The Basket Tree
One of the oldest crafts in Native American culture is basket making. The tribes in the northeast make baskets out of many materials including birch bark, split wood of ash trees and sweet grass, the strongest being those made from the wood of brown or black ash trees, known as basket trees.
These slow growing trees are found along streams and in bogs and swaps only in the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada. The wet landscapes they grow in produce more flexible strands good for weaving.
The logs selected for basket making are straight and about 8-10 feet in length. Once the bark is peeled from the log, the splints are pounded using the back of an ax or sledgehammer. The results are sheets about 1/16” thick that are peeled off each layer of the growth ring. These splints are used to make baskets for practical purposes or more preparation goes into making more delicate fancy baskets.
Ash Basket Making in New England
Before contact, free form woven baskets were made for utilitarian purposes such as pack and gathering baskets and fish traps. Post contact came the introduction of fancy baskets made using forms and splints died with natural plant material and they were often small, lightweight and intricately decorated. Basket molds were developed to make it easier to produce uniformly shaped baskets that were often sold to European settlers as basket making became a way of making a living and allowed the makers to travel from town to town selling them.
Baskets showcased individual character of the people who made them. Traditional ash baskets techniques have been passed down by generations. While using ash strips to weave baskets is an ancient practice, many weavers today are making objects that would surprise their ancestors. They are experimenting with color, form, function.
In the coming years, black ash split baskets, ash bark baskets, and hand-carved ash cradleboards will become some of the rarest, collectible pieces of Native art due to an insect that is killing ash trees. Emerald Ash Borer beetles have been found in North America and Canada. These insects can kill an ash tree in 3-5 years and have killed millions of ash trees in the past two decades. Many Northeastern Nations are working with the government to find ways to protect the ash trees and are preserving seeds and making videos to document of the basket making process so that trees can be replanted, and future generations can be taught the basket making skills of their ancestors.
Find Ash Baskets and Basket Making Kits at The Wandering Bull
We offer antique and vintage handmade ash baskets as well as pine needle basket kits to make your own! We also have a selection of books on traditional basket making.