaited diagonally—is strikingly similar to the oldest known Cherokee basket, sent to Britain in 1725 and now in the British Museum. The Cherokee and the Chitimacha are among the heirs to the Mississippian urban cultures disrupted by diseases brought by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, so their basketry practices may have had a common origin...

Transmitted through practice, the designs were committed to each weaver’s memory... The pattern names, such as “Alligator Guts,” “Worm Tracks,” and “Blackbirds’ Eyes,” enhance the baskets’ association with the natural world of forest, swamp, and bayou.

Traces of river-cane baskets from as early as the third millennium b.c. have been excavated within 30 miles of Charenton. Rectangular, lidded river-cane baskets were discovered in the Spiro Mound in Oklahoma, a site used between a.d. 850 and 1450... All we can be sure of is that Darden and her students, followed now by her descendents—contemporary weavers Melissa, Scarlett, and John Paul Darden—have handed down these rich tokens of a sophisticated tradition of both thought and practice.
Shown above: Clara Darden circa 1900 (Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 2004.24.26766B.) and her "worm tracks" pattern. Further information (and photos of an additional dozen patterns) at Harvard Magazine.

(reposted from 2010 in response to a reader's recent comment)


  1. Thank you for this post. So many times our Native American artists are relegated to anonymity. It's good to see the beautiful face of the artist along with the beautiful art.

  2. does that mean it's a lost art? how sad.

  3. Every now and then I see a TV show about basket weaving that makes me want to give it a try. We have a lot of reeds here that might work well. This was a great post.

  4. Texan99: basket weaving is really lots of fun. You should give it a try. However, I spend most of my time arguing with the reed. Not everyone has my skill level, though. :-}

  5. River cane basketry, like that of Clara Darden is still alive in southeastern Indian tribes. There are Choctaw, Cherokee, Chitimacha, Coushatta and a few non-Indians who weave with the difficult material. It is, however, a craft form that is endangered. Many of the various designs and forms have been lost to time but if outsiders remain interested in the basketry, I predict that river cane weaving will survive for many years to come. Like many traditional crafts, it takes dedication by the few who hold the secrets of the traditions to keep it alive. Traditional crafts are often categorized as "homemade" and not given the value that contemporary crafts garner.

  6. Thank you for posting this information on Clara Darden. I am told this wonderful, amazing
    lady is my great grandmother. I am so excited to come across this information. I would to get more information if there is someone that knows more about her.
    Mary Boutte Alexander 12/13/2011

  7. What a talented woman and what a beautiful basket she made. Her work is inspiring.

  8. I did my ancestry blood line through DNA and she is my great great grandmother, the woman Mary Alexander that also shared a post is my mom. But I am the first of our family to actually do the DNA!

    1. I sent her an e mail I'm also on ancestry DNA lets find our connection.


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