Osburn on Usner, 'Weaving Alliances with Other Women: Chitimacha Indian Work in the New South'

Daniel H. Usner
Katherine M. Osburn

Daniel H. Usner. Weaving Alliances with Other Women: Chitimacha Indian Work in the New South. Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lecture Series. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015. 136 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-4849-0; $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-4848-3.

Reviewed by Katherine M. Osburn (Arizona State University, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies) Published on H-SAWH (February, 2016) Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla

Weaving Alliances with Other Women: Chitimacha Indian work in the New South

Daniel H. Usner’s new microhistory of Chitimacha basket production in the early twentieth century is an impressive synthesis of several fields of scholarship and a beautifully crafted and important story. Usner explores how the relationships between Chitimacha basket weaver Christine Navarro Paul (1874–1946) and two white women, Mary Avery McIlhenny Bradford (1869–1954) and Caroline Coroneos Dormon (1888–1971), served the interests of the small settlement of Chitimacha Indians, whose population was roughly fifty-five people in the early twentieth century, on Bayou Teche in Charenton, Louisiana. Bradford and Dormon operated as patrons who marketed Chitimacha river-cane baskets across the country and lobbied government officials for Chitimacha concerns. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Chitimachas held a 1,093-acre tract of land, the title to which the United States Supreme Court had confirmed in 1852. They lacked federal recognition as an Indian nation, however, and officials at all levels of government considered them to be citizens of Louisiana and therefore not entitled to social services from the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA). This left them vulnerable on many fronts. Like many other so-called remnant indigenous nations in the Jim Crow South, Chitimachas were subjected to segregation, discrimination, violence, and dispossession. Usner reveals how the relationships between Chitimacha basket weavers and their white patrons led to federal recognition in 1916 and resulted in the opening of an Indian Service school for Chitimacha children in 1935. Usner persuasively argues that “the activism and perseverance of tribal members, as expressed through production and distribution of material culture,” was responsible for this tribal recognition (p. 33).

Women are at the heart of this story, and Usner brings them to life through a variety of sources that illuminate their starkly different lives. He begins with Mary Bradford, who had been Mary Avery McIlhenny before marriage, heiress to the Tabasco Sauce fortune which her family had built on Avery Island, Louisiana. Bradford’s initial interest in the Chitimachas was as a collector of their woven baskets, which she then marketed through her nationwide network of other wealthy matrons. Bradford viewed these marketing activities not as activism but as charity, an occupation befitting her status as a wealthy white woman. She and her sister Sarah McIlhenny interacted with other white women promoting Indian issues through such organizations as the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA) and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC). Through these networks, Bradford encountered John Swanton, the most prominent anthropologist of southeastern Indians, whom she introduced to the Chitimachas. She also arranged for showings of Chitimacha baskets in such venues as the Smithsonian Institute and Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. The Chitimachas turned to the McIlhenny sisters when a lawsuit threatened to take their remaining land base in 1903. After the efforts by the Indian Rights Association failed to stop the land sale, Sarah McIlhenny put up the 1,240 dollars to save the land and the Chitimachas repaid her with their beautiful baskets. The passionate advocacy of the McIlhenny sisters through their network of basket sellers and traders led the OIA to recognize the tribe in 1916.

Christine Navarro Paul, the woman who organized basket production among the Chitimachas, was educated at a mission school and, as one of the few literate Chitimachas, used her skills to negotiate her tribe’s interests as she moved baskets. In her letter inquiring after a recent shipment of baskets to Bradford in 1903, Paul pleaded poignantly for help against the impending sale of their lands. Referring to the attorney seeking judgment against them, she wrote, “he say we not Indians because we mix so much.... He say we not a nation. I don’t know what we are then if we are not nation. I am sure we not dogs” (p. 41). Most probably because they saw them as potential allies, the Chitimachas were amenable to meeting with the anthropologists and folklorists that Bradford and McIlhenny brought to them. These interactions allowed the Chitimachas to demonstrate their unique racial identity in the biracial South and to seek federal funds for social services.

The last character in Usner’s story is naturalist Caroline Coroneos Dorman. Dorman held a degree in fine arts from Judson College in Marion, Alabama, but her passion was forestry and conservation. This work led her into the forests of Louisiana as a conservationist with the Louisiana Federated Women’s Clubs (LFWC). Around the same time, she took an interest in Chitimacha baskets and published an article on them for Holland’s, the Magazine of the South in 1931. By the 1930s, Bradford and McIlhenny were less involved with the Chitimachas and Dorman stepped into the gap, facilitating anthropological fieldwork and pressuring the OIA to build a school. These efforts paid off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Indian New Deal in 1934. Working through LFWC and the Daughters of the American Revolution, Dorman helped win a school for the Chitimachas. The school embraced the New Deal’s Arts and Crafts program, which sought to revitalize indigenous crafts after a century of government repression of Native culture, and Chitimachas established basket weaving as an important part of the curriculum. Paul taught the subject at the school until 1942, after which her younger sister-in-law, Pauline Paul, took over the role. Christine Paul died four years later.

Usner’s study weaves social and cultural history into a political narrative of savvy activism in the South. Starting with a box of Bradford’s personal papers discovered in her home on Avery Island by a descendant, Usner then fills in these women’s stories using Dorman’s personal papers, government records, newspapers and periodicals, and relevant scholarly works on the arts and crafts movement and federal Indian policy. The result contributes to several fields of study. There is a voluminous literature on women’s activism for Indians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but it focuses primarily on the West. Weaving Alliances brings white southern women into the narrative. The activities of southern white women did not differ from those of other clubwomen in the early twentieth century in any significant way, but it is good to include them in the conversation, especially as it reminds readers that indigenous peoples remained in the South long after Indian removal. In this respect, Usner’s work is especially important and joins a growing number of studies that complicate our understanding of race relations in the Jim Crow South. Recent histories of indigenous peoples in the South reveal that racial categories were far more fluid than previous generations of historians believed them to be. Indeed, the amount of time, energy, and money expended by many whites to help indigenous peoples has been quite remarkable. Even more notable is the manner in which southern Indians have parlayed this attention into political and social capital in service of their indigenous identity. Usner’s skillfully told story and absorbing biographies present a rich perspective of American Indian livelihood, identity, and self-determination.

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Citation: Katherine M. Osburn. Review of Usner, Daniel H., Weaving Alliances with Other Women: Chitimacha Indian Work in the New South. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. February, 2016. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45525

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