Traverse City Record-Eagle

Reflections

May 29, 2011

Baskets have important role in history

Black ash containers played a big part in local American Indians' culture

PESHAWBESTOWN — Baskets have many functions and forms. They hold things, store and transport them.

For historians, ethnologists and anthropologists, they carry the history of a place, its culture and socioeconomic heritage from one era to another.

Northern Michigan's black ash splint baskets, sitting on shelves in local museum exhibits or adorning old cottages and farmhouses, recall more than memories of Odawa and Chippewa in this region. They offer a deeper look into Indian life in Michigan's northwest Lower Peninsula long before Euro-American settlement and after.

For Laura Quackenbush, of Lake Leelanau, learning the history of these baskets made from swamp trees became a journey into Michigan's fur-trading, commercial fishing, lumbering and early summer resort eras of the 1800s. She took side trips, too, into the history of federal Indian treaties, long-term effects of Indian boarding schools on Indian basket making and New Deal programs of the 1930s to rescue Michigan Indian crafts and arts from near extinction.

Her exploration started accidentally in 1985.

Quackenbush had just been hired as curator of the Leelanau Historical Museum, which was moving from Leland's one-time county jail building into the renovated and expanded former library building at the east end of Cedar Street. She had to start exhibits from scratch and was looking for something to heighten awareness and celebrate local history. She decided on Indian arts and crafts and went to Frank Wick, owner of the Windy Knob tourist store between Omena and Northport. He had a personal collection of Indian quill work on birch bark and other crafts. He showed her a black ash basket made by Lucille Miller. Its beauty, detail and workmanship struck her.

A new world opened.

In 1986, the Leelanau Historical Society put out a call to area residents and resorters to bring in baskets, porcupine quill work on birchbark, other bark and grass work known to be made by local Indians. More than 500 were loaned for examination. Non-Indian volunteers working with Odawa volunteers Esther and Louis Koon, Catherine Baldwin, all since deceased, and John Bailey wrote descriptions of the objects to be cataloged.

Esther Koon was a third-generation basket maker, quill worker and the daughter of Susan Miller, a noted Leelanau County basket maker. Koon's husband, Louis, often prepared the splints and handles. Bailey is an Odawa historian from Honor, now retired from the Michigan Department of Commerce.

Several things came out of the inventory. A 1987 exhibit at the museum showcased many pieces in the inventory, and many people donated baskets, quill work and other items to the museum. Planning and fundraising began for a state-of-the art basket collection room with low lighting and sealed glass pane cabinets. The longawaited Anishnabek Basket and Quill Work Room and its permanent exhibit opened in 2005.

In 1990, Quackenbush started a master's degree program with a specialty in anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. She wanted to study black ash split basketry in northwest Lower Michigan because scholars and social scientists had largely ignored Woodland Indians in the Upper Great Lakes. She thought black ash baskets played a significant role in the culture of Odawa and Ojibwa here.

"Today there are few basket makers living," she noted in the introduction of her 163-page thesis, published in 1995. "However, the knowledge, if not the skill, still lives in the minds of many individuals who learned from their parents and grandparents and should be preserved."

Her research took her to other basket collections at Cranbrook, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Manistee, Mackinac Island, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Harbor Springs and the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City.

It also led to interviews with living basket makers, Indian elders who learned the ancient craft from parents and grandparents, and tourist store owners.

For Quackenbush, determining the historical significance of Indian baskets begged a research question: "Why were they making them?"

"Sometimes you'll find marks on the bottom of baskets that indicate how much was paid for them — 25 cents or 35 cents," she said. "Why did they have to do it?"

The answer: Survival.

Basket making helped area Indians survive the extreme poverty they found themselves in little more than a generation after Odawa and Ojibwa chiefs signed an 1836 federal treaty that ceded their lands — one-third of the whole state of Michigan — to the United States.

By the late 1800s, northern Michigan pine forests had vanished, fisheries and wildlife were depleted, and many Indian families, for a variety of reasons, had lost or were losing land allotted them in an 1855 treaty.

Basket making, a centuries-old tradition, had become a family "cottage industry," that served the growing number of summer resorts promoted by railroads and shipping companies.

Quackenbush's thesis, "Black Ash Basketry in Northwest Lower Michigan," traces the history of native basket making in northern Michigan through four socioeconomic eras: fur trading, subsistence and commercial fishing, lumbering, and summer resorter/tourist.

Baskets were mostly utilitarian during the fur trading (1615-1836) and subsistence and commercial fishing eras (1830-1870), when Odawa men sold fresh fish to white settlers and salted fish to middlemen for export. Women and children cleaned and preserved the catches.

From 1840-1910, lumbering provided Odawa and Ojibwa men a fall and winter income and work in the woods similar to traditional hunting and trapping occupations. Women and some men also continued traditional ways such as making maple syrup and baskets, which enabled them to earn some cash.

"In the 19th century, selling baskets became one of the few ways in which cash could be earned for Indian families when jobs were scarce and discrimination against Indian workers was common," Quackenbush said.

The region's summer resorter era (1880-1930s) was the heyday of Indian black ash splint baskets here.

"The tourist was a new American personality," she wrote. "They traveled for leisure and entertainment with a desire and means to collect mementos."

Tourists change with time and technology. The invention of the automobile brought the eventual demise of trains, passenger ships and summer resorts. New kinds of containers made of different materials came into use, even by native families.

The removal of Odawa and Ojibwa children from local homes to attend Indian boarding schools as part of federal assimilation policy interrupted the ancient practice of passing on basket-making skills from one generation to another. The federal government tried to revive basket making and other Indian handicrafts in the late 1930s until World War II started. Afterward, many northern Michigan Indians moved to cities for better-paying jobs. Today, only a handful of Michigan Odawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi still weave black ash baskets, mostly for art markets.

Quackenbush left the Leelanau museum in 2007 and worked a year for the Grand Traverse Band, overseeing the 2009 start-up of Eyaawing Museum in Peshawbestown. Today she is a museum technician for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. She has not forgotten that day at Windy Knob when she saw Lucille Miller's basket that started it all.

"The detail work was exquisite, even though it was so old," she said. "I was overwhelmed by it. The artistry, family loyalty, the resourcefulness and all the things that seemed to be embodied in it — that's what interested me."

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