Keeping an art form alive at Woodland

BRANTFORD – Learning how to make black ash baskets isn’t a commodity within the Six Nations community. To help the bridge the gap, a fulfilling two-day workshop teaching pack basket making from black and white ash tree splints was held on the grounds of the Woodland Cultural Centre on Sunday, September 4.

Participants were required to bring their own jackknife, measuring tape, scissors and of course, lunch to sit outside in the nice weather to begin their baskets.

Basket Making 2

Basket Maker Carol-Anne Maracle from the Tyendinaga Reserve said this is her third year teaching a skill that she learned to help keep the tradition going at the Woodland Cultural Centre.

“I have been basket making I guess for almost 15 years now,” said Maracle. “It’s a hobby actually. I took three years of my life and travelled from Tyendinaga to Akwesasne and learned from basket makers there. Every Tuesday and Thursday night I went for courses. Through the summer, through the winter I would drive there and I would learn how to make fancy baskets, strawberry baskets, sweet grass baskets and gradually learned how to do bigger baskets; feast baskets, wedding baskets, corn-wash baskets and pack baskets,” she said, explaining that each of those baskets comes in a different size and design.

Basket Maker and Instructor Carol-Anne Maracle sits with the “thigh-master” and tries to split another splint to show how it's done. Photo by Chezney Martin
Basket Maker and Instructor Carol-Anne Maracle sits with the “thigh-master” and tries to split another splint to show how it’s done. Photo by Chezney Martin

“I’m so happy to be back in Six Nations,” she said. “I really enjoy coming here and doing my basket classes. I have heard that there aren’t too many basket makers here within Six Nations, just a few. But, like our community in Tyendinaga there were no longer any basket makers. That was my incentive to travel and learn from the basket makers that were still here. I enjoyed that time immensely. I heard and shared so many stories with the elders as we were making our baskets,” she said, including that being a teacher has also opened up many friendships for her.

Even within her family, Maracle described the dynamic between her and her daughter as one of working together; Maracle enjoys making large baskets and her daughter making small baskets from the “scraps.”

But in regards to the actual process making of the baskets, Maracle uses what she jokingly calls a “thigh master,” which uses the pressure of her legs to hold the water-soaked splints in place as she coaxes the wood to split into thinner pieces.

“There’s various ways of spitting the splint,” she said. “When [the black ash] comes as a tree, it is eight to 10 feet long and still has the bark on it. What we do is we clean the bark off of the tree, then we take the back of the axe and pound it on the log of the tree and pieces of the wood peel up. Then we cut them to the size that we need for the baskets,” she said.

This process tends to take Maracle only a week or two to complete a full size pack basket, as her 15 years of experience serves her well. But, by doing most of the prep work, she can enable a class to finish a basket in only two days.

With a great instructor, nice weather and easy registration it’s safe to say that this workshop will definitely be full again next year.

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