Since its discovery in 2002, emerald ash borer (EAB) has been spreading across North America, leaving millions and millions of dead and dying ash trees in its wake. Every year since, we are witness to the pest’s continuing destruction. It’s hard to see bare city and residential streets where ash trees once provided rain remediation, shade and beauty. Forests have acres and acres of empty gaps where ash trees once provided homes for beneficial insects, birds and other forest creatures.
MORE THAN JUST A TREE SPECIES
It is also threatening to destroy the centuries-old industry of black ash basket making in North America. A way of life for the American Indian and First Nation weavers for generations, the loss of black ash to EAB is no small thing.
“Within Indian communities, the people who hold the greatest amount of knowledge about black ash [wiiskaak] and the forested wetlands where these trees reside are the black ash basket makers,” said Nicholas Reo, PhD (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa), formerly of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University, and now assistant professor of Environmental Studies and Native American Studies at Dartmouth University. “Basket making traditions are maintained within a relatively small number of Indian families. Members of these families are very knowledgeable about wiiskaak distribution and ecology and are highly motivated to preserve ash trees and the art of basket making.”
Known for its sturdy, flexible wood that can be weaved into baskets that are durable and beautiful, black ash is a weaver’s number one choice. These baskets are not just beautiful and useful, they provide a source of income for their creators, many of whom are working hard to save both the black ash trees and the art of basket making.
Kelly Church, discussing basket making and EAB
Kelly Church (Gun Lake Band Potowatami, Grand Traverse Band Ottawa Chippewa) and her daughter Cherish Parrish (Gun Lake Band Potowatami) are two Michigan-based black ash basket makers who not only hold workshops and presentations to educate tribes and the general public about their artistry, they also educate them about EAB and its threat to their craft.
Part of that involves the need for collecting ash seeds now to provide a source for black ash in generations to come. This is the only way to keep the black ash basket making tradition alive, even if it means skipping a generation before the ash are the size best suited to basketmaking. Kelly and Cherish educate children who, when they are 50-60 years old, will need to reestablish the art of basket making when the planted ash seeds become mature trees.
KEEPING MORE THAN THE TREES ALIVE
Renee Wasson Dillard (Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians) lives in northwestern Michigan and is dedicated to keeping the natural fiber arts alive as a full-time weaver and weaving instructor of black ash basketry and other natural fibers. As part of her teachings, Renee impresses upon the participants that the ash tree is part of our living earth family, deserving of respect and love, and needs to be thanked and honored for its permission to become a work of art in another form. She explains the process of choosing and harvesting black ash, as well as how it becomes a work of art and utility as a basket. She talks about the tree's personality, and the spiritual aspect of creating a basket. “You never know what is going to happen or what it is going to be,” she said.
In addition, Renee is a skilled Anishinaabemowin language teacher (the language of the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes), dedicated to keeping the language alive by incorporating Anishinaabemowin lessons into her basketry and fiber art teachings – thus keeping important cultural elements of the Anishinaabe people from disappearing as the older generations pass on.
Renee Dillard, demonstrating black ash basket making
HELP AND HOPE
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage are well-aware of the EAB threat to Native Americans, and in an article of the National Museaum of the American Indian magazine (“National Museum of the American Indian magazine, spring 2020, ‘A Silent Killer’ by Anne Bolen, pp 8-15 © Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian”) outlined how it had brought these Michigan basket makers and others from northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada together to examine a collection of baskets at the NMAI’s Cultural Research Center as part of a program to help preserve their heritage, and help bring it alive to others in the tribes. The basket makers were asked to provide information they may know about the baskets, which varied in age and type. Some of the baskets also helped fill in missing information about past methods of making baskets that these women were unaware of, or had not seen earlier. The information gleaned from the interaction will help the Cultural Research Center’s basket collection become a source of history, knowledge and learning for other Native basket makers and their students.
According to the article, Kelly Church encourages other to come to the NMAI’s Cultural Resource Center to learn more about this generations-old activity. She believes her ancestors are always with her and are happy when the baskets are still being used. She also believes the art of basket making is far from dead. “You can still be living as you are dying.” She is using her artistry to show how EAB is destroying black ash, and has used other types of materials to demonstrate what happens when there is a shortage of it.
Renee has replaced the black ash with cedar and basswood to weave baskets and bags, and she still teaches basket making. Her young grandchildren recently wove with her, and she hopes they will remember how important this is to her culture.
Cherish hopes that the focus on sustaining black ash baskets can lead to more of their use as a household item as they once were, in addition to their artistic beauty "so that they may have more of a place outside of the art world again."
Read the article about black ash basket making and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian here.
If you are interested in saving ash seeds, see the information available here.