Wikwemikong elders rediscover the fine art and lore of ash baskets

Quickly discovering that traditional basketweaving is anything but a ‘slack’ course

WIKWEMIKONG—Behind the elegant beauty of each traditional Anishinaabe black ash basket lies a tremendous amount of hard work, time and concentration but the reward that comes of the creation of each basket extends back through the reaches of time to establish a connection between artisans and their ancestors and the process helps to bond modern families together.

A five-day workshop facilitated by Anishinaabe kwe fibre artist Renee Dillard of Sault Michigan at Wikwemikong’s Amikook elders’ centre assisted local elders and the younger members of their families to reconnect with the process.

“We partnered with Wikwemikong Heritage Organization on the Ash Basket workshop, with help and support from Lands and Agriculture, and it was very successful,” said Amikook manager Kim Genereux. “The workshop reignited a tradition that many remember their grandparents and parents doing when they were children.”

The workshop was a big hit with folks of all ages in the community, she said. “Approximately 50 elders and youth took part in this five-day gathering and they are now the ones that can share their teachings/knowledge.”

The workshops ran fairly intensively over the course of the five days, from 9 am to 4 or 5 pm each day, noted Ms. Dillard. The course included the entire gamut of the production cycle, including tree identification and processing and followed the two cardinal rules she said she applies to the process: “Carefully and carefully.”

“Renee’s teachings/sharing was done with passion and a great sense of humour,” noted Ms. Genereux.

The amount of work involved in creating black ash baskets is one of the reasons the art has largely faded away. Ms. Dillard’s grandmother only agreed to teach her the patterns she knew once she was convinced that her granddaughter was not pursuing a passing fancy.

“She did not teach her own family because she did not want them to have to work that hard,” noted Ms. Dillard. “My father found a couple, Paul and Vivian Jackson, who lived near us and who taught me. Once my grandmother was sure it wasn’t just a passing fancy, she agreed to show me the patterns she knew.”

The process begins with a walk in the woods. “You put down your television remote, step away from your technology and go for a walk,” said Ms. Dillard. That walk brings you close to nature and the land. “You become closer to Mother Earth,” she said.

The selected length of black ash must then be pounded to separate the rings of wood that are peeled away in strips. Each of those strips must themselves be split apart into two halves and it must be done quickly.

“Black ash hydrates and dehydrates very fast,” she explained. “I like to do it within the hour. But once the strips have been separated, they can keep for ages.”

“There was one little fellow here, Gavin Bebamikawe that worked his heart out every day pounding the logs,” said Ms. Genereux. “He did the pounding and his sister split the strips of wood.” The elders then wove those strips into the intricate patterns that create the baskets.

“It really is a family undertaking,” noted Ms. Dillard. “Not everyone is good at the same part of the process. Some are good at doing the pounding while others might be best at the weaving; everyone has a part.”

Ms. Dillard noted that in her grandmother’s time, the making of black ash baskets had also become somewhat debased by commercial considerations. “She never had any use for the tiny baskets that were being made for the tourist trade,” she said. “She called them ‘fru fru’ baskets.” But for Native communities in her part of Michigan, those tourist items were a major source of scarce dollars.

Ms. Dillard said that her grandmother was offended by the term ‘arts and crafts’ in relation to the making of the baskets. “She said it was ‘not a hobby’,” recalled Ms. Dillard. “’It isn’t a hobby,’ she said. ‘It is a way of life.’”

“The elders recall the time when baskets were a part of the community,” she said. The process of making the baskets has its own unique sound and cadence, explained Ms. Dillard. “In days of old, the community would not only know who was getting ready to make the baskets, but also who was doing the pounding by the sound,” she said.

Ms. Dillard said that she took up the craft herself because it was something that she found she was good at and that she truly enjoys the act of passing on the skills and knowledge involved and the building of bridges to her people’s past.

The advent of the emerald ash borer is also one of the reasons Ms. Dillard said that she goes out of her way to teach the craft. “They are really bad down our way now,” she said. She noted that, in her opinion, the best defense against the invasive pest is the collection of seeds. In what might seem counterintuitive to a Northern audience, she finds herself hoping for more severe winter weather with significant temperature drops.

“If the temperature drops low enough, I’m not talking only wind chill now, then the cold will kill off the pests,” she said.

Although the work that goes into making the baskets might make creating them a less-than-profitable pastime in a commercial sense, it is not the basket itself that Ms. Dillard considers to be the main goal of the process.

“The basket is really only a by-product,” she said. “When we go through the process of making these baskets, we are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.”

The process teaches a past when Natives were utterly self-reliant and in tune with the land but it was not the hardscrabble existence that is portrayed in film and literature, noted Ms. Dillard. “They had to work hard, but they lived comfortable lives,” she said. “We had all of the things that we needed. The white people brought things that we wanted.” It is important to realize the difference. “The newcomers brought us the technology of convenience,” she said.

Ms. Dillard also creates matts made of bulrushes for historically accurate installations. Those matts would insulate wigwams with the same air pocket technology used today by windows and fibre insulation. “They understood the principles,” she said.

Ms. Dillard said that she believes that young people today of all cultures can benefit from a closer and more intimate understanding of the lives and technologies of their ancestors. “You have to understand where you have been to understand where you are going,” she said. That understanding can inform the choices that youth today make going forward in their own lives and the modern world.

The black ash basket workshop will be the subject of a five-minute documentary being made with the Kapikoni community film project that is once again visiting Wikwemikong.

The elders of Amikook have also stocked up a good supply of processed black ash strips for future projects. “Amikook has partnered up with Lands and the community to harvest and continue gathering and will come together weekly in the evening at Amikook,” noted Ms. Genereux. “The community is anxious to come together. Some harvesting has started but with the wild rice harvesting and the Wikwemikong Fall Fair this past week, it’s been busy. Fortunately this can be done throughout the year, so we hope to be started next week on a regular basis.”