This Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30pm the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will be holding its third annual Art Market. The featured work—jewelry, ceramics, hand-woven baskets, beadwork, apparel, dolls, paintings, prints and sculptures—of 35 Native artists will be sold at the museum and its affiliated George Gustav Heye Center in New York City.
Kelly Church, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa Chippewa Indians from Hopkins, Michigan, has attended the market each year, showing the elaborate baskets she creates from black ash trees. I recently asked the fifth generation weaver just what it takes to make one of her baskets.
Finding the right tree:
"First, we have to find a wetland area, and then we start looking around at the trees. When you find a black ash tree, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for baskets. We have to look for one that grows straight, which means the bark has to be growing straight on it. If the bark starts to curve around, the growth rings will as well, and then it wouldn’t be suitable for baskets. You look for one with no knots. These trees grow up about 20-30 feet before they branch out. Then, they "Y" out, and all of their branches are at the top. That’s why they are so good for basket weaving. When we do find one that has straight bark and not many knots, then we notch into it. We take an ax, and we hit out a little tiny chunk to check the growth rings of it. In the growth rings, we’re looking for about a nickel’s width. When we find the right size growth rings, then we will take the tree. Before we take the tree, we thank our ancestors and those before us for giving this to us. We’ll leave tobacco out in the forest as an offering. We actually have to carry those trees out on our shoulders. So you go into the forest with as little as possible. Usually, you’ll come out with maybe two or three good six to eight-foot logs."
Harvesting the materials:
"Then when we get a tree out of the forest, we have to de-bark it. That means taking the bark off of it with an ax, down to the growth ring layer. You take the back side of an ax (a really old one your grandpa has laying around in his garage because it needs to be dull), and about every six inches you hit about as hard as you would if you were chopping wood. It’s a very laborious process, but it brings the whole family together. When you pound it, about eight to ten growth rings will start popping up. It always amazes me because you think you are pounding them together, but really what it does is allow them to release from the tree. Then we split them, and each growth ring, you score it just a little bit, and it will split apart. You split that long ways, from end to end. I always say kind of like peeling a banana, and when you get inside, that’s where your silky smooth material is."
"Some of my baskets that are really large can take a whole log, and they can take three weeks to a month. It depends on how much I decide to embellish it. One thing about black ash is it is the one material of basket weaving that you can make curly cues, points and loops after you have your base basket. I can weave some smaller baskets in a few hours."
The future of Kelly’s craft is in jeopardy though, as a bug known as the Emerald Ash Borer wipes out more and more black ash trees. To help ensure its survival, she has been holding educational conferences and encouraging people around the nation to collect seeds.