Basketry helps preserve Native American art

By Rick Olivo
Ashland, Wisconsin (AP) June 2010

Among the Anishnabe people, there is a legend of how a man named Black Elk was concerned for his people. Nearing the end of his life, he was worried about the restlessness of his people and wanted to give them something that would not only help them provide for their families, but teach them the patience they needed.

Black Elk asked the Creator what could be done to help his people and the Creator instructed him to have his people cremate his remains after he died and out of the ashes a sacred tree would grow. That tree was the black ash; the people protected the tree until it was fully-grown.

Then, cutting the mature tree down with appropriate equipment thanks to the Creator, they stripped the bark, and taking heavy mallets, pounded the trunk until the soft summer growth was crushed and only the harder spring and winter growth remained. This they cut away in strips, and with great skill and workmanship they created baskets of great beauty, and learned patience from waiting for the trees to mature, preparing the wood and weaving the strips into all manner of useful baskets which could be traded for the things the people needed.

For thousands of years, the Anishnabe, the Ojibwa people, have used the bounty of nature and the black ash to create baskets for every conceivable purpose, from the drying of herbs, to the storage of foodstuffs, from the harvesting of garden vegetables to the hauling of beaver traps and pelts. However, like many traditional crafts, the making of baskets is an art that is engaged in by relatively few these days.

One of those is April Stone-Dahl, who learned the basics of the craft from her husband, Jarrod, who went to a folk school in Grand Marais in 1998. She saw his basketmaking efforts and proceeded to teach herself the intricacies of making beautiful and functional baskets from trees.

Stone-Dahl, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said she 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 in the baskets has led her to make a career out of creating the baskets, in many sizes, and for all kinds of purposes.

Stone-Dahl is not just interested in creating baskets; she wants to teach others the art.

In June of 2009, Stone-Dahl was awarded a yearlong Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant by the Wisconsin Arts Board to pass on the knowledge and skills of traditional black ash basketry. Taking on fellow Bad River tribal member Jenny Morris as an apprentice, Stone-Dahl has spent the last year working with Morris, teaching her the skills needed to turn a raw tree into an exquisite handcrafted basket.

The art of black ash basketmaking has become rare because cheap, easily available substitutes for the versatile black ash baskets came on the scene and required none of the painstaking labor required to make a traditional 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.”

The tree needs to come from a wet area in the spring of the year, she said. The swampy area insures that the wood will be properly moist, and cutting it in the spring means the bark can be easily removed in a single piece. “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 because they don’t grow in the same swampy areas as black ash, they are much more difficult to work, she continued.

The second and most laborious part of the process is to beat the log. A truncheon-like mallet, tightly fitted with a steel sleeve is used to beat the debarked log for hours on end, rolling the log on a pair of V-notched stumps. Pounding the log crushes the soft summer growth rings and delaminates the log so that the harder late winter and early spring growth rings can be stripped lengthwise off the log in strips called “splints.”

The splints are trimmed evenly, and rolled up in coils and stored in a dry, mold-free location until needed. Then they are soaked in a kettle of hot water until they are flexible enough to be folded in half without breaking, and woven into the final product.

“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.”

However, for Stone-Dahl, it’s a labor of love.

“I was so impressed with my husband’s basket after watching it for a year that I thought it would be an honor to learn how to work with that kind of material, because it was growing all around us,” she said. “He showed me how to weave my first basket, and I have just been kind of weaving ever since.”

Stone-Dahl said she wished that she could say she had been taught to weave by her grandmother, but that part of the Native American culture, with a few exceptions, has been all but 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.

However, she said her efforts are directed at reversing that trend, teaching basketmaking at Northland College and at the Treehaven natural resources education facility operated by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in Tomahawk.

She has also done demonstrations for several tribes in the region, including the Bad River, Red Cliff, and St. Croix reservations. She and her husband also operate a crafts business called Wood Spirit, specializing in crafts made in the traditional manner.

“I like to share what I know,” that’s important,” said Stone-Dahl.

Over the past year, the beneficiary of much of that sharing has been Morris, who recently graduated from Ashland High School and plans to attend the University of Minnesota-Morris as a music major.

“I really thought it was cool that the Wisconsin Arts Board would offer something like this,” she said. “It’s a traditional art, and it’s super useful. It’s also really hard.”

Morris said it gave her an incredible sense of pride to be learning the skills that had served her ancestors for millennia.

“It’s kind of a lost art, and it’s nice to be part of a program that keeps it alive.”

It is without a doubt, an art worth keeping alive. The delicacy of form and even the tactile pleasure the baskets give must be experienced to be believed. It almost seems wrong to use something so beautiful for mundane tasks.

“But they are supposed to be used,” smiles Stone-Dahl.

“It’s amazing how durable they are, because they look so delicate,” said Morris.

The weaving is the easy part, Morris said, noting that the preparation included felling whole trees, hauling them out of the swamp, removing the bark and pounding on the logs, seemingly without end.

“Having music definitely helps,” she said.