Staring out over the freezing waters of Lake Superior, April Stone dismantled her coffin to put back together, tighter and stronger. She dipped the coffin down into the water, letting it soak into the wood, so it could be twisted and tightened back into its shape. With each strand, she pulled the elongated basket into a sturdy form ready to bear the weight of a body.
She started the coffin a little over a year earlier in 2016 with a $20,000 grant. The coffin, woven from pieces of the black ash tree, would represent the potential destruction of the tree in Wisconsin, while simultaneously demonstrating the tree’s cultural significance to her tribe, the Bad River Ojibwe people, who live on a reservation near Ashland, on the northernmost border of Wisconsin, off Lake Superior.
In the middle of constructing the coffin, she and her husband began the process to separate. “There would be days where I was just sitting in the dark and looking at this coffin crying,” Stone recalls. At the end of the month, she paused work on the coffin for a year to focus on her personal life, and then returned to it to finish it with some help from the lake water. The finished coffin is now on display at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
Stone is the last black ash basket weaver of her tribe.
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Before weaving can begin, Stone must choose a tree. Through the muck and mosquitoes in early June, she treks along the Bad River reservation’s black ash swamp, searching for a good tree for weaving. First, she cranes her neck back to see the tree’s canopy – it has to be full and healthy. Next, she makes sure there aren’t any branches for the first 20 feet of the tree, which can grow up to 60-feet. Once she finds one meeting her criteria, she prepares to chop it down.
“I always put my tobacco down first,” says Stone. She says a prayer acknowledging the importance of the tree’s life and pledging it will be used for years to come. With that, she powers up her chainsaw and fells the black ash.
She cuts two lengths of wood from the tree, each around six to eight feet, then after shaving the bark off with a large knife, begins the process of pounding the log. Beating the log with the backside of an axe disintegrates the softer spring layer. The process can take up to three days of heavy labor to complete and can lead to popped blisters and brutal callouses.
She then peels the summer rings off, layer by layer, acknowledging each year the black ash graced the swamp. The strips are rolled into coils and hung in the workshop Stone built in her backyard.
“When the material comes off, it kind of tells you where it wants to go in the basket,” Stone says.
Forming a pack basket, a form of weaved backpack, takes about two days between making the handles and straps and forming the structure. Once that is together, it takes about four hours to weave the smaller strands of prepared wood around the frame of the basket.
With every string tight and compact, the project is finally complete.
If you ask Stone how to make a basket traditional to The Bad River Ojibwe, she will have no idea. She can’t pin down when exactly the original art was lost, but it was within the last two or three generations. The closest she has to an original basket from her tribe is on display at the Madeline Island Museum Archives in La Pointe.The date etched into the bottom reads 1902, but there are no real clues to who made this basket. Stone tried to trace it back, talking to families and historians to see if she could scrounge up any information that might help uncover what traditional black ash weaving looked like. She has traveled all over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and even made it out to Pennsylvania in her quest. Nothing has worked, but she is still searching.
Stone had to develop her own style, and with that, she carries on the lost tradition. No one else in her tribe is a basket weaver, and when prompted about the future, she turns to the emerald ash borer (EAB), an eastern Asian beetle which has killed millions of black ash trees around Wisconsin and is moving closer to northern Wisconsin and the Bad River reservation.
The possible obliteration of the tree would be a serious blow to her art form. Weaving may find a way to survive but, “it is the processing of the log that is going to get lost in the next 20 to thirty years,” says Stone.
The EAB was first discovered in Michigan in 2002 but was suspected to have been brought to the U.S. in the early ’90’s, possibly through larvae from imported lumber. According to a study done by Deborah McCullough, entomologist, and professor at Michigan State University, when there is an EAB infestation, it is possible for almost 100% of the ash trees in the area to die. If the EAB infest in the Bad River reservation, the extirpation of black ash may occur within the next couple of decades. Black ash are considered the most important tree in northern swamps around the Great Lakes according to Robert Slesak, U.S. Forest Service researcher. They regulate the height of the water table and the chemical balance of the habitat. Without black ash, they expect a drastic change to the entire ecosystem.
“It is disheartening to know this borer is going to come through,” says Stone. Whenever she is out walking the land, she checks the black ash trunks for marks of the EAB. According to McCullough, EAB are almost impossible to catch early because they do not have effective traps to identify infested areas, and the impact is not seen for several generations of beetle. This allows for the beetle to spread to other locations by the time the first infested area is identified. The outlook for black ash is bleak. We can combat the invasive species, but only with significant investment.
“We are the cause of this happening, we are the cause of the imbalance, and we need to change our ways,” says Stone.
Stone has taken on an apprentice from another tribe to try to save her knowledge about her art and share the stories of her life. With her baskets there is not one without the other. She also continues teaching black ash weaving workshops, including a college course in basketry at Northland College. She recently volunteered at an Ashland group home, teaching a court mandated art therapy class.
One moment from the class stands out to Stone. A boy named Travis, who came from an abusive home was learning to make a basket. He was uncertain and disengaged, lacking self-confidence, but with care and attention, Stone listened to him and encouraged him.
“He made a kickass basket,” she says.
That following week, he felt empowered enough to take on a dream of his and bike to the west coast and back.
“People share things that they typically wouldn’t any other day,” says Stone. “They are in a space where they can express themselves the way that they need to. … It is a moment of empowerment for them, where they feel like if they can do that, then they can do anything.”