Mak­ing of bas­kets, once hot trade items, fi­nally gets its due

Times Colonist - - British Columbia - DIRK MEISSNER

Matilda Bor­den liked to pour a cup of tea to dis­play her bas­ket­mak­ing ex­per­tise, prov­ing her cups made from ma­te­rial gath­ered in B.C.’s forests were wa­ter­tight, says her grand­daugh­ter Brenda Crab­tree.

Not one drop would leak, re­calls Crab­tree, who is also a bas­ket-mak­ing artist and Abo­rig­i­nal pro­grams di­rec­tor at Emily Carr Univer­sity of Art and De­sign in Van­cou­ver.

“She was show­ing off and it’s re­ally, truly the mark of a mas­ter weaver,” she said of her grand­mother, who died in 1975.

Among First Na­tions, bas­ket weavers have al­ways been held in high re­gard, said John Hau­gen of the Nlaka’pa­mux Na­tion from the Fraser Canyon.

“If you were a good bas­ket maker and some­body else wanted your bas­kets, they would have food to trade with you or other items.”

Now the bas­kets are gain­ing more no­tice than just be­ing func­tional works of art.

Canada rec­og­nized Nlaka’pa­mux bas­ket-mak­ing for its na­tional his­toric sig­nif­i­cance this month with a cer­e­mony at Lyt­ton, about 265 kilo­me­tres north­east of Van­cou­ver.

“His­toric des­ig­na­tions re­flect Canada’s rich and var­ied his­tory and I en­cour­age all Cana­di­ans to learn more about Nlaka’pa­mux bas­ket mak­ing and its im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to Canada’s her­itage,” said Jati Sidhu, Mis­sion-Mat­squi-Fraser Canyon MP, on be­half of Cather­ine McKenna, the min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for Parks Canada.

An­drea Laforet, re­tired di­rec­tor of eth­nol­ogy and cul­tural stud­ies at the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion, said the mak­ing, use and trad­ing of coiled bas­ketry has been part of the his­tory of the In­dige­nous Peo­ples of the south­ern In­te­rior of B.C. and parts of Wash­ing­ton state for cen­turies, if not thou­sands of years.

“Like many of the util­i­tar­ian ob­jects made in In­dige­nous so­ci­eties in B.C., they are also works of art,” said Laforet, who at­tended the cer­e­mony in Lyt­ton.

The bas­kets served as vi­tal trade com­modi­ties for In­dige­nous Peo­ples in the Fraser Canyon area be­fore and fol­low­ing con­tact with non-In­dige­nous peo­ple, Hau­gen said.

“We knew we were pro­lific bas­ket mak­ers and our bas­kets were traded out­side of our na­tion prior to con­tact,” said Hau­gen, who said war ca­noes from Van­cou­ver Is­land made the voy­age up the Fraser River to Spuz­zum on trade mis­sions.

The bas­kets made by Nlaka’pa­mux women pro­vided eco­nomic sup­port for fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties from about 1850 to 1930, when they were traded in nearby non-In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, he said.

To­day, the bas­kets are on dis­play in mu­se­ums around the world and are cov­eted pieces at auc­tions, said Hau­gen, whose aunts were well-known bas­ket mak­ers, and whose mother was an avid col­lec­tor who of­ten helped lo­cal peo­ple sell their work to col­lec­tors.

Bor­den was also part of the Nlaka’pa­mux Na­tion, and Crab­tree said some of her ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of help­ing her grand­mother har­vest, process and weave cedar roots and bark into bas­kets.

“I love the fact that this form of bas­ketry has been rec­og­nized as re­ally, truly, tech­ni­cally amaz­ing,” she said.

She said the bas­kets served as items for cook­ing, stor­ing and trans­port­ing food as well as be­ing ex­pres­sions of art by lo­cal women. “We never re­ally de­vel­oped a pot­tery com­plex in the north­west coast be­cause we didn’t need it,” she said. “Peo­ple think how can you cook with just a cedar-root bas­ket? Well, you fill them with wa­ter and put hot rocks from fires into the bas­ket. It would steam the food.”

Crab­tree said her most re­cent works of bas­ketry in­clude cul­tural com­men­tary wo­ven into the ob­ject. She said one of her bas­kets in­cludes the res­i­den­tialschool pol­icy state­ment: “Kill the Indian in the child.”

“I’m re­ally us­ing our bas­kets now as a ve­hi­cle for a dis­cus­sion re­lated to abo­rig­i­nal iden­tity and con­tem­po­rary is­sues,” she said. “They can hold wa­ter, cook and have an added mes­sage.”

Re­tired eth­nob­otanist Nancy Turner, who wrote ex­ten­sively about In­te­rior bas­ket-mak­ing, said the bas­kets em­bod­ied the lifestyle of the In­te­rior peo­ples.

“They say if you are mak­ing a bas­ket, you should never be in a bad mood,” she said. “You should never get an­gry. You should be of good mind be­cause the bas­ket you are mak­ing will pick up on your own sense of well-be­ing.”

Turner said stu­dents soon learned her courses in bas­ket mak­ing were not as easy as imag­ined. “Peo­ple will some­times talk about ‘Bas­ket Mak­ing 101’ if you’re tak­ing a sim­ple course at univer­sity, but when I taught eth­nob­otany at Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, I had the stu­dents do a mak­ing-things project,” she said. “The stu­dents soon learned it’s not at all sim­ple.”


Brenda Crab­tree, di­rec­tor of Abo­rig­i­nal pro­grams at Emily Carr Univer­sity of Art and De­sign, re­mem­bers help­ing her grand­mother har­vest and weave cedar roots and bark into bas­kets.


John Hau­gen of the Nlaka’pa­mux Na­tion in the Fraser Canyon holds a photo of bas­ket maker Su­sanna Swartz. Nlaka’pa­mux bas­ket-mak­ing was rec­og­nized in a cer­e­mony at Lyt­ton this month for its na­tional his­toric sig­nif­i­cance.


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