Soon, the entire park-like area we’re in will echo with the sound of pounding, metal against wood. It’s nearly a ringing or gong-like sound.
But first, Jeff Strand strips the bark from a black ash tree log. Then he takes out a knife and scores the end of it, a sort of pie wedge cut.
“So that the undergrowth rings have relief, so they’ll come up out of it as I’m crushing the growth rings. The ax is for crushing the fibers in between the growth rings and when you do that, they release,” Strand explains.
He pounds the log with the back side of the ax and the wood starts separating at the tree rings. It’s kind of amazing.
Strand takes the long strips of black ash to his wife Kelly Church. The Anishinaabe people have been doing this longer than anyone really knows.
“After he gets all done pounding the growth rings from end to end, he separates them for me. And then, I put them in this wooden contraption right here. It’s called a splitter," Church tells me.
She pulls the length of ash tree ring through the splitter, making two long strips. Sometimes, she'll run those same strips through again and end up with four strips about four to five feet long.
Black ash basket weaving is important to Church's culture. She belongs to the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians. They’re also call the Gun Lake Tribe. She’s also of Grand River Ottawa of Allegan County and Grand Traverse Band descent.
“Our people in Michigan have been making black ash baskets since before we can even remember. We have a picture of my family in 1919 making baskets here in Allegan County. A whole bunch of adults, a whole bunch of kids, some are weaving, some are pounding ash,” she tells me.
She knows of five generations, but her grandmother told her they have been making baskets since before cameras existed, so there’s no way to document how long her family and others in Michigan have been weaving ash strips.
Spread out on a picnic table, Church has several examples of baskets and other useful things she’s woven.
“This would be the most traditional one. It’s a carved cradle board,” she said. It’s made of ash. “This is one of our oldest things that I have here that we would stand to lose in the future should we lose all of our ash trees,” Church noted.
You’ve probably heard how an invasive bug called the emerald ash borer has been killing ash trees in 23 states and two Canadian provinces. There are some isolated spots where you can still find ash trees in Michigan, but you have to travel north.
Church really didn’t plan to be a basket weaver, though she did learn to weave when she was little. The whole family worked together to make the black ash baskets.
But Church wanted to be the kind of artist of who paints or sculpts, not one that weaves. She attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and got her Bachelors in Fine Arts at the University of Michigan.
Then her grandparents needed care. She stayed to help them. When people would come by and help by mowing the yard or bringing a meal, her grandfather would say, “We need to make that man a basket.” It would be a thank you gift.
Church knew how to weave, but selecting the right tree, cutting it, pounding it to get the strips — she didn’t know about that. She was telling her dad about her grandfather’s desire to make those baskets and how she wasn’t sure what to do. Two minutes later they were in the car, headed to a place up north where there were ash trees.
“He made it so fascinating that day. My dad is a great storyteller,” she said. As they drove, he told her stories about her family’s basket weaving history, the stories of her people. It was a life-changing day for Church. She’s been weaving ash baskets ever since.
Her family still occasionally get together to make baskets, but often she’s alone, weaving. She says she listens to the birds and thinks about the next project. She’s been introducing some new approaches in her work. While traditional ash baskets are still made, Church and her daughter Cherish Parrish have taken ash basket weaving in some different directions.
Church integrates copper strips into her work. Parrish weaves baskets in the shape of women’s bodies in honor of them.
Keeping up a family and cultural tradition, working with her hands, making beautiful and useful baskets in a mostly ancient way, and hoping an invasive pest doesn’t end it all.
That’s Kelly Church, making Anishinaabe black ash baskets.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum. Kelly Church was a master artist with the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2012.