Andrew Dys

Catawba Indian basket maker revives almost-lost ancient tradition

A Catawba Indian tradition that has been in danger of dying out is being rescued by a woman who stands under 5 feet tall with a smile that will not cease.

Basket-making is as old as the red clay and the Catawba people who were here for centuries before any white settlers.

Faye George Greiner – born on the reservation at a time when the art of making traditional baskets had just about vanished – learned basket-making at a boarding school for Indians as a child and brought the craft back when she returned to York County about 20 years ago.

She is the last Catawba basket maker.

South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe is known worldwide for its handmade clay pottery – an method practiced only by the local tribe.

Unlike Catawba pottery, though, the basket-making practiced on the tribe’s reservation along the Catawba River in eastern York County is not unique.

But the making and using of them was an important part of the Catawba culture.

The baskets that tribal members hauled the clay in from the riverbanks were hand-woven tribal baskets, made far longer than any written or even oral record.

Today, Greiner is the saving grace of that craft.

“There were cotton-carrying baskets, bread baskets, woven baskets of all kinds made by the Catawba people – but not for at least a hundred years,” said Greiner, 77, who also makes traditional pottery. “I figured that people needed to learn about it before it was too late.”

For the past two months, Greiner has taught a basket-making class at the reservation’s senior center. The class caught on with tribal seniors and some not-so-senior members.

Those members’ finger-weaving is a way to make sure tribal traditions do not die off. Wanda Kitchen, 55, weaves baskets that might have been woven by her forefathers unknowable centuries ago.

“This is something my grandchildren can learn and keep it alive,” Kitchen said.

Roger Trimnal, 73, knows as much about of the history of his people as anyone. For him, making baskets is a way to keep that history alive.

Other class members say similar things – the baskets are part of who the Catawba people were and are.

The three-days-a-week class over the past two months ends this week in time for a Sept. 14 sale to benefit the senior center. That’s the same day the tribe commemorates the 20th anniversary of the land claim settlement with the state and federal governments that ushered in the modern era of the tribe.

But it is the pre-modern era that is celebrated in the baskets. The students learn, and the teacher teaches.

Greiner explains the reeds used today and how tribal ancestors used young oak trees. She knows about how there used to be fishing trap baskets woven for placement into the river to catch fish. Large baskets for carrying crops and smaller baskets that were for household use.

Sure, what these men and women make are just baskets. A basket can be bought at any department or discount store.

But these baskets are made by the fingers of people whose forefathers did exactly the same thing. The basket means something to them.

Each is handmade, by a person.

“Every basket is history – our history, and the history of this area,” Greiner said. “What we are doing here is making sure that people can do it after I am gone.”