The Gullah Dream Weaver' depicts one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. As one of the oldest African crafts in America, sweetgrass baskets are just one historically significant example of African cultural heritage assets that were brought across the Atlantic by enslaved African people. South Carolina designated ‘sweetgrass basket making’ as the official state Lowcountry handcraft in 2006. Sweetgrass basket-making has been a tradition in the lowcountry for over 300 years. Africans from the Windward or Rice Coast of West Africa had knowledge and experience with rice cultivation and were particularly sought after in the Atlantic Slave Trade to the Lowcountry to work on plantations. These enslaved people brought their culture with them to America and were determined to pass it down from generation to generation.
Sweetgrass baskets are almost identical in style to the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone, where learning to coil baskets "so tightly they could hold water" was an important rite of passage in West African tribes like the Mende and the Temne. There are about 200 traditional sweetgrass basket weavers, almost all originating in the Mt. Pleasant/Charleston area. Gullah ancestors came from Sierra Leone through the Charleston Wharf, the point of entry for nearly 40 percent of all enslaved Africans into North America. By the 1700’s, rice was the primary crop of the Lowcountry. There was a high demand for slave labor from West Africa's "rice coast" because they had the skills for rice cultivation and coastal irrigation. They were also skilled in basketry.
Using a type of marsh grass known as bulrush, slaves coiled sturdy, intricate work baskets called fanners. Fanners were used for winnowing, the process of tossing hulls into the air to separate the chaff from the rice. Other work baskets held vegetables, shellfish, and later, cotton. In America mostly women sew the highly collectible baskets, however, in Africa, basket weaving was a male occupation. The traditional tool, a nailbone was made from the sharpened rib of a cow or pig. In America, the nailbone evolved to a flattened nail, and finally to a spoon handle in which the cut side is sharpened to a point. Women began to make baskets. The spoon tool, still called a nailbone, and scissors are the only utensils most weavers use today.
Although the highly labor intensive sweetgrass baskets are now made mostly by women, male enslaved Africans usually made these large baskets for the field. Female enslaved Africans focused on the functional baskets of the home, which they used in their cabins for storage and food. Baskets were often coiled by older enslaved Africans who were no longer able to work in the hot sun; plantation owners then sold the baskets for extra income. Plantation owners and America gained not only free labor, but also a wealth of knowledge, skill, and cultural assets from the enslaved Africans. All of these assets were woven in South Carolina’s culture and heritage and are the integral pieces that helped to make South Carolina the Great State that it is today.