Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Article excerpt

Weaving Alliances with Other Women: Chitimacha Indian Work in the New South. By Daniel H. Usner. Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 2015. Pp. xviii, 110. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-4849-0; cloth, $69.95, ISBN 978-0 8203-4848-3.)

In 2008 Daniel H. Usner received a historian's dream come true: a box of letters discovered in an abandoned building on Avery Island, Louisiana. The correspondence, dating from the turn of the twentieth century, documented an unlikely friendship between Mary McIlhenny Bradford, a wealthy white woman, and Christine Paul, an impoverished Chitimacha basket weaver. These letters, combined with others written between Paul and anthropologist Caroline Dormon, allow Usner to weave together a tale about three very different southern women whose lives "intersected largely through a flow of material objects" (p. xi). Usner's work reveals how "Indian women innovatively deployed ... networking strategies to help mitigate disruptive and destructive effects of white domination," and it provides "an all too scarce vantage point from which to explore the condition of American Indians in the Jim Crow South" (pp. ix, x).

The book consists of three biographical essays. The first follows Mary McIlhenny Bradford, the daughter of the inventor of Tabasco sauce, who became interested in Chitimacha baskets in 1899. At the time, the Chitimachas "had been reduced to a tiny possession of land and now went unrecognized by the federal government" (p. 3). The rise of store-bought housewares threatened the group's rich basket-weaving tradition, but Bradford helped revive the art by opening up new markets through her connections with "consumers, collectors, curators, and anthropologists" (p. 7). Usner ties Bradford's patronage of the Chitimachas to the Progressive era's growing arts and crafts movement, women's organizations, and philanthropic work. As he points out, white women "found a rare opportunity through ... the collection of folk materials to participate professionally in a new sphere of intellectual and intercultural exchange" (p. 22).

The Chitimachas had their own reasons for participating in this exchange. The second essay focuses on Christine Navarro Paul, one of the few literate women in the group, who became Bradford's principal contact with the Chitimachas. …

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