Tribe members harvest willows for baskets
Recent rains led to crop of reeds along Salt River
After recent rains, a lush crop of reeds has grown along the banks of the Salt River. On Saturday, a group of about 20 gathered to harvest the reeds and willows to make traditional baskets.
The gathering sprouted from a partnership between the Gila River Indian Community Urban Members Association and the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.
Phoenix allowed the group to collect the reeds on city property.
Multiple members from Arizona tribes participated Saturday with tools in hand. The harvesting of reeds and willows has been a long tradition. Baskets are used for storage, cooking, storytelling and ceremonies.
Yolanda Elias, who is in her 60s, has been harvesting reeds since she was 13. At the time, she said, she wasn’t focused on it and just wanted to ride her horse and play baseball.
“This is a lot of work,” Elias said. “But I started back up when I was 27. ... Once you learn from your elders, it stays with you.”
She said she appreciated the opportunity to teach the next generation — and get some help with the labor.
“It’s nice to teach the young,” she said. “When I go harvest on my own, I make sure someone very young comes with me, because you need that young strength.”
Elias stood on higher ground from the people harvesting so that she could take in their reeds and strip them clean so that the material was ready to begin crafting into baskets.
The goal for everyone was to find 6foot reeds. Elias said generally people strip them when they are freshly pulled from the water because it’s easier to do then. The reed is then cut in half and dried for about three days.
The cattail portion of the reed, referred to as the “corndog,” is used to determine whether the reed is ready for harvest. In some tribes, it is also used in ceremonies.
“Baskets back in the days were our tools,” Elias said. “Nowadays, it’s for school. I teach culture, traditional basket dancing. Normally, baskets are made during wintertime when all your stories
“I make sure someone very young comes with me, because you need that young strength.” YOLANDA ELIAS HAS BEEN HARVESTING REEDS SINCE SHE WAS 13
are told and then in spring they are brought out to show at the springtime dance.”
Another harvester, Delphia Graves, 65, said she has harvested and made baskets for more than 10 years but regrets not learning sooner. She brought her grandsons, age 6 and 7, in hopes of teaching them.
“They need to learn, because I’m not going to be able to (harvest) much longer,” she said. “The biggest part for me is knowing where you’re from, what your traditions are and to incorporate it into your life.”
Park ranger Winston Lyons saidPhoenix welcomed the group and appreciated the opportunity to help them continue to teach members about their ancestry.
He also said the partnership aims to give back to the community, replicate what was in the area a long time ago and to offer a place where people can learn about the river itself.
“This partnership engulfs many things, and the many things are the opportunity to share, to give and to reward out future generations,” Lyons said. “I have a grandchild on the way. My goal ever since I’ve been a part of Rio Salado is that hopefully my granddaughter can see the same things that I see today. By this partnership, I hope that happens.”
Those who didn’t make it Saturday but still want to harvest willows and cattails for basketry can contact Lyons at 602-534-9857 to schedule a time.
Damien Davis, 7, walks through a wall of cattails to reach his grandmother, Delphia Graves, while she harvests reeds on Saturday.