These baskets are made from the annual growth rings of the Black Ash Tree. There are many different nations who have made Black Ash Baskets, ranging from about the middle of Ontario or Michigan, right through Quebec, New York to the Atlantic coast as far south as New Jersey. Of course, wherever the Black Ash tree grew, the Native Peoples made Black Bsh baskets.
There are several types of Ash trees scattered all over Turtle Island, but the Black Ash tree is the only tree which we can disassemble by pounding it to use the splints or wood for baskets. There are many different techniques for harvesting the splints, but our style was taught to us from our Mohawk ancestors (even still there are variations in the Mohawk techniques).
We cut a 10-foot long log (I really like the 10’ long splints to weave with), remove the bark and then, using a four pound hammer, pound on the surface of the log until the annual growth rings begin to lift off the log. The Black Ash tree will actually separate between the annual growth rings, kind of like peeling the layers of an onion. A 16-inch diameter tree can be taken apart ring by ring right to the core of the tree.
This pounding process requires about 7 to 10 days of pounding, 8 hours per day. Which is, like, crazy, but a good tree can produce enough splints to make 500 baskets! The pounding sounds like the pounding of a drum and is quite the "vision quest" experience. There has been a hydraulic pounding machine invented, but we are Old School and enjoy the process.
Throughout the various nations who make Black Ash Baskets there are many different styles, shapes and forms. Today the most common baskets have become fancy baskets made by women (real men don’t make baskets ). But I was taught by my uncle to build work baskets, so we specialize in heavier pack baskets, hauling baskets, and harvesting baskets.
Back to the annual growth rings..through the life of a Black Ash tree there are some years where the growing season was better than other. The good years produce thick and therefore stronger splints, and of course dry years are thinner. We sort through all of the splints as they are coming off the tree and save only the thickest years for our work baskets.
The next secret to building Black Ash Baskets is steaming Ash to make handles. There are only certain trees in nature which will naturally bend. Maples really don’t like to bend and will generally break when you attempt to do so; and if it doesn’t break right away, it will when it dries out. White all of the various ash trees a made to bend. Their flexibility has also made them good for baseball bats, because they give when the batter hits the ball. Maple or oak would shatter.
Using green Ash wood, we steam the pieces which we pre-cut to approximate dimension and then after enough heat has been applied to the wood, we bend it into shape for a handle. This is not an exact science and generally I will steam a whole bunch of handles and end up using a few. Every nail in my workshop holds several handles which might work for some future size of basket I might build.
We also weave our baskets freehand. Most baskets today are built over the back of wooden moulds, so the baskets are exact replicas of the moulds used. My understanding (and of course I always stand to be corrected) is that the British, way back when, gave Native basket makers legal measurable moulds and instructed them to build according to those sizes. Of course, before plastic bags and containers, the pint, quart or gallon had to be measured by something. So these traditional gathering or harvest baskets became legal containers for a pint of blueberries or a quart of cherries, etc. This led to a very strict understanding of the size and shape of a Black Ash Basket. Being hobby historians, we choose to build our baskets from a time which predates those legal moulds, so each and every one of our baskets are one-of-a-kind products which hold no exact amount of apples, potatoes or strawberries. But they hold them nevertheless!
The same goes for our Pack Baskets. The commonly recognized Iroquois Pack Basket is quite precise in it’s shape and the straps are made using green canvas. I have a feeling that the Pack Basket would have been built for the size of the carrier and the straps would not have been canvas. We use Moose leather to build the shoulder straps, and sometimes we might even get a bit artistic and build an antler handle to use to hang up the basket. We are often asked if we could build a “real” pack basket, and I guess that the answer is, no.