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Basketweavers conference weaves relationships, traditions

PHOENIX - They weave to live; they weave to keep tribal traditions vibrant, and to strengthen their relationship with Mother Earth.

More than 200 Indian basketweavers from across the country met at the Heard Museum here early in December to share the tribulations and triumphs of carrying on weaving traditions with head, hands, and heart. The 5th Celebration of Basketweaving showcased weaving skill of tribes from Maine to Hawaii, from southern Arizona to far northern Alaska. There also was a competition, an artist's market attended by more than 2,500 people and a traditional southern Arizona 'Chicken Scratch' social dance.

"Weaving shows who I am," Makah weaver Theresa Parker declared. "Weaving shows our ancestors are still with us." Parker, who spoke while crafting roses from lengths of red cedar pounded flat, added that weaving shows her how to honor her culture and tribe.

"It's amazing to see weaving actually growing all over the country," said Sara Greensfelder, basketweaver support director of the California Indian Basketweavers Association, the nation's oldest American Indian weaver group. CIBA works with other weavers' groups, providing technical assistance and support nationwide.

"Baskets have emerged from the mud (in Alaska) and been dated at four to five thousand years old - older than the pyramids! The technique is exactly the same as today,." said Ten Rofkar, Tlingit weaver. "Indigenous basketry is not (just) a technique, it's more complex. It's more like a reflection, a relationship with our environment."

Sabra Kauka, Native Hawaiian from Kauai, showed a video with a weaving demonstration. Kauka spoke while holding a traditional burial basket, one of the first made since 1828 when Western missionaries forbid the making of "heathen" Native artifacts.

Terrol Johnson of the Tohono O'Odham Basketweavers Association, which organized the event, likened weaving to "sitting in a ray of light." He is one of a growing number of male weavers who took up the trade after noticing the dearth of women engaged in weaving.

"Any weaver is better than no weaver," Everett Pikayvit, Southern Paiute/Goshute from Nevada, noted. He and other Nevada weavers recently started a weaving association for Great Basin tribes.

"Weaving is starting to revive something that's dead. It starts and ends with prayer," Franklin Gilbert, San Carlos Apache, said.

Weavers voiced concern about decreasing access to weaving materials, pesticide use, marketing and pricing. Several reported bear grass, redbud and willow grow increasingly hard to find. Gathering areas on private lands are often barred to Native weavers.

Greensfelder said pesticide spraying by various agencies to combat invasive species, such as Russian, or yellow, star thistle, is on the rise. The pesticides pose a hazard to both plant and human health, as weavers traditionally pass the plants and roots through their mouths during the process. CIBA advocates a natural approach to exotic plant control, as well as an enhanced policy to notify and consult with tribes on pesticide use, and works with federal agencies to protect gathering areas.

Johnson said Mexican nationals are chopping down bear grass in O'Odham gathering areas for brooms instead of gathering smaller amounts to allow the grass to replenish itself.

Parker told of efforts of Washington tribes to educate non-Indians on the importance of sustainable plant harvesting. Many plants in the rain forest used for basketmaking are also highly prized for flower arrangements.

Teresa Secord Hoffman, Penobscot weaver from Maine, said weavers are often forced to sell to dealers because they need the money to pay bills. "Weavers don't get a fair price for their work," she said.

Weavers also discussed the use of e-commerce to market to more collectors.

"When somebody comes by to ask if I could do better on a $100 basket, I say 'sure, I'll do better - I'll sell it to you for $150!" said Wendy Weston, Navajo.

Weavers as well as other Native artists need to adopt a professional approach to marketing, with portfolios, business cards and pricing policies, Weston said. She is the artists' liaison at the Heard. She noted the museum provides free marketing assistance to artists.

Four generations of a remarkable California weaving family attended the conference. Renowned Kashaya Pomo/Miwok/Paiute weaver Julia Parker, who was accompanied by daughter and fellow weaver Lucy, granddaughter Ursula Furr and 4-year-old great-granddaughter Naomi, lent an elder's perspective to the gathering.

"We Native peoples are at a crucial point in our evolution. We (Elders) are holding our culture and language. If we don't share what we are holding with our children, we'll lose it," Julia Parker exclaimed.