Leaning desperately on a large, vegetable hamper perched on the chukka wall, Zula sat quietly with her knees pressed to her chest and wrapped into her arms. She began rocking in her crunched position, to the rhythm of her mother’s shallow breathing. It was not easy being a young, motherless girl among the Choctaws. She needed her mother still to teach her how to craft the baskets and to protect her from her cruel sisters. Her mother was a beautiful woman and respected for her basket weaving. She and her sisters would be responsible for so much. Opening her eyes, she stared at the two miniature baskets lying on the floor next to her feet. They were tiny and identical. She had made them with her mother for her dolls. Zula had tiny fingers, so she weaved them in her first craft training. She had been praised by her mother and her friends for her work. She was sure to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She now had her doubts. Her mother’s breathing became quieter and slower until she had no sound to rock to, and she sat motionless.
Zula walked outside and gazed at the setting sun in the Southwest. Her mother was now going to the Great Hunting Ground, and she would be able to play and dance in the gorgeous pink and orange sky. Zula turned and walked slowly back toward the chukka. She would be needed to help prepare her mother for burial. Mantema, her mother’s favorite dog, needed a bath and a good meal. The dog will be sacrificed tomorrow. Her mother’s spirit required her prized escort. Zula loved to collect pet turtles in the swamp while gathering cane for the baskets. She discovered that the turtles always lingered in the river next to the best swamp cane for weaving. The turtles were her weaving secret. She knew the turtles would guide her to the Great Hunting Ground one day.
A few months later, after leaving her mother at the great burial ground, Zula carried on her work. Her sisters sent her to the river in search of the swamp cane needed to make the baskets. It was an arduous job, especially for a young girl, searching for and cutting the cane. It had been her sisters’ job, but they demanded that she do it. Zula strolled down to the swampy waters along the river with her basket. Seeing a small boxer turtle on the ground, she placed it in the basket. Zula said to herself, “I shall call you Abaishtona which means “to carry to heaven.” She had not spoken out loud since her mother’s death. Zula continued on her pursuit for the cane. After collecting a sufficient amount for a week’s worth of weaving, she took a small flint, rock blade and began to tear the cane into six small stripes. There were several berry bushes located along the path to the river, and she took out a smaller basket and filled it with the mature blue blueberries and the unripe red ones. She would use them to dye the cane.
It was the Choctaw tradition for woman to remain quiet while grieving. She was past the time of grief but still remained soundless. As the autumn approached, it was time to move their small hamlet to the ceremonial mound of Nanih Waiya for the Choctaw tribal celebrations and stickball competitions.
After she arrived at the mound, Zula headed to a nearby creek bed to cut cane in order to weave requested baskets from people attending the games. As she drew close the water, she noticed a group of adolescent boys practicing stickball along the opposite embankment.
“Hello,” one of the boys called out to her. She ignored him and kept searching for cane. Suddenly the towa that the boys were playing with hit her foot, and she stopped and picked it up. She noticed that one of the leather straps was broken and needed to be reweaved. One of the boys bounded across the water and stood in front of her. He said, “What is your name?”
She said nothing.
“Did you not hear me? What is your name? I command you to speak to me. I am the Chief’s son, Minko Pushus. You have to answer.”
“I am Zula, a basket weaver. I noticed that your ball is broken.“
“I need the leather reweaved. Can you fix it? If you can and I score in the stickball game, then I will marry you someday. I need a reward.” Zula was beautiful. She had straight, black hair, mysterious eyes, and a soft brow line. Grinning, he knew that he would score.
Zula walked with the boys to her dwelling and began to search for a small leather strap from among her father’s pelts. She found one and began to reattach the broken pieces. In a few minutes, it was finished, and Minko smiled. As she was handing Minko back the towa, her sisters entered the dwelling. Their faces burned with jealousy when they noticed who was talking with their sister.
“Are you coming to the stickball game?” Minko asked.
“Yes, I always go with my family.” Zula assured him.
“Thank you for mending my towa, and I hope that I will win,” he said with a wink. “We must go and practice for the competition. See you later, Zula.”
As soon as Minko left the dwelling, the sisters grabbed Zula and told her she could not attend the competition because there were too many baskets that needed to be weaved. She needed to go to the swamp and collect and prepare the reeds. Zula’s eyes filled with tears. As she finished a basket, her sisters would hand her their work to finish. As tribal members would come to pick up their baskets, the sisters would take credit for her work when they were praised.
She would in the evenings go outside and watch the sunset in the west and pray to the The Great Spirit. “Spirit, help my sisters to be kind and love me, so that they will not have to live among the thorns in the afterlife. I want them to be with mother and me dancing in the beautify sky,” she quietly prayed.
The day of the first stickball competition arrived, and Zula sat back at the makeshift hamlet double, twill-plaiting a vegetable basket with Abaishtona faithfully by her side. Her sisters had gone to the game without her. The games were the highlight of the year. While contemplating her dilemma, Zula heard footsteps behind her and turned to see a beautiful woman dressed in an exquisite, ceremonial gown.
The woman said, “I am Ohoyo Nompushtika, the Chief’s wife. I have come to trade for your famous baskets.”
Zula stood for a moment awestruck. Then, respectively said, “thank you, what do you wish to have?”
Ohoyo replied, “my housemaids need storage hampers, and I want a unique basket for the princess.” Zula worried that she would not have such a gift that would please Ohoyo’s daughter. But, then she remembered her tiny baskets.
“I have two miniature baskets that I made with my mother when I was a child. Your daughter may like one for her doll. I want one of them, but the princess may have the other.” She went to a leather bag and pulled the two thumbnail baskets out for Ohoyo to inspect.
“They are beautiful, and they look exactly alike. How did you make them? They are smaller than my thumbnail.” Ohoyo remarked.
“I have small fingers, especially when I was younger,” smiled Zula.
“I want one, and I will come back for the vegetable hampers before we leave after the games,” directed the Choctaw queen.
The queen turned and walked toward Nanih Waiya. Zula ran to the river, selected the finest cane by the water turtles and began making the hampers. She wanted Ohoyo to be pleased.
The week passed, and it was the final day of the games. The tribes came together one last afternoon to watch the teens play a match. Zula kept weaving. Her sisters returned before evening with their voices full of excitement. They got quiet when they saw her working feverishly over the hampers. The next day the queen sent maidservants to retrieve the hampers and the small basket. Then, the Chief’s family were the first to leave, heading South near the ocean for the winter months. Zula’s family returned to their home near the river with provisions for the winter weather.
Now as Minko was settled with his family in the South, his father approached him about finding a bride. He had to marry a commoner because that was the Choctaw way. That is how they balanced power. Minko told his father about meeting the beautiful Zula by the creek during the games. She had told him that she would attend his match, but he could not find her among the crowd.
“What do you know about her family?” asked the Chief to his son.
“She was a basket weaver, and she mended my towa before the match. How am I to find her among all the tribes in the land.”
Ohoyo heard what her son said, “I traded for a basket that Zula made. See, it is here with your sister’s dolls. Zula has a matching one. If you can find the matching basket, then you know it is Zula because her looks will change as she becomes a woman.”
The Chief ordered his top hunters to find Zula and her basket at the next year’s games. However, the Creek tribe invaded the Choctaws that fall, and they fought a great war. The Chief became concerned about his son having children when the war came to an end, and he ordered that his Great Hunters should not wait until the next autumn to find Zula. So, he sent them out to search the hamlets for the matching basket.
During the summer, Zula found her way to the river to collect cane. The word had gotten out in the village that the The Great Hunters were coming to search for a bride for the Chief’s son. Zula was beautiful, so they sent her to the river that morning before she would hear the news. The Hunters arrived, and they asked where the basket weavers lived. Hatak, the wise man, lead the hunting party to the weavers’ chukka. Zula’s sisters were dressed as fine as they could and presented themselves to Hatak.
The leader of the Hunting Group, Kannakli, addressed the group, “the Chief insists on finding the girl that has this matching basket.” He pulled from a small leather pouch a miniature basket that matched Zula’s. The sisters’ eyes widened like a bass’s mouth when they saw the basket. The sisters returned to their dwelling and began to forage the chukka. The sisters searched throughout their dwelling but could not find the tiny basket.
As the Great Hunting Party left the hamlet, they stopped by the creek that ran to the southeast of the village to find water. As they approached the stream, they noticed a girl gathering cane along the embankment. Kannakli called out to her, “Can you help us gather water for our travels?”
Zula smiled and began filling their leather pouches. “Why are you here?” asked Zula.
“We are searching for the owner of this mini-basket,” he said. Zula’s eyes flashed open and she began to laugh. “Where did you get that? I traded that to the Chief’s wife many moons ago.”
Kannakli looked down at her curiously, “How do we know it is yours?”
Zula with a twinkle in her eyes, pulled a pouch from her turtle basket and opened it and dropped the contents into Kannakli’s hand. The Great Hunters returned to the village and gathered Zula’s things. Zula believed she would find great happiness with Minko.