TRAVERSE CITY — Frank Weese is one of Michigan's few Indian black ash splint basket makers.
For him, the first step to making any basket is selecting the tree and sprinkling tobacco on the ground before he cuts it. Tobacco is a sacred plant in Odawa and Ojibwa culture.
"They really are chosen trees," he said. "If I don't pray and ask the Creator to help me and ask the plant world for a beautiful tree to make baskets for people, I get the wrong tree."
The wood has to be smooth, with no knots. The tree has to be straight, alive and growing in muck and swamp. The growth rings have to be about a quarter- or nickel-width thick.
Baskets mean a lot to Weese, 55, of Traverse City.
"They have been part of my life, part of my survival," he said. "They teach me patience and take me closer to Mother Earth."
Weese sees basket making as a God-given gift that brings him a sense of tranquility, happiness and joy. It relaxes him and makes him feel good about himself. So does the joy and happiness he sees in people who receive them.
His first lesson in basket making came at age 7 from his grandmother, the late Rose Shocko, of Peshawbestown. She showed him how to pound along a black ash log with the back of an ax to loosen the pliant wood strips used in weaving and how to split the strips into thinner sections after removing them from the tree.
"The most amazing thing to me was to pound and see the growth rings release -- and then splitting the strip in half and seeing the soft insides, like satin, become the outside of the basket," he said.
Shocko also showed Weese how to dye the strips. She and her husband, Joe, had a 43-acre cherry orchard and barn museum along M-22 in Peshawbestown. They sold cherries and baskets, and Joe Shocko also worked for a Suttons Bay lumber yard. Weese remembers his grandmother using her basket money to buy groceries, clothes and things around the house.
Weese's father, Willard, a migrant worker, also was a basket maker. He learned how to make baskets from his parents while growing up in Mancelona in the 1930s but didn't begin making them until he retired. Willard told his son that baskets helped his family survive the Great Depression. They traded them for eggs and other food.
Weese spent about five years, after getting out of the service in 1978, learning the finer points of basket making from his father.
Today, Weese's baskets are on display in a hallway exhibit and for sale in shops at the Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel in Williamsburg.
Weese said what he loves about basket making is that he can do it anywhere. All he needs is his ax and the trusty pair of scissors he bought years ago for $5 at a rummage sale.
He signs the bottom of each basket -- and also adds the following:
"May the Great Spirit always be with you."
"May Grandmother Moon light the darkness for you."