2017-07-20 / Front Page

Black Ash Baskets: Keeping A Lost Art Alive


Marge Bekins, a master black ash basket maker, demonstrates the art of basket making during St. Ignace Heritage Days Saturday, July 15. Ms. Bekins says black ash basket making is a lost art and she is hopeful to find a young person she can teach, to keep the traditional art alive. Marge Bekins, a master black ash basket maker, demonstrates the art of basket making during St. Ignace Heritage Days Saturday, July 15. Ms. Bekins says black ash basket making is a lost art and she is hopeful to find a young person she can teach, to keep the traditional art alive. As part of St. Ignace Heritage Days, Marge Bekins, a local black ash basket maker, demonstrated how to make black ash baskets and shared the story of why basket making is significant to Native Americans. She is trying to keep the lost art alive and pass on her skills and knowledge to a younger generation.

The Cocobanoggan, or legend of the black ash basket, shared by Ms. Bekins, says that black ash basket making began as a vision of Black Elk, a man nearing the end of his life who wanted to leave his people with something that would help them to provide for their families and teach them patience. Black Elk asked the Creator what he could do to help them, and Creator gave him a vision. According to the legend, upon Black Elk’s death, the people were supposed to burn his body and bury the ashes that remained in a special place. Out of the ashes would grow a special tree. The people were then to watch over this tree and protect it from harm. In the vision, Black Elk received instructions on how to remove the bark and prepare the strips to fashion them into baskets. Black Elk gathered his people and told them of the vision. He said they would learn patience, waiting for the tree to mature, preparing the growth rings, and weaving the baskets. They would then be able to either use the baskets or trade or sell them to provide for their families.

“Many Native American women would sell these baskets for five or 10 cents to buy things like shoes,” said Ms. Bekins.

As the legend says, basket making requires much patience. Basket makers have to learn how to identify the proper tree to use by its bark and leaves.

“Not every black ash tree is suitable for basket making,” said Ms. Bekins. “It must be carefully selected.”

Once the proper tree has been chosen, the bark must be removed with a drawknife. This is done by pounding the black ash, which will cause the growth rings to begin to separate. The strips are then split and cleaned. Depending on the type of basket, makers may dye the splints. Finally, the splints are laid on top of each other to form a circle, beginning the weaving process. Baskets can take days to months to create. The baskets are used for many things, including storing fruit, as hampers, and to move belongings when people were forced to leave their lands.

Ms. Bekins began learning the art of basket making in 1997 through the Michigan State University Museum Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program. She was taught by a Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians master, and aims to pass on the dying art to others.

“He taught me so I could teach others,” she said. “I’m trying to find young people willing to learn so that they can carry on the tradition.”

Ms. Bekins demonstrated to onlookers how to make baskets, and had many of her creations on display, including the most difficult black ash basket to construct, the strawberry.

“If you can make a strawberry, you’ve accomplished black ash basket making,” she said.

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