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Northwest tribes trade weaving skills at Suquamish
SUQUAMISH — Creating a woven cedar basket, a well-known product of Washington Native American tribes, is a long, arduous process. But the time it takes to gather the bark, strip it down and weave it into intricate designs is the time when youth learn about part of their culture. Master weavers and tribal elders shared their lessons and their craft Friday through Sunday, when Suquamish hosted the 17th annual Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association gathering.
Master weaver Bill James of the Lummi Nation was on hand, showing students how to make matchboxes and baskets.
“I teach conservation - respect for the land, respect for the trees,” he said. “Don’t take more than you need, don’t be greedy.”
Local master weaver Peg Deam echoed James’ sentiment. She first learned weaving by famous basketweaver Martha George. Deam recounted a story of when she was a little girl and asked George to take her to gather bark for a cedar dress. George laughed - winter is not the time for gathering - and took her in the spring.
“I’ve been gathering information on bark ever since,” Deam said. Her passion is traditional clothing - dresses, vests and headbands - but never got the hang of baskets.
Cedar is the most popular weaving material among Northwest tribes, which Deam attributes to its versatility. The strong fiber was woven into baskets for gathering, storage and cooking, fishing nets, rope for whale hunting, and is warm and water-repellent as clothing.
The Suquamish longhouse, the House of Awakened Culture, was fragrant with cedar as well as other forest materials — Oregon tribes shared their traditional baskets made of spruce and hazel, and those from Idaho use willow or pine needle.
NNABA’s purpose is to preserve, promote and perpetuate Northwest Indian basketweaving, according to President Bud Lane.
"Keeping it alive for us, our kids, even for those generations not even born yet," he said.
Suquamish cultural activities coordinator Tina Jackson said Suquamish provided about eight of the 40 teachers for the workshops, stretching over four days. She said around 500 people registered to teach and/or participate, the biggest turnout so far. The gathering included a traditional-dress fashion show, speakers, and vendors, and tribes from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia were represented.
Youth from around Puget Sound were invited to participate in special sessions on Friday, where they were taught the basics.
Natalie Fulton, Miranda Smith and Karleigh Gomez of Port Gamble S'Klallam were learning how to weave wool headbands using a loom. They said although some parts were hard, such as keeping the pattern straight, they wanted to continue weaving classes through their tribe.
Ben Billey, an eighth grader at Jefferson County Middle School, was one of the youngest instructors. He showed some other Port Gamble S'Klallam kids how to make a duck decoy out of tule grass. He said his aunt taught him how to make the thickly-weaved, green-colored ducks, used for hunting.
Many participants said camaraderie between weavers and spirit between tribes was the best part.
“I like to listen to the [older] ladies laugh,” said Sharron Nelson of Puyallup. “Their eyes light up when they’re done [weaving]. It’s good medicine.”
“It's good for the soul,” added Nelson’s daughter, Denise Reed.
These gatherings are often a family affair -- one booth featured three generations of thimble basket weavers. Gloria Mills-Smith, who grew up in Suquamish and now lives in Alabama, taught her first NNABA workshop with her daughter Michelle and mother Celia Napoleon Jackson, of Suquamish.
“I love that I have my daughter [here], staying a part of our tribal ancestry,” she said. The tiny baskets, made of sweet grass and raffia, are projects for beginning weavers.
Caroline Pierce, who was learning how to weave a cedar tail headband from Deam, said she was taught to think positive thoughts when working.
“The way you feel at the moment is worked into [the weave],” she said.
While weaving is now seen as artwork, with colorful designs and beadwork, the baskets were traditionally used for practical purposes -- storage and carrying fish, vegetables and water.
“I don’t ever make a basket I won't use,” Lane said. “In our language, there isn't a word for art. [Weaving] is considered work.”