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Margaret "Redfern" Pitzer - Kansas Folk Art

Cherokee Basket Making

Buddy Bates, Apprentice

Margaret "Redfern" Pitzer of Wichita is one of the most respected American Indian artists in Kansas. Known for her basketry and fine beadwork, her work is sought after by collectors throughout the United States. Her work has been featured in museums across the state, including the Kansas Museum of History and the Mid-American All Indian Center.

Redfern is a member of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees, an eastern tribe, were forced to relocate in the early 1800s. In a treaty signed in 1835 the Cherokees received 800,000 acres in southeast Kansas, but the tribe never really lived there. When Kansas Territory was opened for white settlement most of the Indian tribes that had been given land in Kansas were removed to Oklahoma. Many of the Cherokees who live in Kansas today are urban residents.

Redfern was born in 1932 in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, the fourth of five children. When she was still a child the family moved to Kansas so that her father could find work in the oil fields around El Dorado. Unfortunately, her mother died when Redfern was only 12 years old. This threw the family into turmoil and caused it to be split up.

Although Redfern can claim Cherokee heritage on both sides of her family, the family genealogy is not complete. Redfern's mother and father met in Oklahoma even though one side of the family is from the Cherokee tribe still located in the eastern United States. Her mother's mother was a member of the relocated Oklahoma Cherokee tribe. Her mother's father was part Blackfoot and part English. Her father's mother was Cherokee from the eastern part of the United States. It is not known what tribe or ethnic affiliation her father's father belonged to. Although Redfern was aware of her Indian heritage, she remembers that her family denied their roots when they moved to Kansas. It was during a time when it was hard for anyone to find work, but it was especially hard for American Indians who were the targets of discrimination.

Redfern always had an interest in Indian art and her Cherokee background. Her exposure to her heritage was severely limited after the family moved to Kansas. It was not until she became an adult that she renewed her interest. It was at the time that she took on the name of Redfern to honor her maternal great-grandmother. It was from this great-grandmother that she was first introduced to basket making.

I remember my great-grandmother. She would sit down and take little pieces of grass and show me how to make baskets. I thought my grandmother was the greatest thing in the world but I didn't pay any attention to how she was doing the baskets. I just loved sitting there and talking to her and watching her.—Redfern Pitzer

In those days Redfern's family made baskets whenever they needed one. It was just one of many things the women did to maintain the household.

Over the years Redfern maintained a strong interest in basket weaving but found herself unable to pursue her interest. Almost 15 years ago she found herself temporarily in a wheelchair after a leg injury. It was during this period that she took up basket making in earnest. After making four or five baskets she decided she really enjoyed making them. As she recalls, "It just came real easy to me."

Redfern renewed her interest in basket making by studying older baskets and by trial and error. She also was influenced by Cherokee basket makers she met in North Carolina and Oklahoma. It is through her studies of old baskets and with current Cherokee basket makers that she learned the traditional designs. Her work reflects the styles of both the North Carolina and the Oklahoma Cherokee. Most of the early Cherokee baskets were made from river cane, which grew abundantly in the southeastern United States. When the Cherokee were forced to move into Oklahoma Territory, where no canebrakes existed, many of the old designs were forgotten. New materials such as buckrush and honeysuckle were substituted, and different weaving techniques were developed.

Although many people consider Redfern to be a master basket maker she continues to study the art form.

I would like to learn even more. The more you work in it the more fascinating it gets. Right now of the old cane designs there are only nine or 10 of the designs that are even remembered and there were hundreds.—Redfern Pitzer

She is concerned that the heritage of her tribe continue. "So many things are just lost and once they are lost there is no way to get them back," says Redfern. "It's kind of like the animals, once one has become extinct there are no more."

Redfern has served as a master artist several times under the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. Her apprentices have included Hope Goodman, Marilyn Bushyhead Kindsvatter, and Buddy Bates.

Buddy Bates

Buddy Bates of Augusta is Redfern's younger brother. He was born in El Dorado, Kansas. Because of the circumstances of his childhood, he grew up without the benefit of his Cherokee heritage. Buddy was only five years old when their mother passed away. Afterward he was raised by his father's half sister and when he was 16 he came to live with Redfern and her husband, Bobby. At 17, Buddy joined the service where he spent the next 22 years of his life. In 1978 he retired from the military.

After his retirement he began spending time with Redfern watching her make baskets and do beadwork. "I watched her make a few of them," recalls Buddy. "I like to work with my hands so I asked her how to make them." He found that he thoroughly enjoyed the work. From the beginning it was obvious that he had a talent for the art form. The more Redfern and Buddy worked together the more involved Buddy became with his Cherokee heritage. Although Cherokee basket making, like many other folk arts, has traditionally been passed on through family lines, Redfern had feared that she would be the last basket maker in her family. She explains, "I am just tickled that he is interested in it. I have one other brother and two other sisters and they could care less."

Redfern was happy to teach Buddy but financial concerns became apparent the more he became involved with basket making. Although both Redfern and Buddy gather many of the materials they use for baskets, they also purchase a great many items since they live in an urban area. As Redfern explains, "You can't gather around here because it's all cement anymore." Buddy could not afford to buy the needed materials on his retirement income and he was concerned about taking up Redfern's time when she could be making baskets for sale. In 1986 the two applied to the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program to help lessen the financial burden. Buddy is grateful for the grant he received.

It gave me the income to buy the materials to get started with. I would have gone ahead and done it but I would have been longer getting started. It got me started 95 percent faster.—Buddy Bates

The apprenticeship has had an economic impact for both Redfern and Buddy. The two continue to work together every week. They work almost every day, spending half of the week on basket making and half of the week on beadwork. Buddy now estimates that half of his monthly income comes from his artwork. Redfern used the money she received from the apprenticeship program to travel to North Carolina to spend time with other Cherokee basket makers. The apprenticeship money also had an impact beyond the two participants. A portion of the money received for the apprenticeship went to pay Cherokee women in Oklahoma who no longer weave because of arthritis but who continue to gather and prepare materials for people like Redfern and Buddy.

A business relationship emerged out of the apprenticeship. The two work beautifully together. As Redfern points out, "I don't think we've had an argument since he was five years old." They do, however, have their differences in some areas. Redfern likes working with cane and honeysuckle but Buddy dislikes the cane. Otherwise, their style of working is fairly similar. "Each person has their own style," explains Buddy. "I'm pretty close to her style because she is teaching me to make them and I'm making them the way she makes them, so basically our styles are still alike."

Redfern is proud of the progress Buddy has made.

I think he's good and getting better all the time. So many people think you sit down and are perfect right away or not. Now Buddy showed a good aptitude right from the beginning.—Redfern Pitzer

The two feel very comfortable working together. The more Buddy progresses the more the two find themselves sharing ideas. Comments Redfern, "It's a lot more enjoyable to me than sitting here by myself was." Buddy adds, "It's easier working with someone you know."

To date, Redfern has completed more than 600 baskets in the years since she began to sell her work. Buddy has already made more than 200. Redfern is continually surprised that people are so interested in them. Besides selling their work for extra income the two enjoy sharing the traditions of their Cherokee ancestors. They are both interested in preserving the art form for future generations. Buddy is as concerned as Redfern about carrying on the tradition.

I think it should be carried on because if we don't do it there is no one else who is going to do it. As long as we can do it and show somebody else then it can be carried on, but this is the only way it will be carried on by people passing it down.—Buddy Bates

One of Buddy's sons and Redfern's youngest daughter have both shown an interest in the art form. Redfern and Buddy hope that in time someone else from the family will take over the tradition.

When asked what their great-grandparents would think of their work both Redfern and Buddy laugh. "I think they would think 'what's all the fuss about,'" explains Redfern. "'We made them and no one made a fuss over them.'"

From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989

Entry: Pitzer, Margaret "Redfern" - Kansas Folk Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: July 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.