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Roots

Roots

Suzan Marie can transform strands of spruce root into something wonderful. It’s a neat trick — one that was almost lost to time.
By Mifi Purvis
May 11
2017
From the January/February 2003 Issue
Suzan Marie stands on the shore near Behchoko

Petite and dressed fashionably in jeans and a turquoise blouse, Suzan Marie is sitting in a vinyl office chair, 10 storeys above wintry Yellowknife, talking generally about Dene crafts and specifically about spruce root baskets.

“They were our pots and pans, we carried water and cooked food in baskets like these,” Marie says, holding up the emerging basket in one well-manicured hand. Her Dene ancestors were basket makers. Coiled baskets appear in most cultures around the world. They can be made of just about anything: grasses, long pine needles, rushes and cloth. For centuries in the subarctic, Dene people made coiled baskets from pliable white spruce roots. What’s remarkable about this particular basket and basket maker is that the craft died out among Suzan Marie’s people long before she was born.

Marie, a Chipewyan Dene from the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories, rediscovered the art when she came across a reference to a Dene basket — something she’d never heard of before. Since then, she has been working to reintroduce spruce root basketry to today’s Dene artisans across the North. Marie, who runs a consulting company called BushTea Resources that promotes Dene culture through the arts, has a small stack of baskets on the floor beside her. Made by Northern artisans, the weave on some of the baskets is very fine and the stitching completely masks the foundation strands it is wrapped around. A person could use some of these baskets as pails or cups — they’ll hold water, and even stand up to boiling water. It’s hard to imagine putting such care into a basket only to fill it with water and food and to drop red-hot rocks into it until the water boils and the food is cooked. But that’s just what these vessels were for.

At one time, coiled baskets were practical, everyday items for people in the subarctic. But when Marie started talking to elders in Dene communities, she could not find a single one who remembered his or her grandmother making baskets out of spruce root. The harvesting and splitting of spruce roots has survived for other purposes. The craft of birchbark basketry is one that has persisted among the Dene. While the primary material in these more familiar baskets is birchbark, the vessels are held together with lengths of spruce root, for so long the Dene answer to wire or rope.

When fur traders moved into the NWT in the early 19th century, they brought with them dozens of manufactured items useful to trappers and their families. Among the goods for trade were metal pots and kettles. Later other items, such as ground coffee, came packed in metal canisters, which turned out to be nearly as handy as the items they contained. When metal containers hit the Dene world, labour-intensive coiled basketry, once crucial to survival, started to disappear. The baskets were supplanted so thoroughly and so quickly that by the late 1990s, few Dene in the Northwest Territories were even aware that the baskets had once been an integral part of their culture.

In 1998, while researching Dene products for an unrelated project, Suzan Marie found a reference to a Dene spruce root basket. Eager to find out more, she contacted Judy Thompson, curator of subarctic ethnology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, who has studied and written widely about Athapaskan clothing and arts. “Judy sent me some pictures,” Marie says. “I said ‘Oh my God, this is Dene?’ I had never seen baskets like that, other than in those pictures.

“When something is four-generations gone, you can’t get it back — at least, it’s pretty hard,” Marie says. She was stuck on the idea that she could reintroduce the making of these baskets to communities already active in other crafts. “I’ve always been optimistic,” she says. “I thought I could do it.”

Suzan Marie, who has an easy laugh and talks a mile a minute, certainly seems capable of accomplishing anything to which she sets her mind. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her can-do attitude has helped her through the tough times in her life. She was born in 1958 into a wildly changing culture, and her mother had no choice but to send Suzan to residential schools in Fort Smith and Fort Simpson and she lived, for a time, as a ward of the Crown in receiving homes and foster homes. “The important thing,” she says now, “is to learn from every experience — good and bad.” As a young teenager she divorced herself from the government. “I said, ‘Enough of this, I can take better care of myself than you guys can’.”

Though she was still a minor, government officials told her not to expect funding if she refused to live in care. Marie already had a job at the Hudson’s Bay Company store, so she struck out on her own, studying part-time and eventually finishing school. The years afterwards saw her through ups and downs: a couple of kids, a stint in the army, and earning the heavy equipment Class One operator’s licence and journeyman’s ticket that she is still careful to maintain.

She moved to Edmonton and worked for a company that provided products and services to the petroleum sector. Marie says her highest accomplishment is parenting her kids: Rene, 26, a fine arts student at university and Chris, 18, a sponsored skateboarder. After eight years in the south Marie returned to Yellowknife to work for the territorial government. “I saw how dysfunctional our government was with bureaucracy,” she says with a snort. “I’d smudge out my office to clean out the negative energy.”

Emphasizing the positive, she credits her dissatisfaction at that job as a motivating factor to follow a dream to become a counselling psychologist. She wanted to make a difference in Dene communities and set a good example for her kids. She searched for the closest university with the program that most suited her requirements. She settled on the University of Great Falls, Montana, which allowed her to do some work on campus and some off campus. After graduating with a bachelor of science in counselling psychology, she was ready to hit the field. But when she came back North, her career path shifted. “I saw that Nike was taking over ... I saw our culture was becoming less and less.” So she turned her energies to promoting the tangible aspects of culture, the arts and crafts upon which Dene women once prided themselves, trusting that the intangibles would follow. “I think you can do healing through the arts,” she says. “In the act of beading or weaving you concentrate, quiet down and put good thoughts or maybe prayers into what you’re doing. You put beauty and good medicine into your art. You are empowering yourself, your problems are being fixed as you work.”

It was that sense of empowerment and healing that Suzan hoped to share when she undertook her first workshop to reintroduce Dene basketry to artisans in Trout Lake in 1999. At Trout Lake, an isolated and traditional community near the NWT’s southwestern border, Marie gathered seniors, women and young people interested in learning the long-forgotten Dene craft. She came equipped with pictures of baskets now housed in museums (donated by collectors for whom Marie is grateful) and historic descriptions of the craft. She also brought an instructor. Mandy Brown is an elder from British Columbia whose people, the Nlaka’pamux, had maintained a slightly different form of coiled basketry. The workshop was a hit. Participants such as Margaret Jumbo have embraced basketry and taught it to their kids. “I said, ‘I gotta take this further, let’s document this process’,” Marie says. She and Judy Thompson of the Canadian Museum of Civilization decided to work together on a book about Dene basketry.

For funding, Suzan pitched the project to the NWT government while Thompson secured a commitment from the museum. Their book, Dene Spruce Root Basketry, was produced for the Canadian Ethnology Service and was published by the museum last September. The two women decided to organize the book into three sections. The first outlines the tradition of spruce root basketry among the Dene and the second describes the revival of the tradition. The third section is a basket-making tutorial. “I want people to be able to pick this book up and make a basket,” Marie says. “A man in New York just ordered the book as a gift for his wife, and I’ve asked for her feedback.”

Later, at her place, Marie shows some of her beading and sewing works in progress. Her home looks like it’s out of the pages of a magazine. Archival photos line one wall. Dramatic, Mexican-inspired art by Sherelle Wilsack and a huge portrait of Marie’s mentor, Dene elder Sarah Hardisty, by Darcy Moses adorn her dining room. Decorative sconces and lampshades help give the room a warm glow as Marie talks earnestly about her basket workshops, the book she wrote with Thompson, and her dreams for the future for the Dene.

In the same way that quilting, once practiced from necessity, has risen to an art with individual quilts fetching thousands of dollars, Marie hopes that handmade baskets will serve as a source of income as well as a source of pride. “A long time ago we did basketry to survive. Now we can use it to survive in a different way, to keep culture alive, to earn revenue,” she says. “I’ve been able to use my passion, and go with it, to try to convince people that cultural arts is valuable in so many ways. It’s all about trying to connect with the good things in life and weave it all together.”

Basket makers will recognize that Dene methods employ a technique called ‘coiling on a splint foundation.’ Shorter lengths of peeled and split root, less suitable for coiling, are used in the foundation, also called the core. “You don’t waste any part of the harvested root that way,” Marie says. The starting point of the basket is the bottom centre. The foundation is made of four strips of prepared spruce root. An outer strip, called a stitching splint, is wrapped around the foundation, and fastens one row to the next. From there, the rows of the basket spiral out and upwards. The tools you need are an awl and a sharp knife or pair of scissors and possibly some needle nosed pliers.

1. Start the basket by wrapping a single length of root, the stitching splint, around a core bundle of four or more lengths of root. Double the wrapping splint back on itself to secure it to the foundation and coil the splint around the foundation about five turns: a length of about two centimetres.

2. Bend the two-centimetre wrapped section back on itself to make a loop and secure the loop by wrapping the splint around the foundation bundle. There should be no obvious hole or gap in the centre.

3. Work a hole into the centre of the loop by inserting your awl. Insert the stitching splint, cut at a sharp angle for easy stitching, into the centre of the loop and pull it taut. Continue “stitching” in this manner until you have made your way around the whole loop. This is your first row or coil; the next coil builds on this one.

4. For the next row, use your awl to tease open a gap in between stitches, through the foundation core of the preceding row. Thread the stitching splint through the hole you’ve just made, fastening the coil to the one below it. Think of it as sewing. The spruce root stitching splint is the “thread”— stiff enough that you don’t need a needle to guide it through the awl hole. You might occasionally need to pull the stitching splint through the weave with pliers. Continue coiling and fastening the lengths of foundation to the previous row. A coiled disc starts to form; this is the base of the basket.

5. Once the base is wide enough to support the size of basket you intend to make, you can start building up the sides by laying one coil on top of the previous one, instead of side-by-side. You can make a jar with a narrower top or a bowl with sides that flare out by increasing or decreasing the diameter of the coils as you go.

6. As you coil your basket, eventually you’ll need to replenish the spruce roots in the foundation or the stitching splint. To make sure the basket is even, choose lengths of spruce root that are of a similar thickness to the others you’ve been working with. Secure the new pieces firmly.

7. When your basket is large enough, you can finish it by tapering the foundation materials in the final coil. The technique of coiling provides an instant finished rim. More accomplished basket makers might add a braid or, as Margaret Jumbo of Trout Lake does, finish the edge with shiny, dyed porcupine or bird quills. Some of the participants in Suzan Marie’s workshops reinforce the rims of their baskets with red willow, but that’s a matter of choice and is dictated by what the basket will be used for.

 One section of Suzan Marie and Judy Thompson’s book, Dene Spruce Root Basketry, is a manual that future basket makers could use to take up the tradition on their own. These directions are adapted from the book. Get to the root The first thing you need to make Dene baskets is white spruce roots. Spruce root collection is a seasonal pursuit, undertaken from June to September. It’s best done early, when the sap is running, Marie advises. To harvest the roots, you should wear work gloves to protect your hands and carry clippers or a sharp knife to cut the root.

1. Find a nice, straight white spruce tree, medium to large. The moss and earth covering the roots shouldn’t be too deep, no more than 20 centimetres, or the roots will be too difficult to dig out.

2. Starting from about 30 centimetres from the tree, pry the roots loose from the soil using a pointed stick for leverage and your knife or clippers to cut the root. Be careful not to take too much root from any one tree or you’ll harm it. Imagining that the root base of the tree is divided into quadrants, Suzan takes a few roots only from one quarter before moving on to the next tree, leaving three quarters of the root base untouched.

3. Once you have freed a length of root half to one and a half metres long, peel off the outside skin of the root with your thumbnail. Then split the root slowly down its length starting from the narrower end. Helen Kotchea, a participant in the Trout Lake basketry workshop, advises splitting the root once or twice. Depending on its thickness, you may want to split the root again.

4. You now have lengths of rope-like root that are ready to use. The root can be bundled, dried and stored for later use. You can freeze the root, which lends a rusty brown colour to the otherwise creamy white lengths. Dried or frozen, just soak the roots in warm water for a minute or two and they’re ready to be used to make a basket. The root should be kept moist while you are working, or it will become brittle.