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.