Native Village
Youth and Education news
October 2010 Volume 4

Basketry helps preserve Native American art,0,907612,print.story
Condensed by Native Village

Among the Anishnabe (Ojibwe) is a legend of how a man named Black Elk was concerned for his people. Nearing the end of his life, he worried about his people's restlessness. He wanted to give them something to help them provide for their families and teach them the patience they needed.

Black Elk asked Creator what could be done to help his people. Creator instructed him to have his people cremate his remains after he died. Out of the ashes, a sacred tree would grow.

That tree was the black ash, which the people were told to protect until it was fully-grown.

Then they cut down the mature tree with appropriate equipment, thanks to Creator. They stripped the bark, then used heavy mallets to pound the trunk until the soft summer growth was crushed. What remained was the harder spring and winter growth.

This they cut away into strips and then, with great skill and workmanship, they created baskets of great beauty.

They learned patience by waiting for the trees to mature, preparing the wood, and weaving the strips into all kinds of useful baskets to trade for things the people needed.

For thousands of years, the Anishnabe have used black ash trees to create baskets for every purpose including drying herbs, storing food, harvesting crops, and hauling beaver traps and felts.  But like many traditional crafts, true black ash basketmaking is rarely practiced because cheap substitute materials require none of the painstaking labor.

April Stone-Dahl, however, is reviving the traditional basketmaking. First she learned the basics of making baskets from her husband, Jarrod.  Then she began teaching herself the details of making them from trees.

April, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, has long been intrigued by black ash baskets, once so common in Native American culture.

"I have searched for stories, I've asked elders if they remember anything about them from when they were young," she said.

Her interest led to a career in creating the baskets. Now she wants to teach others the art.

In June of 2009, Stone-Dahl received a yearlong Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board. She is now teaching apprentice Jenny Morris (Bad River Band) the skills needed to turn a raw tree into an exquisite basket.

"First you have to find a good straight black ash tree, from a swampy area," Stone Dahl said. "We look for a tree that has no knots, no limbs, no visible scars for the first 20 feet or so, with a healthy crown. We will make our offering and then cut the tree."

She said the tree must be found in the spring so the bark can be easily removed in a single piece. The swampy area insures that the wood is moist.

"Otherwise you have to do a lot of work with a drawknife, Stone-Dahl said.

White and green ash can also be used to make baskets, but they are are much more difficult to work.

After the bark is stripped, the next step is beating the log. This requires must labor.  A mallet is used to beat the log for hours on end while rolling the log on V-notched stumps. After the soft pulp is gone, the harder growth is stripped lengthwise off the logs. These are called "splints."

 "One elder told me that he remembered pounding a log for his aunt when he was 14, but that was the last time he ever did it because the labor was so hard." Stone-Dahl said.

The splints are trimmed evenly, rolled into coils and stored in a dry, mold-free location. When they are needed, the coils are soaked in hot water until the splints are flexible and can be folded in half without breaking.

Then they are ready to be woven.

Stone-Dahl said she wished she had been taught to weave by her grandmother, but that part of Native American culture almost been lost for many years.

"I was sad about it because it just seems that there are a lot of things that have been left on the side of the path," she said.

Stone-Dahl is also teaching basketmaking at Northland College and at a University of Wisconsin-Stevens facility.

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