IN THE PAST DECADE, IROQUOIS BASKETRY HAS EXPERIENCED A RESURGENCE.
In the past decade, Iroquois basketry has experienced a resurgence.
Mohawk artist Carrie Hill attributes her youthful good looks to basketmaking. “The secret is in the sweetgrass water— it’s an anti-aging formula,” she jokes, dabbing a little on her cheeks. When it comes to Haudenosaunee basketmaking, laughter is every bit as much a part of the process as hard work. Working side by side, Hill and her aunt and mentor Laura Mitchell easily fall into an intuitive rhythm of motion, deliberation and banter.
The methods Hill and Mitchell use to pound, clean, and transform swamp dwelling timber into silken splints have remained basically unchanged for a century and a half. Native black ash and sweetgrass, once plentiful in the Haudenosaunee homelands, provided the strength and versatility to be converted into pack and storage baskets of exceptional durability. European families immigrating into Haudenosaunee territory during the Contact Period readily sought out these sturdy and utilitarian handcrafts. Notable for their resourceful creativity, Iroquois basketmakers of the 1860s began to incorporate a new design element into their women’s work baskets. Triangular points or curls formed by twisting and tucking the splint-produced decorative components that extended out and away from the basket body. Referred to as “porcupine work,” this striking embellishment remains a significant attribute of the Haudenosaunee basketmaker’s stylistic vocabulary today.
From the last quarter of the 19th to the mid-20th century the sale and production of Iroquois baskets skyrocketed to meet demands from within as well as outside the communities. During this time baskets were often sold in dozens for next to nothing or traded for credit vouchers at nearby non-native marketplaces. While basketmaking waned in subsequent years as a viable means of economic support, it has remained intrinsic to Iroquois, especially Mohawk identity.
In 2012 more than 100 Akwesasne Mohawk residents, mostly women, were still actively producing baskets. Not so in other Haudenosaunee communities. The availability of commercial products, lack of readily available materials, and availability of new opportunities had taken their toll. In some communities, knowledge of the basketmaking process was maintained by very few and vigilantly guarded. In the years that followed, this once-flourishing artistic tradition in Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga and Tuscarora communities all but vanished.
Over the past 10 years, this remarkable art has begun to experience a revival in the communities where it was seldom or no longer practiced. With basketmakers from Akwesasne and the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and other Northeast Native nations serving as a wellspring, a small number of individuals from various communities have painstakingly began to reclaim these traditions for their own expression, representing a small, but dedicated, force in its rebirth.
Ironically, just as basketmaking is undergoing renewed interest in Haudenosaunee territories, this traditional art simultaneously faces its greatest risk of extinction. Threats to its maintenance and practice include both cultural and environmental factors. The ability to pound splints requires very specific knowledge and a mastery of technique. Few young men in the communities today have the interest and/ or time to dedicate to such tasks.
But by far the most detrimental factor threatening the survival of this 150 year old art is the rampant spread of the emerald ash borer, a non-native beetle inadvertently introduced into the United States in the 1990s. The insect has pioneered and infected ash forests throughout the Northeast in an alarmingly short time.
A previous generation of Iroquois basketmakers achieved legendary status for their unequaled skill and originality. Florence Benedict, Mary Leaf, Mary Adams (Akwesasne), Katie Sickles (Oneida, Ontario) and other lifelong basketmakers advocated for recognition of their unique expressions as fine art and set the stage for a new generation of imaginative innovators. The vast knowledge held by these elders may someday be lost. But until such time Ronnie Leigh Goeman, Ann Mitchell, Penny Minner, Holly John and others will continue to interpret ancestral patterns, personal dreams and ideas into colored and curled masterworks—upholding a proud, now precious Haudenosaunee tradition.
1. Mary Adams (Mohawk), Pope Basket, 1987, black ash and sweetgrass, 11 x 10¼". Iroquois Indian Museum (IIM) Collection. 87:119. 2. Ann Mitchell (Mohawk), Punched splint Lantern basket, 2016, black ash (dyed) and sweetgrass, 5⁄ x 4". IIM Collection 16:65. 3. Ronnie Leigh Goeman
(Onodaga), Holding Up the Tree of Peace, 2015, black ash, sweetgrass, deer antler, 11 x 10¼”. Carved antler stand by Stonehorse Lone (Seneca). IIM Collection 16:64. 2
4. Katie Sickles (Oneida), Pineapple weave fancy basket, 2001, natural and dyed black ash, 5 x 6". IIM Collection 01:16. 5. Mary Leaf (Mohawk), Fancy basket, 1985, black ash (dyed) and sweet grass, 6⁄ x 25⁄". IIM Collection 85:175. 6. Elizabeth Thompson
(Mohawk), Strawberry basket, 1980, black ash (dyed) and sweet grass, 4⁄ x 5⁄". IIM Collection 81:212. 6