by Kathy Kae, originally published in the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission newsletter
At black ash gatherings, Grandmothers smile as they hear the pounding of the log begin. You can see a happy look in their eyes as they tell stories of when they were little watching their Grandmothers weave baskets with all their splints spread out around them. More and more we are returning to our traditional ways and we value our Elders’ stories as they see younger generations continuing what was once a part of their lives.
There are all types of baskets such as pack baskets, market baskets, hamper-style baskets and smaller fancy baskets. Some basket makers use color either from natural dyes or store bought dyes. Others prefer to stay with the original color of the wood which allows the baskets to be cared for properly by dipping in water at least once yearly to keep it from becoming brittle. (Dyed baskets bleed when dipped) Over time, the sun deepens the natural color to a beautiful golden brown hue and if the basket is taken good care of it can last up to 100 years!
So what does it take to make a basket? You start with a few friends and laughter and mix that with a lot of hard work, commitment and creativity. But first, you start with the tree.
There are several different types of ash, as well as crosses of ash. White ash is commonly used to make handles but is difficult to process and use for weaving. White and black ash is a common mix but what you are looking for when weaving is a true black ash.
Using an increment borer, a small sample of the growth rings is taken from the trunk to determine the proper thickness of the rings. This is the least invasive way to check them. Before cutting, asemaa (tobacco) is put down to show proper respect and to thank the tree for its gift of life. The proper tree is then cut to desired lengths and carried out.
When considering a beautiful black ash basket, it is important to remember that the processing of materials is 75% of the work. Depending on the size of the log, it can take several days to pound and prepare all the splints. Therefore, it is wise to show great appreciation to those who are willing to help pound and process, not only to value their hard work, but so you don’t find yourself alone next time it comes to pounding!
To keep the log as fresh as possible, the bark is left on until the pounding begins. (In the spring, the bark pops nicely off the tree and is used for making bark baskets). Next, the log is scored to determine the width of the growth ring that will be lifted. With the flat rounded edge of an axe (some people use a metal pipe) every inch of the strip is pounded at least two times, sometimes three. This not only makes the growth rings pop off the log, it also processes the strip and will help with the splitting. Traditionally, a wooden club was used for this. However, it required that the log be pounded much more intensely than with metal.
For each strip that is pounded down the length of the log, several growth rings pop off together. The strips are then separated and each put into a “splitter” which is a wooden vise held between the knees. The top of the strip is scored halfway across with a knife and the strip is pulled up and outward, splitting the growth ring down the middle. These are called splints.
Each splint is left with a smooth inner side and a rough outer side. A knife is used to shave the outer side smooth. Today, a rotating sander is often used but it is important to know how to shave the strips manually with a knife to honor the traditional knowledge that our ancestors passed to us.
Finally, the splints are ready to cut for weaving and you’re equipped to make baskets. Oftentimes, sweetgrass is added to trim the top of the basket and bassword cordage is sometimes used for handles—especially for the bark baskets.
There you have it in a nut shell. If you are determined and dedicated enough, you’ll do the hard work that will give you the materials needed to make wonderful black ash baskets that will last a lifetime!
A note on the responsibility of basketry: My mentor, black ash basketry Master Artist and Michigan Heritage Award recipient, Wasson (Renee) Dillard from the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa in northern Lower Michigan stresses the importance of honoring the traditional knowledge of our ancestors and of making sure we show proper respect for the gifts the Creator has given us. We do this by offering asemaa to the tree and telling it what we are going to do with it and that it will live on in the form of baskets.
If there are leftover parts of the log that we don’t use, we burn it in a clean fire and never in a fire that contains trash. The tree has given its life so we can make baskets and we should honor it by respectfully disposing of what we don’t use.
We also, as basket makers, have a responsibility to educate others concerning the emerald ash borer and the devastating effects this invasive species has on ash stands. Before harvesting, you should have a clear understanding of what an infected tree looks like and if so, that it should not be moved. To find out more about the emerald ash borer, please see: http://datcpservices.wisconsin.gov/eab/index.jsp
To learn how to make baskets out of Black Ash please come to a workshop at http://www.lostcreekadventures.org/blackash