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Issue 136

Natural fibre shopping with Renee “Wasson” Dillard at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, and nearby bush, M’Chigeeng First Nation, Summer 2016
by Crystal Migwans

“Let’s go shopping, kwe,” Wasson jokes as we pull up to the densely treed lot where M’Chigeeng First Nation’s new grocery store is slated to be built in the coming months. Seeing as the land is scheduled to be cleared, we figure no one will mind if we snap up some choice natural fibres.

On our shopping list today is basswood bark, though Wasson always keeps an eye out for healthy black ash – an increasing rarity in Michigan now that the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB) beetle has destroyed tens of millions of its ash trees. We spent about an hour driving around the rez before coming to this spot, Wasson hanging out the passenger side window to scan the canopies. There are still several good stands in the swampier areas, she notes happily. The EAB hasn’t yet left its mark on Manitoulin Island.

We get out of the car and she leans on the hood of her rez beater and calls out choice bits of wisdom while I navigate through the underbrush towards some promising-looking trees. It’s very uneven ground, and she’s not as mobile as she used to be, so the harvesting is delegated to me, the young-ish helper. The Elder guides the Youth on the right path.

“You’re looking for a smooth-bodied young man,” she calls.

“Oh my god.” She can’t see me blushing from there, at least.

I come to a narrow tree growing straight and relatively knot-free out of the swampy soil, reaching high above me before branching out. Its trunk is grey and, yes, smooth. It is about as wide around as my two hands and its canopy is full and green far above me. A young black ash.

“How do I tell if it’s a male?” I call back.

“You check under his breechclout. No, no, I’m kidding, kwe. You can get a female ash if you prefer. Kidding! Just bring me a branch.”

I dutifully break off one of the compound leaves and bring it back to the car. She points out the way that the leaves are paired, the blade coming right down to meet the stem with no stalk, and the “chocolate chips” nestled at each branching.

“That’s a black ash all right,” she smiles. “Looks healthy. Did you see any holes in the bark? New branches shooting out low on the trunk?” I respond in the negative to both questions, and she nods. It’s a good tree. A little small to harvest yet, so, if this were one of her black ash stands back home, she’d remember to come back for this one. She’s just showing me how to identify it today, though.

Renee “Wasson” Dillard is – or was – a black ash basketmaker. Until recently, the Anishinaabe grandmother made her living harvesting, processing and weaving black ash into beautiful basketry. Today, she has expanded her repertoire to twined bags, lodge mats and more. As her reputation grew across Michigan and beyond, she began supplementing her income by running workshops at museums, schools and cultural centres.

It’s a demanding life. But Wasson is something of a powerhouse: charismatic, warm and determined, she has gained herself many dedicated collectors and students. Not only has she made herself a living from these old, land-based practices, but through her advocacy and educational work she has also made it possible for others to do the same. What she hopes to pass on is the capacity for Anishinaabeg to have a continuing relationship with the land even under colonial conditions. Change is coming, but that’s nothing new for us.

Climate change and a new invader are altering the landscape. The emerald ash borer was first reported in southern Michigan in 2002, and has since killed tens of millions of ash trees in that state alone. It is an aggressive invader, killing nearly 100 per cent of infected stands within six years. And with no natural predators in North America, it is spreading unchecked. Along with habitat destruction caused by climate change, the EAB looks set to destroy black ash – and, with it, the practice of black ash basketry. Black ash is uniquely suited to basketry: as its growth rings lack connecting fibres between layers so pounding along the length of a fresh tree will separate the rings into splints. Even if there was another tree with these properties, the black ash is not just a convenient resource for Wasson and other artists, it’s also a partner in living. Like family.

Even with the death of a family member on the horizon, Wasson is not resigned to grief. There are many other Anishinaabe fibre traditions, though the lines of transmission for many of these old art forms have been severed under colonialism. Woven lodge mats of cattail, bulrush and white cedar; twined bags of basswood, nettle and milkweed. Wasson has spent the 15 years since the EAB invasion began researching these traditions and sharing her new skills.

On our own little teaching tour this summer day, we move on from black ash to other fibres that Anishinaabeg have historically worked.

I head in the other direction, toward a stand of trees with a darker canopy. Wasson has directed me to look for another young tree with grey bark, this one with broad, spade-shaped leaves as big as my hand. As instructed, I cut a deep slice across the base of the tree and slip my hand under the bark. It comes away in a long strip all the way up the tree. We sit in her car and she shows me how to split the bast (inner bark) from the outer bark.

Later on, we take others from her week-long workshop at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF) to do the tour as well. I get to act like I know what I’m talking about as I lead the way back into the bush and show off the two trees we’ve identified. I can tell Wasson is laughing at me from the car, but one of the lessons here is that laughter is instructive. The other lesson is that you don’t know something until you can teach it to someone else.

“To keep it, you have to give it away,” she admonishes us.

When she can, Wasson likes to begin instructing students in the bush so they become acquainted with their materials from start to finish. This is about mastery of the medium, certainly, but as we walk around the bush and find ourselves getting to know the different trees (scoping out those smooth young men), it becomes clear that it’s also about becoming acquainted with the land itself. Belonging there.

Anishinaabe weaving is a practice of sovereignty as much as survival.

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