Can Handwoven Baskets Help with Difficult Cultural Conversations?

Feb 3, 2016

Cherokee basketmaker Shan Goshorn doesn’t head out into the woods gathering white oak or other natural materials for her work like traditional basketmakers would. Instead, the archives of museums like the Gilcrease Museum or the National Museum of the American Indian are her source materials.

Using treaties, documents containing the Cherokee language, and recent legislation affecting Native Americans, Goshorn weaves baskets that she hopes show people the relevance of those documents.  

"Coming up with the ideas, creating the title, creating the statement, that's the bulk of my time."

Below, watch a video created by  FireThief Productions about Shan's work and her process.

Shan Goshorn has been an artist for more than 30 years. She’s been a photographer, a painter, and worked in the commercial art field. Cherokee basket weaving isn’t something she learned from her mother or other relatives. She learned by studying traditional basket designs and drawing them.

"When I graduated from college, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board asked me to create pen and ink drawing of traditional Cherokee basket designs. I think there were about 20 altogether. And by the time I got to 12 or 13, I thought, 'You know what, I bet I can make a basket.'"

"But it wasn't until 2008, that I had an idea about sovereignty that I thought putting it into a woven format would be the best way to convey this idea. There was an article in The Tulsa World about compacts between the state of Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation. This goes to the heart of what sovereignty is and I just had this crazy idea, 'What if I wove a basket and somehow wove these compacts into it. I just started experimenting and the first piece that I created  with a pattern called spiders web, because I wanted to show how tangled these negotiations are and I left the basket deliberately unfinished because I wanted to show that these are ongoing negotiations.  And the Smithsonian purchased my first basket."

Goshorn says the medium changed how people related to her work and the issues she was discussing.

"Before with a lot of my work, I don't know if it was because I was younger or my work was angrier, or more confrontational, but people would literally wrap their arms around themselves and back up. But with baskets...it's familiar to people. It's because these baskets are interesting to look at, people lean in."

That leaning in allows Goshorn to present contemporary issues in her work—like the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the effect boarding schools have had on generations of Indian families, and the important role women play in society.

Credit Allison Herrera

In one piece titled "Hearts of our Women," Goshorn wove a large basket with the tops unfinished and splaying out, like a burning fire. It’s surrounded by smaller baskets with portraits of women woven in. Goshorn put out a call on social media asking people for names of extraordinary Indian women and within 48 hours, she received more than 700 names. The piece is meant to show how women are the caretakers and hearts of Indian people.

"I've always felt like ancestors were guiding me with my work. When I was in the archives of the Smithsonian,  if I had even a glimmer of an idea next thing I knew I would turn around and there would be the information in front of me. These things were falling into my lap, which made me feel like not only were my ancestors assisting, they were impatient to have these stories told."

Currently, Goshorn is weaving a basket inspired by an image she found in the Smithsonian. She’s using Cherokee language as her materials this time, with some syllabary she found in the Gilcrease Museum belonging to Seqouyah. It's something she says is perfectly precious to be woven into a basket.

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