Holding Heritage in a Basket

There weren't any wild car chases, eye-popping explosions, or bodacious babes flickering on two screens Tuesday night at the Celebration Cinema North in Grand Rapids to an overflow crowd of nearly 800 people.

Just quiet conversation and interesting visuals that show how an area family makes, of all things, baskets.

And the audience was enraptured.

The premier of the one-hour, locally made documentary, "Black Ash Basketry: A Story of Cultural Resilience," says as much about the residents of metro Grand Rapids as the protagonists in the film, the family of Steve and Kitt Pigeon in Allegan County.

The idea for the film, its funding, its talent and its audience were all local. And judging from the audience's reaction, we liked what we saw on the silver screen.

You haven't missed your chance to see Black Ash Basketry for yourself. The film is scheduled to be broadcast on WGVU's Public Broadcasting Channel 35 at 12:30 p.m., Easter Sunday, April 4.

A Venerated Craft
Black Ash Basketry focuses on how the Pigeon family and other local Potawatomi Native Americans have maintained the venerated craft of basket-weaving for generations. The film begins with a trip by members of the Pigeon family into a swampy area of the woods where the cold, wet soil is favored by the black ash tree.

"Oh my goodness," Steve Pigeon, 57, marvels in the film as he admires a large black ash during his search for the "right" tree. "I think he'd enjoy sitting in our house for a long time or used as a basket."

Other video clips show Kitt Pigeon and her family sitting in lawn chairs outdoors, each carefully weaving the ribbons of thin ash strips into baskets. Others show men from the Pigeon family doing the heavy work of cutting the trees into seven-foot lengths, rhythmically beating the logs with the dull side of an axe to separate the annual growth rings, and then scoring the logs into two-inch-wide strips that are peeled away and then carefully separated into as many as 12 thin strips.

As the film advances, chapter titles written in the Ojibwa language by Helen Roy of Canton flash across the screen. Lilting Ojibwa songs sung by Roy and her husband, David Fuhst, fill the studios and lend a new dimension of the multi-faceted documentary.

Throughout their married life, Steve and Kitt Pigeons rekindled the skill of basket-weaving to help support their family: son, Edmund, now 32 and vice chairman of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians commonly referred to as the Gun Lake Tribe in Allegan County, and daughters, Angie, 30, and Pearl, 28.

The Pigeon family is following in the steps of Steve's late father, basket-maker Edmund White Pigeon, a descendant of Chief White Pigeon, a revered Potawatomi leader after whom a town in the thumb of Michigan is named. Edmund Pigeon, a World War II veteran, learned the craft as a youngster from his father, a master basket maker, and his father's father.

The Villain
The emerald ash borer is the obvious antagonist in the film.

Threatened with the loss of black ash trees to the beetle -- and the lost ability to continue making black ash baskets -- Kitt Pigeon, 56, shares with viewers her frustration. She and other family members are obviously enjoying their time together weaving baskets when she tells the cameraman: "I just don't want this all wiped out by a bug," she says. "A bug is just a bug!"

The "bug" was unknown in North America until June 2002 when it was discovered killing millions of ash trees in southeast Michigan and neighboring Windsor, Ontario. It is widely believed this native of Asia was accidentally imported into Michigan through infested crating at least 15 years ago.

Viewers get a glimpse of how devastating the beetle can be when the scenery reverts to Walpole Island in Ontario in the St. Clair River, where the insects have destroyed every ash tree on the island within six years.

The trees die off due to lack of water and nutrients. In the summers, tiny larvae worm their way through the tree's bark, feed on the conducting tissues, and leave twisted scars in their wake before exiting the bark as an adult the following June.

"There is increasing concern about the emerald ash borer coming into our area," says Kevin Finney, executive producer of the film and executive director of the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute in Allegan County. "Basket makers in the area have been making them for thousands of years. It's just a huge tradition that would be threatened. We wanted to document the tradition before we have a total loss of ash trees."

Years in the Making
Dreams of creating the film began about eight years ago when Steve Pigeon and his friend Finney were working on baskets and wondering about how their forefathers lived. "We thought it'd be amazing to watch a DVD and see what their lives were like," Finney recalls. "What a treasure it would be!"

He shared his dream with Rick Gillett at Forest Hills Public Schools' Goodwillie Environmental School, where Finney serves as a part-time educator of birch-bark canoes basket-weaving, and other environmental activities.

Encouraged by Gillett's support, Finney soon was soliciting funding from the Dyer-Ives Foundation, Wege FoundationSteelcase Foundation, Nokomis Foundation, students and parents at Goodwillie School, and the Gun Lake Tribe, which sponsored the premiere showing.

In addition to naming the organizations and foundations at the show's premier, Finney heartily thanked individuals such as Mike Colby, Klaas Kwant and Dwayne David from Grand Rapids Community College's media department, and Laurie and Don Gardner of Grand Rapids.

The documentary has been in the making for two years, with most of it filmed in beautiful outdoor scenes in Allegan County. The film is dedicated to Edmund White Pigeon and to the late Gladys Sands, a Bradley area Native American who raised her daughter, Sydney Martin, with sales from her baskets which, her daughter says in the film, "never wore out."

An Underlying Strength
In addition to their baskets, patience by tribe members also never seems to wear out.

Finney says native elders are putting their trust in nature in dealing with the potential cultural loss of making baskets from the black ash. "They look back and see the baskets are important," he says. "But it's not the baskets themselves (as so important), it's the fact they (people) come together as a family and the forest provides for them."

American Indians have developed a resiliency after having lost so many things in the past 200 years, Finney says, that many are confident they'll weather this storm as well. In the film, basket-maker Sydney Martin puts it this way: "The black ash tree knows what it's supposed to do. It's the humans that kind of freak out."

That isn't to say there's apathy towards the black ash's plight. Basket-maker Kelly Church of Hopkins called the efforts to save the black ash a "race against time," saying there's a nationwide effort to collect and save the seeds for future generations if the trees are lost. And there are local efforts such as the one to championed by Carol Moore to combat the emerald ash borer and nurse trees back to health.

Stephen Allen, a habitat restoration specialist from the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatomi in Fulton, came to watch the film to help his efforts in preserving what black ash wood remains. Allen says he has set aside almost 40 logs in dry storage, a flowing stream or in a swampy area to determine how the wood might be best preserved at least for several more years. A basket-maker sitting in front of him heard his story and then shared the fact she has found cold storage to be effective.

Quiet Appreciation
Reservations for the premier viewing of Black Ash Basketry flooded in at such a fast rate, a second theatre at Cinema North had to be reserved a few days earlier to accommodate the growing throng.

The film is "more than I ever thought it would be," says Kitt Pigeon, as she and her family displayed nearly 40 woven baskets at the premier.

Other viewers thought so, too. "I thought it was fabulous," says Annie Rouvillois of Cascade who brought her daughter, Cecilia, 10, and her friend, Abby DeWeerd, 10, to the premiere. Both are students at Goodwillie School and say they weren't disappointed at all. "Better than I expected," says Cecilia.

"There is so much interest in the Native American traditions," observes another movie-watcher, retired history teacher Marcella Beck. She was impressed with the behavior of a sizeable number of school children in the crowd. They "didn't make a sound," she says, "because they were so absorbed with the film."

Sharon Hanks is innovations and jobs news editor at Rapid Growth Media. She also is owner of The Write Words in Grand Rapids.


Steve Pigeon

Potawatomi  basket

Dave Shananaquet

Ed Pigeon

Handmade Native American Canoe and Snowshoes

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

Signup for Email Alerts