Tradition of making native ash baskets revived

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’It’s been a dying art for a long time’

MILLBROOK - Growing up, Della Maguire didnt realize that making ash baskets was a Mikmaq art form. She only saw it as something her parents did for a living.

 

But now shes retired, Maguire has dedicated herself to preserving the unique art by instructing other First Nations women in the making of ash baskets.

I realized its a cultural art, not just a way to make a living, Maguire said.

Her weeklong workshop, with 10 senior Mikmaq women participating, took place recently at the Glooscap Heritage Centre.

She said the goal is to pass the art on to other women who will keep making baskets once the workshop is done, and can then pass it on to people in their own communities. The practice of making baskets out of ash strips has been lost over the generations, Maguire said.

Its been a dying art for a long time, she said.

The women taking part in the workshop travelled from all over the Maritimes to attend.

They get to take the baskets home, Maguire said, adding the women had spent hours on each of their baskets.

The laborious process to make a basket takes hours. The ash strips must be cut into various widths to make the base of the basket, then the walls and finally the lid. Strips can also by dyed to add some colour. Experienced basket makers can put intricate patterns into their labours of love by bending and twisting the strips.

By the afternoon on the third day of the workshop, the ladies were working on their second basket. Many were getting ready to learn how to make a porcupine quill covered lid.

Maguire said many people dont have the time to spend on making this type of basket. She recalled how her granddaughter used to visit her on holidays and make baskets with her when she was seven or eight years old. But as she grew into a teenager, Maguire said her granddaughter didnt have the hours to spend on making them anymore.

Not many people take it on because of their other responsibilities, she said.

Another problem facing the basket makers is their resources. Once the workshop participants return to their communities, they will need to collect their own materials. But the wood is specially collected from ash trees in Quebec, and the tools required can be expensive, Maguire said.

When people have the materials, theyll continue, she said. Theres a cost to it.

The women at the workshop, who are all at the intermediate level, are encouraged to implement a symbol into their finished basket as a personal signature. One symbol used was a small black and white feather made of beads tied into a weave.

Organizations: First Nations, Glooscap Heritage Centre

Geographic location: Quebec

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