Addressing the Threats Facing Traditional Basketmaking Materials

Addressing the Threats Facing Traditional Basketmaking Materials

Basketmaker Mary Jackson

Basketmaker Mary Jackson has helped facilitate sweetgrass preservation and advocacy since the late 1980s. Catch a feature story about Jackson's traditional basketry in the 2015 April/May issue of American Craft magazine. Photo: Michael Mauney

If you are familiar with the abundance of materials available in your local art-supply store or mail-order catalogue, you might be forgiven for assuming that access to the natural materials of traditional basketweaving – the sweetgrass, needles, split wood, and reed – are equally accessible. After all, doesn’t it literally grow on trees?

“You don’t just walk out, grab it, and start weaving. The amount of time it takes to prep, prepare, or process down that stuff from raw material to weaving strand is almost – or more than – the amount of time it takes to weave the basket itself,” says Margaret Mathewson. Mathewson is a basket weaver, scholar, teacher, and trustee of the National Basketry Organization. She’s also an ethnobotanist who speaks to the relationship between the materials and the process of traditional basket weaving and the complicated and interrelated threats to the sources of those materials weavers face.  

“People have been concerned with these issues for a very long time. It is not new. People think that it is a contemporary issue, when it in fact goes back many, many years,” she adds. A host of environmental and social changes to the American landscape affect the accessibility of natural materials for basket weavers, particularly those native groups with traditional practices that stretch back generations.

The first challenge to accessibility was not the environmental loss of material, but rather the limitation of physical access to the places where the resource naturally grows. “[With] the blocking off of public land access as patterns of ownership changed over the years, a traditional weaver who has been going into a particular area since their grandmother's or great-grandmother's time would suddenly find a sign posted saying ‘no trespassing’ and find themselves accosted or shot at where they never had any issues before,” Mathewson says. Many who opted not to question the authority of the landowners and managers were forced to find new sources for materials or to adopt alternative materials. “Very few would approach parks and public land managers, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or the Forest Service and try and get some sort of process where they could get a permit [for access]. And a lot of times that worked, and a lot of times that didn’t in the old days. Nowadays, many parks facilities and the BLM and Forest Service have a mechanism where people can go in and get limited amounts of what they call miscellaneous forest products.” But even with renewed access to public lands, often the state of the natural resources remains less than ideal. “The material hasn’t been managed or maintained over the years, and by that I mean burned or pruned. One cannot just walk out and get things. They are not useful. Many wild materials (shoots and things) need to be pruned or burned the year before they are used to be any good,” Mathewson says.

Access to materials in national forests was limited by land management. Elsewhere it was due to development-driven destruction of the habitat itself. “In the East we have the destruction of sweetgrass marshes for the Carolina weavers and the destruction of cane breaks for Native weavers in the Southeast, draining and dredging of waterways, and the draining of marshes and swamps to converting them to channeled streams and managed wetlands or farmland.” The sweetgrass and cane was not valued by anyone other than the basket weavers, who had to actively advocate for its protection or learn to cultivate it themselves. “In the Southeast they actually transplanted their sweetgrass into little community gardens that are safe from destruction. Most of the Southeast weavers have been learning how to garden this stuff for the last 30 years. A lot of the prominent weavers say it was a struggle. Before they transplanted it and moved it, they couldn’t find it anywhere. It was very had to get, and the habitats were going away. Now they’ve got it in domesticated situations where it can’t be destroyed, developed, paved over, sprayed, and they can’t be shot at for accessing it. But you can’t move it all. Little sedges and grasses and rushes, they can be moved, but you can’t move trees and shrubs. And an old, established river cane break? You can’t very well move it [either].” For these resources that cannot be moved or cultivated, invasive species and disease are becoming increasingly worrisome threats.

The Great Basin of the United States is the largest closed watershed. It’s contained to the west by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to the east by the Rocky Mountains. Willow there is crowded by the invasive tamarisk; in the South it is the now ever-present kudzu that crowds native species. Perhaps most significant is the infestation of the Emerald Ash Borer in the forests of the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Northwest. Introduced from Asia through shipping ports and routes, the insect has decimated the ash population of North America. While work is underway to develop a borer-resistant strain of ash, biologists speculate that only the loss of all ash trees will mean the end of the insect. “Biologists have told ash weavers to cut their trees, sink them in water, and weave with that until the resource rebounds or recovers – or switch to other materials,” Mathewson explains. Birch and cedar, along with the aforementioned ash, are the most prominent wood sources for basket weavers, and they too are threatened by blight and fungi infestations.

“Another thing the weavers are deathly afraid of is the spraying of their materials.” In an attempt to manage invasive species, land managers frequently resort to spraying toxic chemicals, often destroying the cane, grass, and willow valued by weavers. “It is invisible. The plants are then dead, and the humans gathering them get a dose of that poison.” While certain chemicals have been banned, spraying continues.

What happens when the materials are no longer available? “Well, contemporary non-native weavers will weave with anything because they are not following an ancient tradition. For traditional weavers, it hits the tradition so hard that if you can’t get the materials, you stop weaving. The plants are such an intrinsic part that it’s the core of the weaving itself. The spiritual relationship with the plants is as much as the physical relationship.”

If the threats to traditional basket weavers sound insurmountable, it is worth remembering that many opportunities remain. In addition to the private cultivation of sweetgrass mentioned above, basket weavers have worked with conservationists to preserve areas of wild marshes and forests, cultivate new plantings, and recover damaged habitats. Biologists, along with numerous colleges and universities, are actively working toward the preservation of native habitats and against threats of invasive species and disease. Weavers have found common cause with managers of National Parks and Forests. Traditional burns, used by native groups to prepare wild materials for use, are no longer permitted, but “very contemporary areas have a mechanism where the Forest Service will do a controlled burn just for basket makers. Now there is one area of the Siskiyou National Forest where the parks service and native tribes are in such unity that everything is basically done together, and there are a lot of controlled burns done for various things – food and fibers.” Some weaving groups have come to see their relationship with the government’s land managers in more prosaic terms: “Weavers will joke, ‘Oh, we just broke in a new Forest Service desk guy and then he left, so now we have to break in a new guy.’” Mathewson herself operates a willow farm in Oregon, where weavers seasonally harvest the wood without harassment or fear of toxic chemicals. The National Basketry Organization is facilitating an exhibition to raise the visibility of the complicated challenges facing the natural resources of basket weavers.

Despite threats to the ancient weaving traditions, the greatest being the shortage of materials, there are revivals of traditional weaving among numerous groups where it was nearly lost. Mathewson describes one notable instance of traveling to Russian museums with a tribe to see examples of their ancestors’ baskets, collected as souvenirs and curios by 19th-century sailors. Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the art’s long history of making use of the natural materials at hand, “weavers are even weaving with kudzu, blackberry, ivy, and other invasive species, because there it is.”