The art of Akwesasne Mohawk basketry is an ancient tradition. One that has made these baskets world-renowned for their beauty, creativity, strength and versatility.
A fragment of a splint ash basket found in Northeast Maine has been traced as far back as 4,000 years. The Mohawk Nation (part of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) is located where New York State, Ontario and Quebec intersect. The Mohawk community of Akwesasne has been home to a vibrant and continuous tradition of basketmakers, one that sees basketry as being inextricably linked to the land, culture, and even the future survival of its ancient traditions.
On a recent visit to the Akwesasne Museum our tour guide, Sue Ellen Herne, started the tour with a contemporary painting by John Thomas:
“Our Creation began in Sky-World. The events that unfolded continue to inform our everyday lives and ceremonies. Our Arts express gratitude for Creation and also help to teach us lessons learned from the past as the cycle of life continues. For example, the strawberry basket is made to remind us of our Creation Story and the Sky Woman who fell to Earth, bringing sacred tobacco and strawberries with her to this new environment.”
The strawberry plant provides nourishment and medicine in the late spring. A traditional ceremony is held each year in gratitude and gifts of a strawberry basket are given today with healing offerings and prayers for those who are sick.
Mohawk baskets are primarily made from black ash trees (fraxinus nigra), also referred to as “basket trees” because the material is pliable for making splints and strips of wood for weaving baskets. It’s a slow-growing tree that grows in the wild, in swamps and along streams. One mature tree can produce up to a hundred baskets. Choosing the right tree is an art because not every tree is suitable for basket weaving. This work is usually done by men because getting the tree out of the forest requires both experience and strength. Once the tree is removed it is then peeled and repeatedly “pounded”, causing the wood to separate into thin layers, then trimmed and shaved into strips for weaving.
Sweetgrass (hierochloe odorata) is a grass prized for its pliability, colour and fragrance. It is harvested in summer, picked by hand, then tied into bundles and hung in the shade to dry. Some of the grass is used for binding baskets or will be soaked and braided into skeins for decorating fancy baskets.
Men generally made sturdy utility or work baskets such as: pack, fishing traps, laundry hampers and corn baskets. Akwesasne Mohawk basketmakers are well known for their corn-washing baskets. Used to rinse corn that has been boiled with ashes, these baskets feature a beautiful twill weave on the sides for strength. On the bottom is a checkered weave that allows the ashes and corn hulls to be washed away.
The end of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the tourist trade. Basketmakers expanded their wares into “fancy” decorative items. Women generally made these baskets into: wastebaskets, wall pockets, planters, sewing/yarn and pie baskets. Many basketmakers decorated their baskets with brightly coloured splints, inventing a wide range of weaves and twists that were sometimes embellished with sweetgrass.
Mohawk craftsmanship became appreciated by Caucasian neighbours, and many people often said they wanted a Mohawk basket or nothing at all. According to the U.S. Census of 1890 at the St. Regis Reservation (Akwesasne) there were 177 basket weavers, by far the highest category by occupation listed, a testament to the financial importance of basket weaving during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Carrying on the Tradition
Today there are many contemporary basketmakers carrying on the tradition, sharing their knowledge, bringing new ideas, innovations and even restoring old baskets for future generations. When Kateri Tekakwitha (an early convert to the Catholic religion) was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, to celebrate her Mohawk and Catholic heritage Mary Adams created a commemorative basket in honour of the first Native American Catholic saint. It was presented to the Pope for the occasion and is a prime example of how the art of Akwesasne basketry is continuing to evolve and remain relevant today.
Before leaving the museum we asked Sue Ellen to comment on the enduring significance of Akwesasne Mohawk baskets. She described them as providing a “strong unbroken connection to the land” – a legacy that is increasingly important and worth heeding for the future.
To visit the museum and for more information please contact:
Akwesasne Cultural Center
321 State Rte 37
Hogansburg, NY, 13655
Akwesasne Cultural Centre
Photos courtesy of Akwesasne Museum. All rights reserved.
Books and DVD
1) “North by Northeast, Wabanaki, Akwesasne Mohawk, and Tuscarora Traditional Arts” by Kathleen Mundell, Tilbury House Publishers, Gardiner, Maine, August 2008.
2) “The Mohawk, The History & Culture of Native Americans” by Samuel Willard Crompton, Series Editor: Paul C. Rossier, Chelsea House Publishers, 2010.
3) DVD: “Carriers of Culture, Akwesasne Mohawk Basketry Traditions”, Akwesasne Cultural Centre, 2007