TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – At 70, Bessie Russell has acquired many artistic skills in her life: sewing, beading, crafting clay beads for jewelry, among others. But the one craft she always comes back to is the art of traditional Cherokee basket weaving.
Bessie Russell weaves a basket in her home work room. Russell’s baskets made from natural and commercial reed sell mostly in Cherokee Nation gift shops, casinos and at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Okla. Photos BY LISA SNELL / NATIVE TIMES
“It came about after I was an adult,” she said. “I took some classes in the 70s from Thelma Forrest.”
Russell said she quit weaving baskets for a while to raise her children. She left the mostly Indian, Delaware County, rural community of Rocky Ford, where she grew up and moved away for 12 years. When she returned, she met Cherokee artist Mary Foreman. They became close friends, Foreman passing on to Russell her knowledge of Cherokee culture with each basket spoke and weave.
“Mary Foreman is my inspiration. She talked me into going out and gathering traditional materials like honeysuckle. It would be a pretty day to go out. She would call and say, ‘You want to go gather some runners?’ I’d say, ‘Give me about 15 to 20 minutes,’ Russell said. “We would take our water and gather nine to10 rolls or handfuls (of honeysuckle) and spend four or five hours talking about everything. Of course, she was older and knew more traditions and superstitions. I really miss her. She got to where she couldn’t go out any more.”
Like Foreman, Russell received the Cherokee National Treasure Award that recognizes Cherokees who have exceptional knowledge of Cherokee art forms, language and music. Foreman passed away a few years ago but her knowledge and skill lives on in Russell who is determined to pass it on to others, including her daughters. One daughter, Teresa Million, recently placed third in a competition for traditional basket weaving.
Although she has lost count of the number of students she taught, Russell, whose husband passed away in 2002, said it is important to pass on traditional skills that might be useful in such unpredictable economic times as these.
“It also helps me financially, gives me spending money,” she said.
She and her husband raised four children; two boys and two girls who gave them 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She still lives on the family homestead at Rocky Ford where she grew up in a much simpler time, the youngest of eight children born to Johnny and Nancy Rackleff, both Cherokee.
“We roamed and played like any kids; swimming, fishing. We were poor; we helped with the garden; just a typical Indian child. I didn’t speak any English when I went to school. I only spoke Cherokee; that’s all we knew. I’m glad now because I’m still fluent and talk with my siblings.”
Russell is still teaching students these days. While some artisans get caught up in competitive rivalry and jealousy, she wants Cherokee culture bearers to work together so that Cherokee culture and artistry is sustained long into the future.
“I hope they carry on what they’ve learned; that’s the whole purpose, to learn and carry on,” she said. I don’t think it should be that way. I heard someone say, ‘Don’t copy this or that artist’s work.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think that way. That’s our purpose: to teach others what we do. I might have copied some myself; that’s why I don’t mind telling somebody how to make a (basket) lid, or something. I want to teach others and pass it on.”
Russell said she teaches beginning students to weave with commercial reed before going on to natural materials like honeysuckle or buck brush, which has to be gathered in the winter or spring before the sap begins to run and then must be processed by hand.
“I teach with commercial reed because it’s too hard to go out and get traditional materials to just mess it up; and you’re going to (make mistakes). Once you learn the basics, when you get comfy, then you can try the traditional reed,” she said.
Though she might not be as active, she keeps busy with other crafts if she gets bored with weaving. In the past year, she learned to roll beads out of natural clay from her cousin, Jane Osti, another Cherokee National Treasure Award winner. Russell crafts the beads into necklaces, earrings or bracelets.
“If I get tired of doing one thing, I go do something else,” she said.
Always staying busy might just be the key to an artist’s sustainability, along with taking the time to do something right, then passing on the knowledge.
“It takes time to do anything, especially the traditional,” she said. “I am slowing down. I got a little back problem, that’s why I encourage my girls. I can’t go on forever.”