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'It's doing something that I should've learned as a little girl'

When warm and wet, birch bark can be folded into baskets — a container for berries or a cradle for babies. 

But when it’s not fresh off the birch tree, bark can be unyielding. And folding can be the hardest part, according to the dozen women making baskets Monday at the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai.

Still, despite the technical difficulties, their instructor was singing their praises.

“They’re doing really good. The bark is hard, it’s really hard. But look, they’re making it anyway," said Helen Dick, a Dena’ina elder. She learned to make birch bark baskets from her grandmother, growing up in Lime Village, near Lake Clark.

Now, she’s teaching others to make them, too — one of the Monday craft classes offered through the Kenaitze Tribe.

Dick said her grandmother would fill birch baskets with hot water to cook food. They’d use the scraps as a pain reliever.

Back home, she’ll often peel bark right off the tree. But when that’s not possible, bark needs to spend days soaking in water to become more malleable.

Still, folding requires some patience.

“This bark is old," said class member Linda Ross. "It’s been in storage for a couple of years. And so it’s not pliable like it should be, like if we went out to the woods and got it fresh — but you only get it in the spring.”

It was a sticking point for some. Rose Guilbeau accidentally tore part of her first basket when she was trying to fold the corners in like an envelope.

Birch bark soaked in water for three days prior to the class. Dick said she usually peels bark straight off the tree to use for her baskets. Photo by: Sabine Poux / KDLL

“The first time, I tried a small one," she said. "But it didn’t work out and split on me. And now this is my second time.”

The second time went better than the first. Guilbeau and the other students wrapped another layer of bark around the top edge of the basket, then added a willow branch to keep the structure tall and rigid. They used clamps to keep it all in place and poked holes in both layers of bark with an awl for sewing. 

While she worked, Barb Norbeck thought about how she might use her basket. She contemplated hanging it up on the wall, as decoration. 

Or, she said, she could use it as a basket for bread.

“Because as I’m talking to you about it and giving it some thought — yeah, I think that’s what I’m going to do," she said. "And I’m gonna need to look up the Ojibwe word for ‘bread.’ Cause that’s what I am, Ojibwe. And I’m going to want that to be part of the name for this piece.”

This basket was Norbeck’s first. Ross was making her fourth —  a wide and shallow container with a light outside and dark interior.

“She learns pretty fast," Dick said.

“With your help," Ross said.

Bessie Phillip, a wellness assistant at the Dena’ina Wellness Center, said classes like this are a great chance for students, many of whom are Dena’ina elders, to socialize. This fall, they made slippers and salmon skin earrings. 

She said it was hard to cancel the classes for COVID-19.

“Oh my God, it was so depressing," she said.

Now, they can work together again, in masks and spaced out around a large conference room.

Back in the class, each student added her finishing touches — a row of sinew stitches at the top to hold the basket together. Marion Keyes carefully wove the thin rod in and out of her small basket’s edge.

“It’s going to go on a wall next to my son’s basket that he made me years ago before he passed on," she said.

Her son learned to make a basket from Dick at a cultural camp. They learned together how to make wood-handled ulus.

“It was really kind of a special time to be learning to do those things with my son," she said.

She sad she likes making baskets because she can create useful things from nature, rather than buy containers made of plastic.

The practice also means a lot to her after she was told for so much of her life she should assimilate into non-Nativeculture.

“It’s doing something that I should’ve learned as a little girl," she said. "My grandfather was Eastern Woodland Indian, Abenaki and Penobscot. And I never got to learn anything like that. I was always taught Catholic school stuff and regular non-Native stuff. My mom and dad seemed ashamed of my mom being Native.”

Monday was the first time Marion Keyes made a birch bark basket. She said it's rewarding to make something useful from natural materials. Photo by: Sabine Poux

Another way Keyes finds connection to her Native culture, she said, is through language. She’s learning to speak Tlingit.

Dick is one of the few people who still can fluently speak Dena’ina fluently, a highly endangered language. She teaches Dena’ina courses.

As with language, she said, basket making involves a lot of trial and error.

“Everything that we try to learn, we’re always making mistakes," she said. "And we keep trying and then we make it. I watched my grandma make mistakes, she always said, ‘Try again.’”

It’s a lesson that will last long after the birch bark has dried. 

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