Oral history interview with Mary Smith

OOHRP, Oklahoma State University
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Little Thunder: My name is Julie Pearson Little-Thunder. Today is Thursday, April 30, 2015, and I'm interviewing Mary Smith as part of the Oklahoma Native Artists Project sponsored by the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University.

We're at Mary's home in Bixby. Mary, you make a number of cultural items, but you're perhaps best known for your baskets and beautiful mats which have won you numerous awards over the years. You keep pretty busy teaching basketmaking workshops for Creek Nation in the various communities. Before I start the interview we need to get one story out of the way, which is the story behind your home here in Bixby.

Smith: We purchased this house in 1974. It's 103 years old. It has a history that [Charles Arthur] "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the notorious outlaw, his wife, Ruby Hargraves, was raised in this house.

Little Thunder: That is really neat, and it's gorgeous, just beautifully 1:00furnished with antique furnishings. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Smith: I was born in Broken Arrow [Oklahoma]. I'm a twin; I have a twin brother. I grew up and went to school here in Bixby.

Little Thunder: What did your folks do for a living?

Smith: My father was a truck driver in his younger years, and then after he got older he had his own trucking company.

Little Thunder: Is the Creek on your dad's side, or mom's, or both?

Smith: It's on my father's side.

Little Thunder: What was your relationship with your grandparents on either side of the family?

Smith: We were very close, very close. My dad's mother, and her name was Noma Williams Edwards, she had always talked about us being Creek, but as you can tell I'm pretty fair, and so we just kind of fluffed it off for years. After I really started researching it, I took it all the way back to the early 1800s, 2:00back to Tukabatchee, the head tribal town in the Creek Nation. My fifth great-grandfather was Efa Haugo, which translated into Mad Dog. He was the Principal Chief and the Head Speaker from 1792 to 1803. At that time he had a son. His son's name was Far Off Warrior. He and Far Off Warrior were out on a hunting expedition, but really it was said to be a war party with the Cherokees. On the way back they went by Fort Rogers. They were kind of like, kind of worked up. My fourth great-grandmother is Hannah Hale. She was a little white girl playing out at the fort, and they captured her. They took her back to Tukabatchee, and at age fifteen she married Far Off. That's the line that I come from.


Little Thunder: Also, I understand, although you're enrolled Creek, you could've--you actually have some Cherokee heritage, too.

Smith: Yes, it was always told us that we could've either been Cherokee or Creek, but since my ancestors moved here to the Creek Nation, they said, "Let's just be Creek, then."

Little Thunder: Were you around the language very much growing up?

Smith: No, not really. I did learn a little bit of the language by working with the Creek Nation for the immersion camps for the children. I did that for several years.

Little Thunder: Did you have any family or extended family who were artistically inclined?

Smith: My grandmother was very artistic. She made her living as a seamstress. That's the only job she had. She would sew for doctor's wives. She made her own 4:00patterns. I wish I had paid more attention to her when I was younger. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: I think you got some of that handiwork talent. Was this your paternal or maternal grandmother?

Smith: Paternal.

Little Thunder: What are your earliest memories of seeing Native art?

Smith: It had to have been when I was young. I've just always been drawn to it, but when I really became interested in art was after I got older, though. We were making trips back and forth to Colorado during the summer on vacation, and I fell in love with the pottery, but it was the little storytellers, the little figures, and just little figurative pottery.

I came home one trip from there because at that time I didn't have any money. I go, "I can't afford these." So I came home and I sat and made about ten or 5:00fifteen pieces. I thought they were cute, but I wanted somebody else's opinion.

I took them to the Five Tribes Museum and asked them, "What do you think?" They said, "Do you want to sell them?" I'm like, "Do you want to buy them?" That's really how I got started in pottery. I kept doing the little storytellers and the little figurines until I [made] about 500. I was trying to do every one of them different. Then I ran out of ideas. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: I had no idea you started in pottery. This was before the big Southeastern pottery revival, right?

Smith: This was in the early '90s.

Little Thunder: Oh, this was in the early '90. Okay, so Anna Mitchell and Jani Osti--

Smith: Anna...

Little Thunder: --some of those people are already working. That's really neat. Did you take any classes from anybody or you just--

Smith: When I very first started out, I spent maybe three or four days with 6:00Patricia Gilliam Stewart out of Fort Gibson. She basically showed me just the basics and then she said, "Go home and just work on it."

Little Thunder: That's neat. What was your exposure to art in elementary school?

Smith: Really, I don't think we had that much exposure at that time. Of course, that was in the '50s and we just didn't have that [many]art classes, or much to do with art.

Little Thunder: Do you have any memories of making art at home? Your earliest memory of maybe making something?

Smith: No, not really. It wasn't until I got--probably I would say in my forties. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Wow. How about art experiences in high school? Any?

Smith: No, I just worked all through high school.

Little Thunder: Bless your heart, going to school and working. What did you do?


Smith: At that time there was a little drive-in, a little drive-in restaurant and I started working there until I was fifteen to eighteen, waiting tables, being a carhop. Then, they had carhops. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: What did you do after high school?

Smith: After high school then I started to work, and I worked for an insurance company. I was an administrative assistant for probably twenty years.

Little Thunder: You weren't doing any art on the side?

Smith: Not any art on the side or anything.

Little Thunder: It was the Southwest [storyteller] pots that got you interested. When did you first get involved with basketmaking? What was the progression to what you do now?

Smith: I was doing a lot of work with the Council House Museum. We really only 8:00had, at that time, one basketmaker and that was Hepsey Gilroy. She was elderly at that time. Ted Isham--I don't know that he was the director, but he was maybe the director of the museum. He said, "We only had that one basket weaver. We need a basket weaver and you're it. I want you do go and I want you to learn everything you can because we need a basket teacher."

I did go and visit with Hepsey. We had the intention of weaving, but really, her health was so poor that we just sat and we just talked. I enjoyed it so much, I just started learning on my own. I did take a class or two with Shawna Cain and Peggy Brennan. I did take a few classes with them, but then, after that it was 9:00like it got in my blood and it seemed--I've always been one that loved numbers. It seems like the numbers and the basketry just go with my brain.

Little Thunder: They do. There's that mathematical component, isn't there?

Smith: Yes.

Little Thunder: Patterns--yeah, there weren't a lot of Creek basketmakers, but there were plenty of Cherokee basketmakers.

Smith: Plenty of Cherokee basketmakers, yes.

Little Thunder: Did you also learn something about gathering natural materials at that point?

Smith: Yes. By that point I was already hooked on weaving, but I wanted to be able to make river cane baskets, and to do our natural rimming methods. Every tribe had, really, their own rimming method, and that's a lot of times you could tell what tribe had made that basket. The Creeks had, what we called, a 10:00double-false braid rim. It hadn't been done 100 to 150 years.

Joyce Bear, she had worked with the Creek Nation Cultural Department for several years, brought me a basket that was handed down in her family. I couldn't take it apart so I just looked at it. That was my goal was to figure that out. It took me three weeks, I could get the first round of it, but the second round was driving me crazy. I went in one Friday morning and I said to Ted, "Today is going to be the day," because I was just so tired of trying to figure it out. In about an hour and a half I took it to him and I said, "I think this is it." He looked at it and he said, "That's it." (Laughs)

Little Thunder: And Hepsey wasn't doing that?

Smith: No, Ted had told me it hadn't been done for 100 to 150 years.

Little Thunder: That is amazing.

Smith: Naturally, Ted filmed me.


Little Thunder: What was one of your important early shows then, outside of the Council House Museum?

Smith: Of my earlier shows? Probably would've been Cherokee, North Carolina.

Little Thunder: How did you end up going there?

Smith: The first trip was with the Creek Nation, just took a group of us out. We took our artwork out and demonstrated at the Festival.

Little Thunder: And were you demonstrating basketry at that point?

Smith: At that time I think I was demonstrating weaving. It was the heddle loom and possibly basketry, but I want to think it was just weaving with textiles.

Little Thunder: What were your impressions of North Carolina?

Smith: I love North Carolina, and they have some absolute, wonderful, wonderful, 12:00basket weavers there. Ramona Lossiah, her sister, Louise, I mean they are excellent basket weavers.

Little Thunder: So you made a few friends there?

Smith: Yes.

Little Thunder: How did you know how to price your work, starting out?

Smith: When I first started out it was very reasonably low. Then it was like the more ribbons and more acknowledgement I was getting, then I increased my prices.

Little Thunder: And reasonably low would be what for a smaller basket?

Smith: For just a small basket, probably ten dollars.

Little Thunder: When you started out were you incorporating any natural dyes with your baskets, or did that come later?

Smith: It came later. As far as natural dyes I use black walnut and bloodroot when it is available and can be found.


Little Thunder: You never make Cherokee baskets then? You exclusively do the--

Smith: I make Cherokee baskets, but I only make Cherokee baskets whenever I'm teaching to children because I think they are an easy basket. They are an easy basket for a child to make.

Little Thunder: Okay. How have your baskets changed over the years? You make a number of different kinds--

Smith: I try mostly to stick with Creek basketry. Then I do mats.

Little Thunder: Right, but there are different formats for the baskets, like you'll have bigger baskets and small...

Smith: --and smaller baskets. With the Creeks, our baskets, we used them like we 14:00did pots and pans. There's a set of four baskets that's a corn processing set. They were usually at least maybe fifteen to seventeen inches both ways, so they were a bigger basket but shallow.

Little Thunder: What's been one of the most important awards that you've won?

Smith: Best of Show--

Little Thunder: And that was where?

Smith: For two years. I think it was in 2014 and 2012, Best of Show at Five Tribes Museum. Best of Class at the Hard Rock. Several first place awards, Cherokee, North Carolina.


Little Thunder: That must have felt good. (Laughs)

Smith: Yes.

Little Thunder: How important are commissions in your work?

Smith: Of course I love commissions, and I do them every once and a while.

Little Thunder: So really booth shows are predominately how you earn your living?

Smith: That, yeah, entering into shows and teaching.

Little Thunder: Right.

Smith: I love teaching.

Little Thunder: How many booth shows do you do a year, and what are some of the most important ones that you do?

Smith: I don't really do that many as far as sale shows. I just do like the art shows and then teaching and traveling.

Little Thunder: Do you use Mvskoke language at all in your basketmaking classes?

Smith: No, other than when I introduce myself. I introduce myself as svmbv 16:00mvhaya which is basket teacher. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: You know they were such, as you say, a functional, vital, thing--everyday thing. I'm wondering how--since most people aren't using them for the purposes they were used for originally, why they're so attractive to people?

Smith: As far as like a river cane basket?

Little Thunder: Right.

Smith: I just think they're getting harder and harder to find. There's fewer and fewer people making them. There's different tribes, just like the Choctaws in Mississippi, they have more access to cane than we do here in Oklahoma. Whenever I am pricing my baskets, our baskets are priced a little bit higher than theirs.


Little Thunder: So they're attracted to the materials partly.

Smith: Yes, it is. It's just the river cane has a total different look about it. I just love the look of river cane.

Little Thunder: Can you describe it a little bit?

Smith: Well--

Little Thunder: Contrast it with commercial materials.

Smith: With commercial materials? River cane just has a--it's just a different look. Commercial materials have no nodes. When your river cane breaks down, you have nodes. They'll be anywhere from ten inches to as much as twenty-four, although we have none of the twenty-four here. On a commercial basket there will be no nodes, but on a river cane basket--that's why I tell people, if somebody tells you it's river cane, you look for the nodes unless it's just a small little basket. If it's a small basket, then it may not have any nodes in it.


Little Thunder: I especially love your mats. I just couldn't believe--I think that's what you won one Grand Award on, at least. Maybe it was both. I'm wondering how you got into making mats.

Smith: It was several years ago when I was spending some time with Shawna Cain. I had been to Moundville Archaeological Park. They had flown me out and asked me to make a floor-length turkey and goose-feathered cloak for the chief in the exhibit. I was visiting with Shawna and we were discussing--because she was interested in making a cloak. At that point I was going to enter into the Armory Show and Shawna said, "Just make a mat." I'm like, "Okay." That's the very first 19:00one I made. I made a three foot by five foot one.

Little Thunder: Wow, and basically you hadn't made a mat before?

Smith: Just small, little small mats that I would put in frames, but not anything that big.

Little Thunder: That ambitious--going back to Moundville, what was your first trip there like?

Smith: My first trip to Moundville--it's been so long. I've been going for probably about ten years. I'm sure I probably went as a basket demonstrator, but I love Moundville. I have spent so much time at Moundville. I spend months at Moundville.

Little Thunder: When you go, you stay for a period?

Smith: I'll stay--when I went and I did the cloak, I was there for three and a half months. At that time that I was there, I ran out of feathers. I think it was thirty Alabama turkeys that we had the feathers from, but I'd used them all 20:00up. Every feather was sewed on individually. While I was there the city of Columbus, Georgia, was wanting to repatriate a Creek man. It was the bones and it was the full body. They traced me down at Moundville and asked me, would I make a burial basket? So I did. That basket measures [twenty inches tall, two feet long and one and a half foot wide].

Little Thunder: That was a real honor.

Smith: Oh I thought--I was very honored to have done that.

Little Thunder: They asked you to make this feather cape. As I understand it, nobody had made one before. Nobody had made one.

Smith: No, not at that time. There was one down in Cherokee, North Carolina, in their museum. I don't know how long it had been there, but it had been there for 21:00several years. At that time, I was the only one that was working on capes.

Little Thunder: How did you go about figuring out that process?

Smith: It was all new to me. When they called me, I'm like, "I've not ever done anything like that before," and Betsy Irwin said, "You can do it." I came out and we had Walter Gowen and he's from Alexander City, Alabama. He had made a twined netting. Then I took and drew out the design and just started sewing on feathers.

Little Thunder: So you had the netting background already?

Smith: The netting background [was ready when I got to Moundville].

Little Thunder: Right, wow. You also--one of your pieces was purchased by the Red River Museum. Do you want to tell us about your first visit down there and 22:00how you got that contact?

Smith: Let's see, how did I get that contact? Let me think. How did I get that contact? I'm sure they contacted me about doing a basket class for them. I was telling them about my mat and so--Jeannette Bohannon said, "Bring it down, let us take a look at it." I took it down when I was doing the basket class and hung it up. Before I left she said, "We love it. We are going to find a way to get it." So they purchased it and they had it back in collections probably a year. Then in December she contacted me and she said, "It's too pretty to leave in collections. We've brought it out. It's on permanent exhibit and it's going to be on permanent exhibit for several years."

Little Thunder: What did it measure again?


Smith: Three foot by five foot.

Little Thunder: I understand that last year at Moundville, you were not only demonstrating basketmaking, but you were doing twined bags. Can you explain what twined bags are?

Smith: Twine bags are--you just make them on a little loom. I call it almost like a little H loom. I use jute or hemp. It's just the same process. It's like weaving, but it's just, "Give them a little twist, a little twist." I always say, "You can twine and think about something else." (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Yeah, they have a real neat look to them. Do you do any weaving still?

Smith: Weaving of?

Little Thunder: Of textiles--

Smith: Yes, I just got through having a twine bag class at Moundville and one at Red River in February.


Little Thunder: You don't do any loom weaving, anymore, other than the twine bags?

Smith: [Just] the twine bags.

Little Thunder: Okay. You've made one bandolier bag. Do you want to tell us about that?

Smith: Yes, it was a forever project. I started it--Martha Berry came over to the Council House Museum several years ago. She was putting on a class. I hadn't really done hardly any beadwork at that time, so I started this bandolier bag and I--

Little Thunder: In her class?

Smith: In her class. Whenever I first started working on it, I was so gung-ho on it. I finished the pouch, put the tassels on it, then I started up the sash. I got halfway through the sash and my gung-ho was gone. (Laughter)


I would put it up and then I would weave on baskets, or do some other project. Then I'd get it out, and I'd do a flower, one flower and then wait a couple of months. Finally, I said, "I've got to get it finished." I finished it and took it to Cherokee, North Carolina, and it won First Place in Traditional Beadwork.

Little Thunder: That's fantastic. You've been giving a lot of basketry workshops, and currently giving one in Eufaula. Why do you think they're so popular?

Smith: The workshops? I think women like--well, not only women because I have two men in my class--but I think there's something about weaving. I think you put part of yourself into it and people just seem to enjoy it.

Little Thunder: What's your favorite kind of group to teach? It might be in terms of age or demographics.


Smith: Really my favorite is probably from ten to twelve years of age. They are so excited once they have finished a basket. It's just fun working with them.

Little Thunder: Do you have any funny stories you can share about teaching?

Smith: I have this one friend in Alabama (and this makes me sound kind of bad), but I was teaching her. I wanted her to get basketry. I wanted her to get it because I could tell she had it in her.

Every time she would make a mistake, I would make her take it out. She would even say in the end, "I can't take it out." I'd be, "Give it to me," and I'd just rip it right out. (Laughter) So she said, "I really thought at times you were being mean to me." "No," I said, "But look at how good of a basket weaver 27:00you are now." She said, "Now I see why." [We are the best of friends.]

Little Thunder: That's neat. What's the hardest or most challenging basket you ever made?

Smith: I would say when I'm working with river cane. Working with river cane because it's labor intensive. I don't know. Should I show my hand or not? (Laughter) It's really hard on your hands. Different weavers and strippers hold it different ways. I must put my pressure in here. This is my ligament and my little finger wants to go--but this is on both hands. It doesn't hurt. I don't feel like it's from weaving, I just feel like it's from stripping and peeling the river cane.

Little Thunder: When do you gather it, and without telling us where your sources are exactly, where--


Smith: It can be gathered anytime. The best time to gather it though is after it's gotten cold. I like it then because you don't have to worry about snakes, and it just seems like the coolness of the air--the cane is greener.

Little Thunder: So around November or something?

Smith: Yes. November, December.

Little Thunder: And in terms of access, you mentioned it's getting harder to find.

Smith: It is very hard to find. I think it needs to be on, if it's not already, on the endangered species list here, at least in Oklahoma.

Little Thunder: Is it because it's a wetlands plant?

Smith: That and there's just so many reasons why--pesticides, where it won't grow in certain areas. It needs a flowing water source, not a pond, but a creek. 29:00It can be an underground stream, but it has to have that flowing water. It has to have that movement.

Little Thunder: What are you working on right now that you're especially excited about?

Smith: I haven't started it yet, but I'm in the process of making another big mat. It'll be drawing out my patterns and getting it ready to weave with. I'm really anxious to get another one started.

Little Thunder: What's one of your favorite trip stories, maybe? A place that you especially enjoyed going to?

Smith: That was in October. The Creek Nation took us to the Smithsonian, the Native American Museum. We were there for a week. I had another big mat I had 30:00made. A collector from Belgium bought it and took it back with him.

Little Thunder: Oh, that's wonderful. Did you get the opportunity to look at some other mats out there as well?

Smith: No. There was not really that much artwork to really be seen.

Little Thunder: That was on display.

Smith: That was on display.

Little Thunder: Yeah, that's what I understand, too. When you're preparing for a show, do you typically work on several baskets at a time, or baskets and mats simultaneously? Or do you like to start one thing and work your way through?

Smith: Just start one thing and then finish, unless I have a big order. I just got an order from a museum in Alabama telling me that they want fifty small 31:00baskets. Whenever I have somebody that orders them like that, I'll do it like assembly line. The Creek Nation ordered 100 little small baskets from me a couple years ago.

Little Thunder: Oh, wow, for the gift shops?

Smith: It was to give out. It was for the Tourism Department.

Little Thunder: How neat. And the same with Alabama? Are they going to be giving them--

Smith: No, these will be going through their gift shop.

Little Thunder: Through the gift shop. Is there anybody special who's received one of your baskets that you know about? They're all special, I'm sure, but--

Smith: I can't think of anybody right offhand. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: I'm sure they really enjoy them. Have you made any new discoveries about the colors or the dyes that you're using with your baskets in 32:00the last few years?

Smith: I don't really work a lot with dyes, because as Creeks, we didn't really use dyes. We would, maybe, in something ceremonial, but basically we stayed away from dyes because our baskets were for utilitarian purposes.

Little Thunder: Right. Can you talk a little bit--sometimes you do have to use commercial reed as I understand it--

Smith: Yes.

Little Thunder: --can you talk a little bit about that and explain? It's kind of interesting when you do have to use the commercial materials, how they have a double use.

Smith: What I use as a commercial is binder cane. It comes from China. It's the outer core of rattan, which that makes the shiny part look like river cane. The 33:00inner core is what we call round reed. It would be used for the honeysuckle baskets. I more or less just call it fake honeysuckle. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Right, but you also gather honeysuckle.

Smith: Yes, I do gather honeysuckle. I use yucca. I've woven with palmetto, buckbrush. I'll weave with just about anything I can kind of try.

Little Thunder: What's a material that you really didn't expect to like as much as you did? A weaving material?

Smith: As far as basketry goes? Buckbrush.

Little Thunder: And what distinguishes buckbrush?

Smith: It's the gathering and the harvesting of it because it has to--it's the roots and it has to be dug up.

Little Thunder: So you dig it up by the roots? It would be fun to see some 34:00examples. I don't know if we'll get to. How do you sign your baskets or mats? Or how do you let us know that they're yours?

Smith: I don't. Whenever I first started out, I would take a little piece of dyed river cane I would stick down in it. Then I just kept forgetting to do it. But I just almost think by now, you just get a certain look to your weaving. You can tell by looking at it, or at least I can, as to who made that basket.

Little Thunder: And is it sort of like other textiles where the evenness of the weave or the--what makes for a good weaving?

Smith: I'd say a tight weave. I would rather have an ugly little basket that was tight and sturdy than one that would be loose and full of color.


Little Thunder: Can some of your baskets actually kind of hold water or--

Smith: No, our baskets were not really made to hold water.

Little Thunder: But they can hold meal or--

Smith: They could hold meal.

Little Thunder: Do you continue to do research about baskets and mats at this point?

Smith: I'm always trying to do research. Like I say, I was fascinated with the natural rimming methods because so many basket weavers still use--I call it a commercial rimming method. But the natural ones are where you take the reeds and you weave them back into each other. The Cherokees have a double-rimming method. I had worked with Shawna Cain on--we had worked at one time together, but we really couldn't figure it out. We tried, and then I just got off on my own and 36:00was able to come up with the Cherokee double rim.

Little Thunder: Yeah, and they're just a distinctive look. We definitely get to see that. They're just beautiful. What is your creative process from the time you get an idea?

Smith: It just drives me crazy. I get so bad sometimes I can't even sleep at night. I will be weaving in my head, or thinking of designs, get up during the middle of the night, and then start drafting them out. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: So you'll think of the design. You'll sketch them out in a little notebook that you keep?

Smith: On graph paper.

Little Thunder: Have you tried to ever incorporate some of the more Mississippian older motifs at all?

Smith: I guess I've been doing--I just did a mat that I entered into the Five Tribes Show. It was a Chitimacha pattern. The Chitimacha tribe, they made 37:00beautiful baskets. Their designs were so elaborate. Right now I'm just kind of really researching on the Chitimacha.

Little Thunder: What is your creative routine? Do you like to work during the day, or at night?

Smith: I work during the day and during the night. I live alone, so it doesn't matter if I sleep. Sometimes, I'll stay up until six in the morning weaving and then go to bed. Maybe sleep a couple hours and get up and start weaving again.

Little Thunder: When you're going after your materials, are you pretty much within traveling distance of your home when you're looking for materials? Or do you sometimes go farther?

Smith: To get my river cane I have to go about an hour and a half. That's my 38:00closest from either way. There is river cane around Tahlequah, up and down the Illinois River, and I do have permission to gather there, but I try not to go there since basically that's the Cherokee Territory. Shawna and Roger Cain and I have spent a lot of time together, going out gathering cane, and me spending weeks with them, just stripping and peeling cane.

Little Thunder: Wow, actually staying down there while you're working?

Smith: Staying with them.

Little Thunder: That's interesting. How long does the stripping process take?

Smith: Whenever I go, I try not to get any more than about thirty stalks, which 39:00will take me three days of constant working. That's just to get at what we call the first peel. That's peeling the first layer off.

Once you get that first layer off, then you can set it back and keep it. Then whenever you have more time, get it out and keep thinning it down. That first layer is probably sometimes at least a quarter of an inch. So if you do not get it off, then it's going to turn back woody on you. You won't be able to use it.

Little Thunder: And there's also a soaking process, I guess. Is that for the honeysuckle?

Smith: Ted would always call me a cane-hog because when we went to the canebrake I would say, "Just one more, just one more." (Laughter) Whenever I would get so greedy like that, I would bring it home, and I would wrap it in a tarp and 40:00towels and pour water over it, and keep it moist until I could get it worked up.

Little Thunder: Right. I was wondering, who else have you gathered with? It seems like it would be good to be going with a couple of people.

Smith: Sandy Fife Wilson. I think that was last summer. Sandy and I went out, and we came to the house and stripped and peeled cane. At one time, with the Muscogee Creek Nation, we did take about fifteen or twenty of us out. Not that many stuck with it, of course.

Little Thunder: Were they adults or were they--

Smith: Adults, it was all adults. Mike Berryhill went with us. Then I've taken the Creek Language Department several times and took them to the canebrake. We gathered cane, brought them back and worked at stripping and peeling it.


Little Thunder: Have you ever taken younger children?

Smith: No, not really.

Little Thunder: That might be an experience that they would get a lot out of, too. What's been kind of a fork-in-the-road moment for you. It's interesting that you started in mid-life, you start this new journey. But looking back so far, and hopefully you've got lots more baskets to make and things, what's been a fork-in-the-road moment where you could've gone one direction and you went in this?

Smith: I guess my fork-in-the-road was when Ted came to me and asked me to be the basket teacher (Laughter) because before then I loved pottery. When I very first started doing baskets, it was okay. Then I just got hooked on it.


Little Thunder: You've never wanted to go back to pottery?

Smith: I did pottery off and on. I still teach pottery classes, but basketry is just a little bit above pottery.

Little Thunder: When you're doing your pottery classes, are you hand-digging your clay, too? Or are you working with commercial clay?

Smith: We're usually working with commercial clay.

Little Thunder: What's been one of the high points of your career so far?

Smith: I would have to say, even though it's not to do with basketry, was when I made the cloak for Moundville. It is absolutely beautiful. They're hoping that it will last at least twenty years, if not longer. I say that is my crowning glory.

Little Thunder: Right. Even still now, there are just a couple of people who 43:00know how to make those capes. It was such an accomplishment. What's been one of the low points of your career so far?

Smith: I don't know that I have had a low point. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: But I think you mentioned that you had your dad up until fairly recently. Did they get to see, your folks, see your basketry? Did they get to share that?

Smith: Well, my mother passed away when she was fifty-three. I hadn't even been doing anything in the artwork at all while she was alive. My dad got to experience it with me. He would go with me to some of my shows, and he would tell me he was so proud of me. He would tell me that my grandmother, my Creek grandmother, that she was looking down and that she was so happy for me.


Little Thunder: That's neat. Was there anything that we forgot to cover or that you'd like to talk about before we start looking at your work?

Smith: Not that I know of.

Little Thunder: Okay, we'll pause a minute and take a look at your artwork.

Smith: This is a river cane arrow [carrier], a dart carrier. This is natural walnut dye.

Little Thunder: Beautiful.

Smith: This is oak around the top. I did have a arrow quiver that went with it. It was like twenty-seven inches long. It had a very intricate design on it. I had it in Alabama. A lady fell in love with it and wanted it for her son, and I told her I didn't really want to sell it, but she just kept on. Finally, I said, 45:00"Okay, go ahead."

Little Thunder: Oh my goodness. Yeah, that is really neat. Is it a little harder to make to the longer shapes, to do them--

Smith: It is. I do what we call twining. Twining is where I would take a piece of wax thread or a sinew and twine around each stake. That keeps the bottom of it square. As I go up I would twine about every six or eight rows to keep it going up straight. Who's to know whether our ancestors did twining because the twining was cut out, so there's no way to know. But I assume that they did.

Little Thunder: Right, because you couldn't keep the structure otherwise. That's really neat. I was just kind of thinking how light brown, that light brown on 46:00the dark carrier, that walnut came out. I would've expected it to be really dark, dark.

Smith: But with the river cane, it's not as porous. When you are using a natural dye, it can have to stay in the dye bath for as much as a month and a half even, just to absorb the color into it.

Little Thunder: Wow. Okay, would you like to tell us about this?

Smith: This is a river cane. This is a Creek basket. This is the shape of our baskets. The distinguishing features of a Creek basket is they were shallow. They had square bottoms, kind of rounded tops, no lids, usually a double-braided rim around them.

If you'll notice the shiny side one, this basket is woven to the inside where on 47:00the outside is the rough. Normally, on a lot of baskets the shiny side is put to the outside. I believe that it was done this way because we used them as corn processing and that way the corn would slide across the basket easier.

Little Thunder: That totally makes sense. This is just beautiful. So these are part of your big order, right? For the museum?

Smith: Yes, for a museum that they want fifty of these little small baskets. These are made of binder cane. It's a four millimeter cane, which is a smaller cane. I used commercial dyes, which I always say come from the Wal-Mart root. (Laughter) Then I put a little braid. If you'll notice there's a little braid around the top of these baskets. That's something that I do as my signature when 48:00I'm not doing a double natural braid. That way I know when I see a basket that has this little braid around it, more than likely, that's someone that I taught.

Little Thunder: That's neat. (Laughs) I hadn't thought about the fact that your students would, in a way, be following in your footsteps in terms of style and remarque and things. Okay, this is your bandolier bag.

Smith: Yes, this is the bandolier bag that I started under the instruction of Martha Berry. It really took me five years to finish it. I hate to admit it, but it did. Most people do not bead, under the flap. I even did beadwork under the flap.

This design is Creek. As Creeks, we used a lot of floral, but this design was 49:00inspired by Murv Jacob from Tahlequah. The red on here is silk. They're all glass beads. This won First Place in Traditional Beadwork in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Little Thunder: It is beautiful. Let's have a closer look here.

Smith: Martha told me I was her best beader.

Little Thunder: Okay, so we're looking at one of your mats, your larger mats, and it's got some gorgeous natural colors in it. Do you want to tell us about this?

Smith: This I called a Creek sleeping mat. I entered it into the Armory Show, that's the only show it's been in. It won third place.


Little Thunder: Oh my goodness.

Smith: But that was okay.

Little Thunder: Wow. It's a gorgeous piece of work. How long did it take you to do?

Smith: When I'm working on a mat this size, I quit counting after 400 hours.

Little Thunder: Oh wow, yeah. That is really beautiful. Okay, we're looking at some of your early clay work. You want to tell us about these figures?

Smith: These are the ones that I started making, which I called them storytellers and figurative pottery. I started doing these in the '90s. This first one, John Timothy came to me from Muskogee and he had a picture of him with his outfit on. He said, "Can you make me in clay?" And I'm, "Let me try." That's my--of John in his outfit. I made one for me and one for him, and he gave 51:00his to his mother.

Little Thunder: Oh, that's great.

Smith: I just talked to him probably about two weeks ago and he brought it out and showed it to Mary Beth [Nelson]. She said it was the cutest thing she's ever seen. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Really these are just wonderful. You may have to pick these up again. How about the second figurine?

Smith: The second one, I call this an 1830s Creek man.

Little Thunder: Nice detailing.

Smith: I was putting babies on them, but on this one I just didn't put any on. This was just like a little medicine man.

Little Thunder: Right. They are great. I understand that you get to move back out to your workshop.

Smith: Yes, I have, I guess you'd call it a double-garage. That's where, when 52:00the weather is nice and warm, I love to spend all my time out there weaving. When I'm making a mat I put down a plastic tarp. Then I climb on top of it, and start weaving.

Little Thunder: And there wasn't enough light, so we filmed indoors. You take your own photographs?

Smith: Yes I do.

Little Thunder: Of your artwork. That's great. Thank you very much for your time today, Mary.

Smith: Thank you.

------- End of interview -------