Iro­quois Re­vival


Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Co­lette Lemmon

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

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