Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
BAD RIVER RESERVATION, Wisconsin — The rhythmic sound of mallet hitting wood rings through the forest at April Stone’s homestead. She and her assistant are patiently pounding strips of bark from a black ash log to be used for making baskets.
Stone’s home, nestled in the woods on the Bad River reservation in Wisconsin, is inundated with all things related to the skill of making black ash baskets. There are ash logs strewn across the yard, some already pounded thin, some waiting for their stubborn bark to be removed by the unforgiving mallet. There are strips of black ash bark soaking in the bathtub of her home, rings of pounded bark hanging in her studio, nearly covering the walls, and partially finished baskets drying outside in the sun.
Stone, a citizen of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, even sports an ash leaf tattoo on her upper chest.
“Making black ash baskets is my life and my passion,” Stone said.
Stone is now worried, though, that the precious resource — and the changing environment — are being devastated by an invasive species, the emerald ash borer beetle.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the beetle arrived in the U.S. around 2002 from Asia, likely hidden in wooden packing materials. The insect is responsible for the destruction of an estimated tens of millions of ash trees in 30 states. Larvae survive in the bark of firewood, so one of the best methods to slow the spread of the beetle is to avoid moving firewood from one location to another.
Invasive species such as the emerald ash borer also contribute to climate change. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that trees killed by non-native species release 5.5 tera-grams of carbon annually into the earth’s atmosphere. That number is similar to carbon emissions from 4.4 million cars.
A personal mission
Stone has been making baskets from the black ash tree, native to the northern U.S. and Canada, for more than 20 years. Black ash trees grow in cold, deep swamps and riverbanks like those surrounding Lake Superior on the Bad River Reservation. Although the smooth, durable bark has long been used by Native peoples to fashion baskets and other tools, Stone was surprised to find that there were no longer any basket makers in Bad River.
Thus began her personal mission to learn as much as she could about the craft and the tree itself. Stone has traveled throughout the country visiting with Indigenous black ash basket makers and spent years researching the craft.
Stone began teaching herself how to weave baskets in 1998, guided mostly by reading books and studying collections in museums. She works full-time as a black ash basket artisan and teaches basket-making classes at local schools, colleges and in her community.
A deeper understanding
Inspired by concern for the black ash tree and the impacts of invasive species and climate change on the environment, Stone embarked on a project to draw public attention to these issues.
In 2016, Stone was awarded the Native American Artist in Residence fellowship at the Minnesota Historical Museum. For several weeks, she worked in a public space in Ashland, Wisconsin, weaving a casket with the help of community members who stopped in to weave or visit about basket-making and the environmental threat to black ash trees.
The coffin represented the potential destruction of her beloved black ash trees as well as the tree’s cultural significance for Indigenous peoples.
The finished coffin is now a part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s permanent collection, and Stone continues her work as an artisan and teacher of basket weaving at schools, colleges and her community.
At first, Stone thought the work was all about the finished basket. She has since learned the process was about far more.
“We’re learning about patience, humility, wisdom," she said, "and all the sacred Ojibwe teachings during the entire process.”