Collection Spotlight: Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance, Shan Goshorn


Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee, b. 1957)

Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance, 2012

Arches watercolor paper splints printed with archival inks, acrylic paint

18 ¾ x 18 ¾ x 23 ¼ inches

Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, purchase with a gift from Sandra Lynn Riggs and members of the Block Leadership Circle, 2017.3

 Shan Goshorn’s Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance was acquired by the Block Museum in 2017 after being featured in the group exhibition If You Remember, I’ll Remember, along with several other works by the artist.

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Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance, exterior detail

After many years of working primarily as a painter and photographer, the Eastern Band Cherokee artist and activist Shan Goshorn turned to basket weaving in 2008 as her primary mode of expression. Goshorn’s conceptual baskets combine Cherokee aesthetics with thought-provoking content—including historical photographs and texts—to address the links between historical events and ongoing struggles for Native American sovereignty and self-determination. Several of these works reference the fraught history of treaties between the US government and Native American nations, as well as the history of Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School and related Native American boarding schools. In operation from 1879 to 1918, Carlisle served as the model for approximately 150 boarding schools across the United States that sought to assimilate Native American children through a process of forced acculturation.

Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance employs the form of a traditional Eastern Cherokee burden basket and variations of two weave patterns known as Chief’s Daughter and Unbroken Friendship. The burden basket would be used to carry heavy loads such as produce or firewood. A cloth strap would be wrapped under the rim of the top part of the basket so that it could be tied to someone’s back like a backpack. The artist’s choice of the burden basket form underscores other types of burdens carried by Native American people that are referenced in the work.

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Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance, interior detail

The paper splints from which the basket is woven are printed with excerpts from historical documents including the Carlisle Indian Boarding School mission, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Treaty of New Echota— an 1835 treaty in which the Cherokee purportedly agreed to leave their territory in the North Carolina for land in Oklahoma. The majority of Cherokee protested, claiming the treaty was invalid because the men who signed it on behalf of the Cherokee were not authorized to do so.  The splints are also printed with stereotypical uses of Native names in commercial products, alcohol, mascot names, and statistics of domestic violence in Native communities. Black splints printed with excerpts from the New Testament written in Cherokee syllabics are woven throughout the work.  These burdens are metaphorically acted upon by being interwoven with elements deemed healing, including four splints painted in the colors of the four sacred directions of Cherokee cosmology— red-east, black-west, white-south, and blue-north —printed with the words of Cherokee morning and evening songs performed to open and close the day in a balanced way.

This innovative work builds upon the Block collection’s traditional strengths in works on paper, and bolsters the number of works by contemporary Native American artists in the collection, which also includes works by Frank Big Bear, Edgar Heap of Birds, Dylan Miner, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

-Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Janet Dees teaches Northwestern University students about Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.

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