Haudenosaunee Basketry Weaves: Identity, Art, Family and Food Practice
By Alex Jimerson
It was the day of my uncle Ron’s funeral a somber time shared with relatives and friends. After the grieving and sadness follows strength and resilience as I spend time with my Jimerson family. A brisk fall breeze passing through oak leaf branches outside of my uncle’s house remind me of home on the Allegany Indian Territory. Home of the Seneca people belonging to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the original inhabitants of what is now upstate New York. Seventy-five miles south of Buffalo deep in the bush, the hustle of New York City seems to be a world away where my studies as a grad student await me. After funeral services I sat with my aunt Penny, the third youngest of eleven siblings, her family grounded in traditional arts. A graphic designer by occupation, she has deep family roots to Haudenosaunee basketry. Perhaps not an ideal time to bring up a discussion of basketry after the passing of a family member but as a concerned Haudenosaunee youth I struggle with identity and aim to reclaim traditional practices. In the passing of the older generation it is paramount this knowledge is protected to be accessible to the youth for cultural survival. Indigenous people continually endure colonization which threatens their land culture, food and identity. I think Haudenosaunee basketry is a way to weave all of those things together.
My people use Ash trees, specifically the black-ash species commonly found in the northeastern woodlands. The wood’s yearly growth rings are thin, flexible and separate easily when wet, making it ideal for basket-weaving. A Black-ash tree is harvested and soaked for over a year to ensure the inner layers of summer wood are wet, once saturated the outer layer (bark) is notched at the ends of both sides of the log per desired width of strips to be used for weaving. The log is then hit with a mallet or blunt object repeatedly until the long strips can be easily peeled back. The strips or splints are then smoothed and must be kept wet to retain flexibility for weaving. Indigenous peoples of the eastern woodlands and great lakes region used the long splints for weaving for various food practices, including, drying mats, traps and baskets. Baskets utilized for collecting harvests of crops and corn washing during the nixtamalization, a process in which corn is washed in an alkaline solution. Baskets are also fundamental to strawberry collecting significant to the Haudenosaunee ceremonial cycle. A ceremonial cycle reflected in a constant engagement of thanksgiving for the natural fruition of foods in Haudenosaunee lands. The baskets for corn washing are in between 9-10 inches tall, 11 inches wide and 12 inches in length fitted with handles to shake out hardwood ash. Berry gathering baskets are smaller and shallow often big enough to carry a quart of berries.
My aunt takes after my grandmother: welcoming, nurturing, and intelligent. Her small hands reflect her petite stature. The intricate work her hands accomplished have cataloged countless hours spent with basket-maker superstars of past generations: her mother Hazel Jimerson, her cousin Midge Dean Stock, and Mary Adams. In Haudenosaunee culture women are highly respected, holding the position of clan-mothers they appoint chiefs to carry out political responsibilities. Women also the primary care-givers in the community, tending to the securement of the community’s food supply. Women often constructed many of the tools used in Haudenosaunee food culture, baskets being one of those tools. Fast-forward generations later woman are still upholding these duties. Carrying on the weight of four generations in traditional arts, Penny’s attention to detail and absorption of knowledge from elders has contributed to the revitalization of Haudenosaunee basketry. She generously shares this knowledge in the basket-making classes she hosts “It is a pleasure seeing others who want to learn are genuinely interested in the art,” she tells me. “It’s a part of our past and part of who we are as a people. To me it’s an acknowledgement that we are still here, still here despite all that our ancestors had to endeavor.”
Historic government policies directed at Native Americans attempted to dissolve their culture through assimilation in residential schools. “Kill the Indian, and save the man” was coined in 1892 by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which attempted to “Americanize” Native American youth via institutional education. Children were punished for speaking their native tongue, taken from their families and taught to be ashamed of their identity. Native Americans were dispossessed from their homelands, ultimately distancing them from their ancestral food systems as well. Elders struggle with historical trauma and have difficulty passing along the knowledge that once enabled them to thrive on the land. Despite attempts of assimilation a minority of elders have selfishly clung onto this knowledge went against the governments wishes and had people like Penny in mind to continue on with their teachings. Elders like Midge Dean Stock, Penny’s cousin and first formal teacher instructed her on the fundamentals in Haudenosaunee basketry. The unique weaving techniques are learned interpersonally, not in how-to books, or mobile apps. The expertise in craft is immersing oneself in the forests and spending time with community elders.
Basket-making is labor intensive to say the least, from harvesting the ash tree to its finished product. “Gathering splints is a means to an end that is well worth the effort” my aunt proclaims. It’s evident Penny’s hands have an innate relationship with ash wood. Gripping the damp and pliable splints, beautiful patterns are summoned to be weaved. Penny exhibits the same focus as a teenager fixated on the abyss of pixels in their smartphone -- swiping left, swiping right, scrolling up and tapping their screen. She concentrates on intertwining the slivers of wood in twill, checker and hexagon patterns, over and under, align and repeat. Penny’s nimble fingers rival a perfect execution of a guitar solo and can leave her digits equally sore and bruised. Splinters under the skin come with the territory. An empty box of Band-Aid’s in Penny’s medicine cabinet certainly attest to it. She mitigates this irritant by smoothing the splints, her favorite process of basket-making, she confesses it’s relaxing. Her beautiful collection of berry-harvesting baskets are ornamented with braided sweetgrass. Intricately braiding tiny blades of grass that would test the patience of most. Patience is the valuable lesson that Penny has learned in her 20 years practicing the craft.
As I’m sharing a meal with Penny, she delves deeper into the current status of native basketry, noting that some native basket-makers have taken their collection off the market, and no longer sell their baskets. Due to environmental degradation, an invasive species known as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) Beetle is wreaking havoc on the trees, killing them from the inside out. Millions of trees in 25 states have been killed due to the invasive species since 2002. The threat is real and it’s been devastating, not only for the basket-making industry but for carpenters and baseball bat manufactures. Who rely on ash wood for its strength and elastic characteristics. “I don’t know if there is a true substitute that we can use which is accessible in our region and territories”. Penny said concerned, “Maple has been tested but isn’t as flexible as Black Ash.. It’s a grim outlook for the traditional materials we’ve used for generations.” EAB isn’t the only invasive species to threaten North American woodlands, Dutch Elm Disease and Sudden Oak Death have devastated North Americas woodlands generations before. The EAB is believed to have traveled to North America from Asia via untreated ash wood pallets most likely through global trade.
Although the EAB is an imminent threat to ash trees, basket-makers historically have reinvented the craft to ensure basketry’s survival. In recent decades Haudenosaunee baskets, have evolved into the realm of fine arts. Craft pieces lining basket collector’s curio cabinets. Tonia Galban, Native Interpretive Guide at Ganondagan State Historical site. A Native American cultural center near Rochester NY, declares the evolution of Haudenosaunee basketry as an “art necessary for survival of the craft’s origin” Tonia tells me in a conversation over the phone. Tourism in Niagara Falls being the key driver, basket-makers utilized their talents to provide a source of income during the tiring economic times of World War II. The emergence of basketry as an art also had direct relationship with the onset of industrialization of food systems. Reliance on corn-washing baskets has diminished due to modern innovations of kitchen technology, typical households began adapting modern strainers. Trading in sentimental baskets for disposable colanders uprooted natives from their traditional food practices, no longer grounding them like trees in a shared homeland, natives were transplants to a foreign food system.
Corn washing baskets arguably the most coveted due to the scarce amount of basket-makers possessing the skill to make them. Penny asserts, “You either have it or you don’t” regarding the skillful weaving ability to finish the baskets’ base. Tension and pattern must be near perfection in applying the twill weave to ensure proper nixtamalization. A process in which dried corn is boiled in water with an alkaline solution most commonly used hardwood ash allow the kernels to soften which loosen the hulls or pericarps. In the Mohawk language its referred to as “Serihsi aotia:tawi” translating to “taking off the jacket” the jacket implying the hull. The kernels absorb calcium when rinsed from the ash solution. With the kernels cleaned and the hulls removed completely it’s a tedious process. Fast-food doesn’t apply here as the corn has yet another 3 hours to cook. Paired with a slab of salt pork and red kidney beans the soup is wholesome and filling. Corn Soup or Onohgwa’ was once a staple among the Haudenosaunee, consumed frequently it’s now treated as a delicacy in the community. Owing its reasons to the diminished time we budget for preparing food. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported Americans spend a measly 30 minutes a day on meal prep. So spending a timely 5 hours making corn soup doesn’t fit being American.
Galban, native interpretive guide says “Corn-washers” referring to the baskets must hold consistent tension, often difficult when the splints expand after becoming wet and enduring rigorous use. In 2015, Tonia made two “corn-washers” and documented cleaning over 3,000 pounds of corn in aiding the Iroquois White Corn Project. A non-profit agricultural business focuses on restoring the consumption of Iroquois White Corn. In addition to their thousand-pound corn cleaning durability, black-ash baskets are 100% degradable and the remaining wood shavings used for kindling firewood, nothing goes to waste.
The means in how a distinct people feeds themselves weighs on the relationship to land, ancestral knowledge and identity. Native cultures have struggled to survive the past 500 years of colonization. Elders in native communities have endeavored to persevere. Basket-making is a craft sharing that perseverance. Inextricably weaving tree identification, knowledge of landscape, and patience into an item of beauty that helps feed people. The Black-Ash splints which make baskets, traps and drying mats possible are at the focal point of Haudenosaunee food culture.
The narrative of the “vanishing Indian” never convinced people like Penny and Tonia to let go of their cultural practices, they see their culture vibrant and alive in the basket-making classes they host. Penny is a current keeper of this knowledge, which was passed from those who came before her. As she shares with me how natural systems of environment are interconnected with our culture and reflected in the lessons basket-making teaches us in its beauty. The baskets that originally held our corn, now also captivate our attention as an art piece. The resurgence in reclaiming indigenous food systems is congruent with indigenous youth reclaiming their identity. By learning and living these practices will ensure their survival.